Sunday, 19 February 2012

Developing Character Depth

So I made the decision to scrap my first working novel. It was 25,000 words in, and while that sounds like nothing to a lot of you accomplished writers out there... it was loads for me! So now I'm trying to dream up a new story. I've decided I want to create deep, likable, realistic and interesting characters first (just trying a different approach) and today my post will share with you what I've learned along the way. I've also included a couple of downloadable free pdfs that have lists that will come in handy with character development (I think).

I've done a fair bit of internet research in my search for a relatable character (is relatable even a word?). The basic structure that I came up with (and love) is below;

All characters need to have flaws, they can be huge (necrophilia - ok that's a strech) or minor (can't sleep without whiskey, bites their nails etc.) but basically, they need flaws. If they don't have any, the can become too perfect and readers will be turned off by their total immunity to all things bad.

These are necessary so that your character will have personality, in my scrapped book, my characters didn't have a clearly defined set of likes and dislikes (in my head, let alone the novel) and so they came across as pretty flat. The great thing about this part, is that anything that could be a like, could also be a dislike - so there's that...

All characters need to have at least one thing that is uniquely them, so they might pick their nails, lick their lips or (and weirdly this is my favourite) they might click their mouth when they're thinking things through (weird I know). This introduces a part of the character that is just them - just like normal people have things that they do that help define them.

With these three topics I began to build my MC. All I knew about her before this was that she was going to be a female MC... that's literally it - also she was going to be brunette. So from here, I cut up a piece of paper into lots of little pieces and wrote a whole bunch of flaws out, a whole bunch of likes/dislikes and a whole bunch of mannerisms. Then I played around with what I wanted my character to have (I also colour coded so I could easily distinguish which were the flaws, likes/dislikes or mannerisms). At the end of this post I've included a link to where you can download a free pdf of these characteristics to cut out and use for yourself (aren't I nice!?).

This is a (pretty crappy quality sorry!) quick look at the 'flaws' printable!

I had to google a whole bunch of different things I could use for each topic to write them down, and to save you the trouble of doing the same I decided to compile them into printable and cut-outable sheets (there are a few far out things on there, but we gotta have some fun eh?).

With these things picked out, I could begin to really shape my character. It was still difficult without a story idea, or world to put her in but it was a totally different approach to starting a story and I really enjoyed creating her. From there I really began to picture my character and could more easily sculpt her out of the inky black goop in the back of my mind.

You can find those free printables in the following links for flaws, likes & dislikes and mannerisms.

I hope that they help you in creating your character - let me know if this post helped at all, and I wish you all the best of luck! I'll keep you updated as I learn!

JP xx


  1. Hi Julz,

    Stumbled onto your blog via Diane's site Are We There Yet and am a new follower:)

    I have also recently decided to scrap a 48 000 word novel-in-progress. Well, not scrap it entirely, just break it down to its bare bits. I have been 'working' on it for nearly 5 years and it is just not going anywhere.

    Good luck finding a new story. Sounds like you are on the right track!

    1. Thanks for coming on over! It must be so hard for you to do that! I've only been working on this one for a few months, I can't even imagine what it must be like to do this with a novel you've been working on for five years!

      I hope you do well with your story :) and wish you the best of luck, I'll be sure to check out your blog!

      Thanks again :)

      JP xx

  2. Julz,
    Very interesting. I gotta say, this sounds so completely foreign to how I do things that I'm going to be really curious how it works for you. I'm in the process of finishing a novel (just took a road trip to do some research for it) and think I've got about the last 5% left to do. It's slightly under 85,000 words - this draft. And though I'm cutting some and adding other stuff, I think it'll end up about right there.

    But the weird thing is that I was working on a different novel, and was over 100 pages into it, when this idea popped into my head. I started jotting down some ideas for it so I wouldn't forget - and a few hours later realized I needed to work on this one instead, so I set the other aside for a bit. I'll get back to it, but now it looks like another one might've popped up to be done before the original one. (But, really, that's it! Then I'll get back to the first one.)

    But to tell the truth, I have literally no idea where the idea for this one came from. Wasn't anything I'd been thinking about. It's more like that "bolt out of the blue" than anything I'd experienced before. Generally, I think, I get an idea about a situation, or come up with what I think is a good title or a good first sentence. And then I just kinda start, and the characters tend to grow organically from the story. Or I get a first scene. Or I see something I think's interesting - such as on this road trip while driving through Indianapolis I saw a street sign that said: Shadeland Ave. And I thought - hmm, that could be a pretty good book title...

    But I'm a firm believer that character IS plot.

    I'm not sure I'd want to kinda start grafting quirks and tics and such onto a character, though, before anything else. Maybe it's just me, but as I write, the characters do things - that's when I see where those things come up (and sometimes why).

    But I think that a lot of those things you're thinking about, such as flaws, etc. -- all that is just another way of saying the characters have to be human. (Btw, I love doing the intellectual exercise of thinking about all this stuff, 'cause at the moment I'm thinking about my narrator and trying to figure out what his "flaws" are. And I think they're obviously there, but I don't think there's any spot where I actually say: Gene's kinda self-absorbed. Or whatever. But it's all there. I think.)

    I think if I tried to start a novel this way, I'd feel like I was heading out there on the trapeze without a safety net. But the great thing about this writing stuff is that different things work for different people. I know F. Scott Fitzgerald kept extensive notes on his characters, almost profiles of them. But I really don't know if he started the stories with those notes, or what.

    Good luck!

    1. Thanks for your comment, you've certainly given me something to think about!

      I don't know if this way will work for me yet either - it's just something that I'm trying to see where it'll lead me. One of the luxuries of not writing for my income means that I can play around and take my time with works if I like. This is just me playing around to see what works.

      I was intrigued because I've heard of people scrapping a novel but keeping characters and putting them into different worlds and plots - and I wanted characters like that... ones that I'd want to keep. So this is where I ended up.

      I find it hard to determine certain things about my character without even having picked out a world that they'll be in yet, and I suppose they'll grow more on their own once I've thrust them into the story. I definitely see where you're coming from here in that respect. The flaws in the character have to be warranted - they have to have come from somewhere, and that's where the story kicks in.

      I appreciate your comment and definitely have a lot to think about now. Thanks for taking the time to head over here!

      JP xx