Episode 4: Character Development
In episode 4, we look at proper character development and give you tips to help make your character even more real for you and your readers. Characters are easy to write. Making them believable characters is more difficult. Making your characters seem like real people is even harder still.
You can listen to the episode here. The transcription is below the player. Feel free to add your comments using the comment section below.
Episode 4 Transcript
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00:00 [JT Pledger] Good morning and welcome to Freebie Friday. This is episode number 4. And today we’re gonna talk about character development. Specifically how to take your two-dimensional characters and make them into real people. So stick around, got a lot to talk about.
Start With a Mental Exercise
00:41 [JT] All right now, unless you are currently driving or operating heavy machinery or, you know, wrestling alligators, I want you to close your eyes. Now imagine that you’re sitting down in a small, deserted diner. And the waitress comes over and she places the drink that you ordered in front of you, and then she places a second glass in front of you and as you look at her kind of confused she just quietly walks away.
01:25 And when you turn your head back around, there’s a stranger sitting across from you. They pick up the second drink, they take a sip and they say, “Hi, I’m your new main character. Let’s teach you everything you need to know about me, and my story”.
A New Opportunity
01:48 You have an opportunity here, oh. You…you can open your eyes…but, you have an opportunity here that’s, really, no-holds-barred. Your character is now here with you, in the flesh, and you get to use this to your advantage. Getting to know somebody in real life, you ask them questions. You observe them, you know? You hang out with them. And if it’s somebody that you really want to know, you’re gonna have a lot of questions. And if they just appear in your life, you’re gonna have a lot of questions right up front.
Character Development: How-To
02:40 In this little mentally visual situation that I just had you imagine is one of the ones that I use when I’m developing my characters. I find that just asking questions or, coming up with things on the fly, it can tend to keep the characters flat. Because if I’m…if I’m in the middle of a story, for example, and I have to introduce a new character – maybe it’s a clerk at a store, that the uhh, the main character enters, I just come up with them on the spot. I give them a quick name, you know, I…I give them their uniform. They say “thank you,” you know, “please come again” or whatever, then maybe they give them the wrong change, let’s have some little quirk, and then they’re gone.
03:38 But, as I continued to develop characters, I try to remember what happens in real life. And there is a convenience store that’s on the way out of town for me that I don’t go to very often. Umm, I think I’ve been there twice in the last year actually, like on the way out of town. But the people that are in there are still real people. They have lives, they have a history, they have things going on, maybe they’re having a bad day that I happen to just walk into.
04:17 And keeping these kind of things in mind when you’re developing your characters, especially the smaller part–the sub-characters or the…the…the NPC’s basically, that aren’t gonna have any effect on the main plotline–they’re still real. And they need to be real, and your main characters need to interact with them as though they are real. And this helps your larger characters become real to the reader.
Character Development is Important
04:50 And while character development is a very important aspect it’s not the biggest aspect. There are some stories that are well told, well-written, well received and they have fairly flat characters. But that’s rare. And it shouldn’t be something that you set out for.
05:14 So, I play this little mental game in the diner. I have a couple situations that I use just so it’s not boring, and you can come up with your own. But you want to sit down, because you want to ask them questions, but you want to be able to observe them.
Ask Questions, Observe Answers
05:35 You know, uhh, I can ask my main character for example, I can…I can ask them in my head, you know 3,000 questions. But I’m not gonna know everything I need to know just by asking these questions. And this is where a lot of people kind of go off. Because asking questions is great, I can get to know you by asking the right questions.
06:00 But I’m not gonna know how you really interact, you know? Does my main character…does he roll his eyes a lot? Uhh, you know, if the waitress walks by does he give them a snooty look and stop talking? You know things like that.
06:13 If I play it out in my head that we’re actually having this conversation, I get to see these kinds of things. Umm, if I want to see how they actually interact with a group of people, maybe I’ll add more people to the diner. Or we’ll go for a walk or, umm, you know, we’ll be in a busier restaurant. Or you know, something where it puts them in a situation that I want to see how they’re gonna react.
