Well-developed characters make for great reading, but also for fun writing. It's such an amazing feeling when a character wakes up and starts doing stuff without a lot of direction from me.
As you've probably noticed, there are a thousand-and-one approaches to character development. A lot of writers use work sheets that ask for details ranging from eye color and shoe size to favorite song and which high school the character graduated from. I think these sheets are awesome, but since I am not detail oriented and get easily distracted, I have yet to complete one. Inevitably I get bored and wander off to write something more exciting.
I honestly don't have a conscious process for creating my characters. Usually, when I sit down and start writing they kindly show up and start talking. I don't consciously sit down and plot out what kind of character they are going to be.
But, I have a background in mental health and I suspect my subconscious is in on the game and kindly supplying me with information. When I stop to think about it and try to analyze my process, I realize that I am relying on a few basic principles.
- I make sure the character has a cohesive personality. Are they an introvert or an extrovert? Somebody who is intuitive and flexible, or somebody who likes rules and structure and routines? Do they talk a lot, or prefer to keep things to themselves? Then I make sure that they stick to this, unless there's a damn good reason for them to break away from their usual behavior.
- What is the character's defining life event? Here I am talking about those experiences we go through that change us forever. Most of us have a number of these, but there is often one particular occurrence that changes everything. Pay attention to your friends and family, really listen, and you'll often hear it. Look for the "before" and "after" type words for your clues: Before the divorce … After the accident… Ever since I was diagnosed with… People tend to mark everything in their lives by this one defining event.
- I also pay attention to core values. What is most important to your character. Family? Independence? Success? Belonging? Individuality? Once you know what these are, you can really up the stakes in your plot by throwing your character into a situation where there most deeply chereished values are threatened and tested.
For example, in my paranormal mystery, Dead Before Dying, (releasing Feb. 9 from Diversion Books) Paranormal Investigator Maureen Keslyn's top value is independence, followed closely by a love of personal challenge, and pursuing justice. In this story she's about to turn sixty, has recently been injured on the job, and is physically vulnerable for the first time in her life. She's also facing a situation where someone or something is killing off elderly people in a nursing home. This set up makes it easy to set up suspense and emotional tension and keep it going throughout the book.
I'll be talking more about character development at the workshop I'll be co-presenting with the Heather Webb at the Colorado Gold Conference. Hope to see you there!