I’m convinced that there are two kinds of readers.
Okay, there are many kinds of readers. But for the sake of this post, let’s divide them into two categories: those who read for the plot, and those who read for the characters. Yes, you probably like both, but there’s a good chance you’re drawn to one more than the other.
Authors can be divided the same way: those whose strength is in keeping you interested about what’s happening next (plot), and those whose strength is in keeping you caring about who it’s happening to (characters).
Best case scenario for writers: you’re strong in both areas. And today, because I feel like it, I’m going to arbitrarily pick “characters” and talk about some ways I’ve found to make mine more fully developed and interesting.
When you’re first planning a story, you know you need characters. You probably know something about your protagonist and maybe something about your antagonist if you have one. You just need more – details to flesh out the characters you know about, plus inspiration for the characters you haven’t created yet.
Or maybe you don’t have any character inspiration at all. If you’re a plot writer, you may have a great idea about someone stealing government secrets that threaten to set off World War III, but you don’t have the first clue who stole them and who’s going to get them back.
Either way, you need something to get the creative juices flowing. Here are some possibly weird ideas I use to discover and develop characters that are well-rounded and interesting. Not always nice, but definitely interesting.
(Possibly) Strange Character Inspiration Sources
There’s a Trope for That
Explore the list of character tropes at TVTropes.org. A trope (at least in this context) is a common theme in literature/media. For example, you’ve got the trope of the reluctant hero, a decent guy who doesn’t believe he has what it takes to defeat the big bad threat, but who eventually gains the courage and skills he needs to triumph.
A trope isn’t a fully rounded character by any means. It’s more of an outline that you can use to start building your character, both by following the trope and by occasionally contradicting it. What if your reluctant hero is reluctant because he’s really a selfish bastard who doesn’t care if his village is destroyed by the big bad threat?
From that point, you can start digging a little deeper: why is he so selfish? Is he really selfish or just jaded from past experiences? Since he’s going to have to get off his butt and do something in order to move your story along, what will motivate him to take on the big bad threat if it’s not saving his village? What does he want and/or what is he scared of that causes him to take some sort of action?
As you play the “what if” game with your trope character, he (or she) will begin to reveal the personality and backstory that pulls readers in.
Inspiration from Song
This is a fun way to start rounding out a character. Take the first five songs (or more, or less – the number is up to you) you get when you put your playlist on shuffle. Use the titles, themes, characters, or even artists of the song to inspire your character creation.
Just to give you an idea, these are the first five songs that came up on my “non-instrumental” playlist on my phone (don’t judge):
- We Go Together (John Travolta/Olivia Newton John, from Grease)
- Girls In the USA (Nick Carter)
- Highway to the Danger Zone (Kenny Loggins, from Top Gun)
- I’m a Believer (Smash Mouth)
- You’ll Be In My Heart (Usher, from Disney’s Tarzan)
So we have … a young woman who thought she’d found true love, only to have him cheat on her. She reacts by getting a little wild, taking risks she never would have taken before because clearly being a “good girl” never got her anywhere. (So far, that’s kind of the plot of Grease with a bit of a twist inspired by “Girls in the USA”.) The thing is, she’s never really lost her belief in true love or her affection for the guy who will always be in her heart even though he broke it. So …
If you’re writing a mystery, you’ve got a spunky protagonist who isn’t afraid to take risks; when the guy who cheated on her is found dead, it’s both not surprising that she’s a suspect, and not surprising that she’s eager to find the killer.
If you’re writing a fantasy in a medieval setting, you’ve got a spunky protagonist who breaks out of the gender norms of her society; when the cheating jerk she’s still secretly in love with is captured by the goblin horde, she has reason both to go save him and to leave him to be goblin-fodder, and it’s a real question which urge will win out in the end.
And so on. Once your brain starts trying to make the songs into a coherent story, there’s no telling what you’ll come up with.
Take Character Generators for a Spin
Character generators are scripts that give you random character descriptions, lists of character traits, etc. There are plenty to choose from. Some of my favorite can be found here: Character Generators at Seventh Sanctum.
In my opinion, they work best if you keep spinning until you get something that strikes a chord with you. Keep the details you like, change the rest.
Ask the Character
Sometimes when I’m trying to get to know a character, I imagine them sitting somewhere at some point in their future, letting me “interview” them. I’ll (mentally) ask them “What do you think about ….” and “Why did you…” questions if I already have a good idea of the plot. If I’m still getting a feel for that, I’ll just ask more general interview-style questions, like “What’s your job?” or “What was your family like?”
If you’re not sure what questions to ask, or just want to have some fun and do some brainstorming, you can find lists of character interview questions on the web. Not only can these questions get you thinking about your character’s backstory, opinions, relationships, and so on, but they can also give your character a chance to develop his or her own distinctive voice.
The more directions you approach your character development from, the more well-rounded your characters will be. Whether you’re more of a plot-writer or more of a character-writer, using these different character inspiration techniques can help you create characters who are realistic and memorable – the kind of characters all readers enjoy.