06:40 Because I know that somewhere along the plotline of my story this is gonna happen. And it’s easier to know ahead of time, because you can start laying the foundation for these little traits in your story. So that it’s not a surprise to your reader that, “Oh, you know, this whole time I…I pictured, you know, Jack as this suave guy, but he really clammed up when there was more than two people around. And that just didn’t seem like him.” Because it wasn’t until you made it that way.
Plant Seeds For Your Readers
07:14 But if you go off and start planting these little seeds you know, oh…by the time this happens…”yeah I kind of saw that coming,” you know, the reader would say, “he always, you know, seemed to avert his eyes, or roll his eyes, or put his hands in his pockets whenever somebody came by.” So this wasn’t like the shock it wasn’t out of character.
07:39 And by doing that, not only do you get to know these characters inside and out, but so do your readers. While they get to add their own little things and their own visuals, and it makes these characters come to life. And…and I’m sure that you’ve read books before where, you know, you…you get done with the book and you’re like, “oh this character here, I’d…you know, if he was real I’d go out and have a beer with him!” And that’s the kind of reaction that you want from your larger characters, your main char… protagonist/antagonist, you know, the love interest, those kinds of things.
08:21 These are the type of reactions that you want, you want people to either really love them, or really hate them, especially if they’re in a challenge and…and they have to go through something.
08:35 You want the reader to be able to root for them and pull for them, or root against them. Whatever, you know, the case may be. It draws the reader in more when they have a believable person to, you know, side with.
A Download Questionaire
08:52 So, we go back to this diner now, we’re in the diner, we got our main character there. What exactly is it that we have to do? Well, we’re gonna ask questions, and if you are in the 5-Draft Method class, when I talk about character development, there is a download that I give you.
09:13 And it’s got about a hundred and twenty different questions, and I’m gonna cover some of those here now for you. Umm, but you’ll have this questionnaire, and you really kind of get all aspects of who this person is, and what they’re about. And you know, you start off with some personal information, obviously, you need to know their name, their birthday, you know, things like that.
09:46 But we start with their appearance. We get into their job and their hobbies, their family and friends, their morals, what they love, what they hate, their relationships, any problems or issues that they’re having, how they handle those, what are their big challenges in life, who are their enemies. So that the questionnaire really is a great way to get to know who it is you’re sitting across from.
10:17 But you cannot forget that while you’re asking these questions and, and coming up with the answers that you’re observing as well.
Make The Mental Movie Connection
10:28 And that’s where the mental movie comes into play, because you get to see them. And so, if I ask a question like, “Do you have a nickname?” and my main character, in my head, kind of, you know, blushes and turns red and puts his head down, I know that he has a nickname. I know that it’s embarrassing for him.
10:50 So now I really want to know what it is! Well, so will your reader when you put that aspect in, that your main character is blushing, you know, because somebody mentioned his nickname.
11:04 That just adds credibility instead of just “oh his nickname was Nitro,” you know? It’s how he reacts to it. And these are the kind of things that when you’re focusing on your story and trying to get the drafts done, that you might not remember to add in. Unless you’ve already gone through it and that’s what the whole point of the…the diner situation is.
Let’s Ask Some Questions
11:32 But let’s go over some of the questions. Obviously, there’s gonna be a couple that you have to know. And names and stuff like that are, of course, important. But I’ve written books where the main character didn’t even have a name. So the mandatory one, number one, “What about you is heroic?”
12:00 And the important thing I want to, before I continue, the important thing you want to remember here is that this character sat down across from you.
12:10 So you don’t get to settle for one word “yes” or “no” answers, “maybes,” “kind of’s.” You really have to draw the complete full answer out of them.
Be Prepared For Anything
12:24 And you’re gonna be surprised, you know? You might have this idea of your character and then you sit down and ask these questions and your responses may surprise you.
