As a writer, I tend to spend more time creating my worlds than my characters. This is a big problem when I start drafting, as usually around...

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As a writer, I tend to spend more time creating my worlds than my characters. This is a big problem when I start drafting, as usually around halfway I hit a stumbling block, where I realize I don't know enough about my characters or their lives to continue! But as soon as I start exploring what makes my characters who they are, the stumbling block is broken, and the words flow. I may have unearthed a groundbreaking secret, a quiet dream, or maybe finally understood the complexities of their family relationships.

The interesting thing about how I build characters, is it almost always has to do with time. Time (as we know it), is broken into three sections: past, present, and future. In my head, it makes it seem as though I have three characters; the one that was, the one that is, and the one that is dreamt of. A story is about moving through and having a character deal with each of these stages.



If you're stuck on how to develop your character, or looking for a new method to try, here's how I break down my character building process:


Examining the Past

Ask any writer, and they will tell you that backstory is rich soil for planting past hurts, fears, lies, and so on. We all carry our past around with us wherever we go, and constantly compare what we're currently going through with what's happened to us before. For example, a character whose house was burned down may become scared of fire and refuse to light or have candles on at night. As a result, they might not see the assassin creeping into their room...

A character's past will inform their decisions, and often explain away what they do, to whom, and when. What's been done to the character or their loved ones often spurs on the plot, or gives them motivation to, for example, prove themselves to the community. Backstory provides three key elements for your character: 1) their view of the world and people 2) explanations for their actions and words and 3) motivation/fears.

So how do you create a backstory? That could be a whole post in itself, but my favourite way is to ask as many questions as I can until the '?' key is dead. Click here for some questions I compiled to give you a head start.




In the Present

This can be the trickiest part, or version of a character if you will, to form. The present keeps shifting and changing, so how do you figure out who your character is in their present? Backstory and their past is one large building block in who they are during the timeline of your story, but people are never completely their past. There's a lot going on in our brains that doesn't necessarily stem from backstory.

For sanity's sake, let's break it down into three sections. 
1) Relationships -- this is where your character currently stands with the people around them. Most likely these will change over the course of your story, but understanding the 'relationship status' of each one will ground you in how your character will interact with others.
2) Needs -- from love to being hungry, your character's body, heart, or mind, is constantly demanding something. What is it? And how could this bring tension to or disrupt their story or scene goals?
3) Short-Term Plans -- even though your character might have a story goal they're pushing towards, what do they expect their day to look like? Why are they here, and where are they going? I can't tell you how many times I could at last finish writing a scene because I finally understood why my character was there in the first place.




Grasping for the Future

Though you might be able to see and plan the character's future, they can't. Like the rest of humanity, however, they have ideals and long term goals in their heads (if vague ones) which they're consciously or unconsciously pushing towards. A character's future can consist of their dreams, story goals, hopes for the future, and likewise, the secret reality they suspect might actually take place instead. 

I love contrasting characters' hopes for the future with their fears. It is the breeding ground for tension, and really gives you an insight into their personality itself. For example, if a character believes that no matter what their dream will come true, and there is no other future for them, you could describe them as several things, but definitely an optimist. I don't think I need to explain the potential drama and downfall of a character like this.

To discover your character's future desires or dread, asking questions is always the way to go. Interrogate them, ask them their thoughts, and even examine how the threads of their backstory might influence what their answers will be. You might even write out a journal of them expressing their hopes. Whatever works for you, if you can delve into your character's perception of their future, you'll have deepened their motivations, fears, and dreams.


Bringing it All Together

This isn't to say that if you don't know every element of your character's past, present, and future that you won't know your character at all. But personally, my brain loves breaking down elements, and providing clear ways to explore differing (yet linked) elements of a character and other story components. Doing so always pushes me to know my characters better! The past, present, and future of a character is the framework for who they are and what they want.

I hope this post might have sparked some ideas of how to build or develop your characters, whichever part of the process you're in! Maybe your brain is just as crazy as mine. ;)



How do you develop characters? Have you broken your characters down into three "selves" before? Do you think you'll try it?
Have a wonderful day, and enjoy your writing! <3


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20 comments:

  1. I must congratulate you on the timing on this post - I'm going to be referencing this post heavily as I work on developing my Camp NaNo work this week.....

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    1. I'm secretly a mind reader. xD Thanks Catherine, I hope it helps you with camp prep!

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  2. Ah, this is such a good post! My characters often don't have any hopes for the future (I know, it's really sad) so I will definitely be using these tips!

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    1. Thanks so much! :D Aw, your poor charries, I hope that this might have helped you help them figure out what their hopes are!

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  3. Ahhh, thank you for thisss. I'm going to be needing it soon xD

    ~Ceci

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    1. You're very welcome Ceci!! So glad to be of use. <3

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  4. Such an amazing post and so helpful! I actually spend more time on my characters than on my world, which creates trouble in itself haha, but I love delving into their pasts and presents and motivations, etc.

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    1. Thanks Amy, you're so sweet! <3 Haha we have the opposite problem though. ;) That's great that you know your characters so well!

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  5. this guide makes more sense than most that I have read, Thumbs up

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  6. Ooo, this is a very interesting way of thinking about character development! I’m going to have to reference this for a Camp NaNo - my characters are being uncooperative. XD

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    1. Oh dear, I hope your characters behave soon. xD Glad you liked it, best of luck with camp! <3

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  7. I have the opposite problem. I always have developed characters and it's the world I have to work on. Great tips!

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  8. Wonderful tips as always. ^ ^ I feel like a character’s backstory is really focused on often the present and future are neglected. These are some great questions!

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    1. Thanks so much Victoria! <3 Absolutely, backstory is really important, but so are the character's other two "selves!" xD

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  9. Wow, this is very methodical! I like it though. I never thought of approaching characters like this. My characters usually grow a little more organically? I have an idea of who they are, some things about their past, their fears/dreams, etc, but I really get to know them by actually writing about them and placing them in scenes. And sometimes they prove me wrong about my own ideas of who they are. XD This is great advice! I'll need to save it for later when I have some problems fleshing out a character.

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    1. Haha yep, my brain likes things to be broken down into clear sections. xD That's a great way to develop a character too, it sounds like you might be a pantser! I wish my characters could grow as organically as yours. :) Thank you!

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  10. Great post! I'll definitely give this method a try in the future. For me, backstory is always something I struggle a little with. Maybe my MC has a great, well-developed backstory, but my side characters might be a little flatter. But these are great ideas to making characters deeper and more layered!

    theonesthatreallymatter.blogspot.com

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    1. Thanks Emily! Ah yes, that's always the hard part, making sure the side characters are complex and have had lives too. :) I hope this post might help you out!

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