How to Develop Characters

An interstellar con artist forced to crew with the ship she screwed over (ARCLIGHT REDLINE). On office worker whose cynical humor hides suicidal tendencies (THE POWERS THAT BE). An autistic woman who just wants to be left alone, forced into a revenge drama (EVERY MOUNTAIN MADE LOW).

Where can we get colorful characters?

In the first part of this series, I shared my formula for planning a novel. Now, let’s talk character development.

Gail Carriger once told me that she only wanted to read a book if the author started out with the main character before going into the plot. For my part, I couldn’t agree more. If you’re going to pitch me your book, I want to know who drives the story, who to root for and who to despise.

In short, I want to believe the book is about characters, not a question. (“What if we all lived on a planet that was shaped like an infinity symbol?”)

Motivation / Conflict

Here’s the part that I adapted from Debra Dixon. As stated in my previous post, my characters have four core qualities:

  1. External Motivation: What they say they want
  2. External Conflict: How antagonists are stopping them
  3. Internal Motivation: What they really need
  4. Internal Conflict: Why they aren’t at peace with themselves

Let’s get into the character of Loxley Fiddleback, from my forthcoming book, EVERY MOUNTAIN MADE LOW. I’ve chosen one of my own characters because then the creator can’t get pissed off at me, and because I want to shamelessly plug my forthcoming book PREORDER TODAY.

Loxley has all the typical physical traits described (hair, eyes, etc.), but I’ve chosen to keep those to a minimum, to allow the reader to construct their own image of her. I generally know her age, weight, eye color, etc., but aesthetics won’t make her interesting. If readers wanted that, they’d go look at illustrations, comics or movies and skip your novel altogether.

External Motivation

Loxley starts the plot wanting to buy her own farm one day, but she doesn’t have the money (external conflict). When her only friend is murdered, she decides to get revenge.

External Conflict

Even though it’s not true, a lot of folks believe Loxley is stupid, and will try to take advantage of her (you know, because they’re bigots). Employers are willing keep her impoverished, denying her critical opportunities at every turn. Then someone murders Nora, and Loxley realizes her revenge plot extends to some very dangerous men, indeed.

Internal Motivation

Loxley really needs a group of people who will accept her the way she is and treat her how she deserves to be treated. She needs people who love her gifts and aren’t afraid to be family to her.

Internal Conflict

But she’s been screwed over so many times by bigots, both well-meaning and vile. How can she learn to trust people when that trust is almost never repaid? Every time she shares her heart with people, they treat it poorly. That makes her cynical.

A note about survival and love

I’m a user experience lead by day, and during a recent client meeting, they put “beautiful & simple” on the requirements board… which is kind of silly, really. When would we ever design something that isn’t beautiful and simple? That’s like having survival be your external motivation and love be your internal motivation. It adds nothing.

Everyone wants survival and love. Just assume that’s inherent to every character. I mean, sure. We can technically come up with some exceptions if we want, but as a rule, people want to continue to breathe / be loved. (Note that I did not say “physically loved.”)

Animal Counterparts

Here’s an embarrassing truth: most of my characters metaphorically mimic some animal. It’s not overt, but in my mind, I think of archetypal associations for characters: wolf, fox, squirrel and so on. For Loxley Fiddleback, I wanted to write about one of the most dangerous animals in Alabama: the brown recluse. WARNING: LINK CONTAINS PICTURES OF SPIDERS.

The brown recluse is interesting to me, because it doesn’t want to be around other animals. It’s perfectly happy on its own, and will avoid contact to go about its spidery business. I modeled Loxley directly on its behaviors. I even went so far as to name her after it: Loxosceles reclusa, sometimes called the “fiddleback” spider.

When most people think of spiders and women, they think of black widows (or the literal character Black Widow). I didn’t favor the femme fatale approach because, frankly, I wasn’t interested. I didn’t want to write about someone who leaves a trail of dead lovers in their wake. And wouldn’t you know it, that spider-mate-eating-thing is a pack of lies, anyway. (I’m aware that Black Widow is more nuanced than that, Marvel fans.)

By taking an alternate approach to the typical portrayal of spiders (tricky/cannibalistic versus shy/independent/clever), I could inform Loxley’s behaviors. She’s enterprising, and dreams of living outside of society, only harvesting what her hard work earns. She’ll do anything to stay out of a fight, but once cornered, she’ll try to inflict grave harm on someone. Her spider association also informs the world around her: most people don’t even notice her (natural camouflage), but those who see her often despise or try to hurt her.

Be opportunistic and economical

Author JC Hutchins once said during an interview for his book/game PERSONAL EFFECTS: DARK ARTS that if a character has nyctophobia, you should put them in the darkness as often as possible.

I know this sounds awfully corporate of me, but evaluate your characters’ strengths and weaknesses. Figure out what will cause them to fail in the most spectacular ways and dump that onto them with overwhelming force. From there, try to understand what strengths your characters can use to overcome their problems.

For example, here’s a big weakness of mine: parties with strangers make me anxious. If these people are stakeholders in my friends’ lives, I start to think about how I’ll embarrass them and then my friends won’t want to see me anymore. Writers love to party, though, and that means I find myself in this situation quite often. I have a tell when I’m anxious, too–I constantly clench and unclench my right hand. (As a fun game, see if you can spot it when you meet me!) -_-

I am, however, a natural-born performer and pitch-man. I know how to get people emotionally invested in a product through careful research of their motives. So that’s what I do when I get anxious at parties: I start interviewing people to learn as much about them as I possibly can. I make an effort to repeat everyone’s names and look them in the eyes because they like that. And suddenly, just like when I look through a camera lens, I’m no longer part of the scene and don’t have a reason to be nervous.

If I were a character in a book, I could come off as sleazy, salesman-like or generally too interested in the wrong people, but maybe that’s a ruse to hide my fears. Knowing your characters’ strengths and weaknesses enables you to plunge them into their own personal hell, then let them climb out under their own power.

Then find a new way to do it again. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

And that’s how I make my characters!

And also overshare! Join me next time when I’ll be discussing Act II vis a vis my own crippling sexual hangups! (Okay, we’ll just stick to Act II.)

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