12:35 And I’ve had characters completely 180 on me, and I’ve liked them even more so I kept it. Or, I’ve hated it and I’m like okay I need a different character. And you start over. But really get into their heads, because that’s what they’re there for.
12:52 They sat across from you, said “here’s my brain, pick it anything you want to know. I’m gonna be completely honest with you.” And you’re never gonna get that in the real world, so take advantage of it. Don’t settle for, you know, “yes/no.” So, if I ask you “What about you is heroic?” Don’t settle for “nothing.”
13:17 Something about your main character has to be heroic. It has to. That’s the whole point of the story. They are gonna end up being a hero in some form or fashion. So, what is it that you need to aim for?
13:30 The second question, “What about you is social?” Now, a lot of people aren’t social. There are many introverts, myself included, there are many people who answer with, you know, “I don’t like people.” Whatever it is you need to know. Because, they’re gonna be in social situations. Unless you’re writing a single character book, there’s going to be a social situation.
14:02 So how are these people social? How is your character social? And you follow that one up with: “What do you like about people?” And this point, you really want to watch and observe. Because their mannerisms and their reactions are going to tell you way more than the words will.
14:26 So, those three really are crucial to building the character. Because they’re not only going to tell you about the character, it’s going to tell you how they react in different situations that are going to come up in virtually every story.
Personal Questions on Character Development
14:44 From there, you want to go personal. “What is your name? Your real name? You know, what is the name on your birth certificate? Is that the name you go by? If it’s not, what do you go by?”
14:57 You know, if your…if your name on the birth certificate is Robert but you prefer Bobby, that’s what I want to know. What is your nickname? How did you get it, you know? What do you look like?
15:11 And start building them, you know. As they tell you “Oh, I’m 5-2 and 475 pounds, you know? I have a receding hairline, used to be blonde but now it’s brown. I had green eyes.” Actually start putting this character together.
Visual Observation Questions
15:32 And then you want to ask them things that you would want to be able to observe without actually talking to them. So things like “On a normal day, how do you dress?”
15:44 And then, you take that. Okay, so, “if you have to dress up, what does that mean to you?” “If you have to dress down, what does that mean?” “What about when you sleep? What do you wear when you sleep?” “Do you wear jewelry?” You know? “Do you own a car?” “What kind of car, describe the car?” All of these little things that are personal to them.
Family is Important, Also
16:07 And then you want to get, of course into the…the familial questions. So, what’s their family like? Who’s their mother? Who’s their father? What were they like, you know? Are they still alive? Are they still married? Were they ever married? You know, Do you have any siblings…blah blah blah.
16:25 Talk about the family. Ask about the family, and then you want to ask about their childhood. Because every person has a history, right? So we need to develop a history for our character. So, What was your first memory growing up? What was your favorite toy? You know, who was your best friend in third grade? Or, you know, these kind of things. Are they still your friend?
16:55 And then you get in, from childhood, we get into adolescent, you know? How old were you when you went on your first date? What…how do you feel about authority? What click did you fit in to best in high school? Well, who’s your idol? Did you play any sports?
What Your Characters Grow
17:20 Things like this, then we get into more of adulthood questions about their job. Do you have a job? What is it? Do you like it? What’s your boss’s name? What are they like? What are your co-workers like? Do you save money or do you spend all your money? And don’t forget, also, when you’re asking these questions, to ask the question and then find out why.
17:52 So, if I ask you “Do you tend to save money or spend money?” The answer is gonna be one or the other. “Oh, I tend to spend my money.” Okay, why? Why aren’t you a saver? Is your bank account empty, and why? The why is very important. Especially on some of these that can possibly be answered with a one or two word or yes or no answer.
Pry Answers Loose if Needed
18:19 Don’t forget you have to dig in. When we start with…from there, after we’ve kind of gone through their childhood their adolescence into, into adulthood, if they’re that old, you know? Into what they like and what they don’t like, you know? What…what hobbies do you have?” We’ll ask things like, “what kind of music do you listen to?” “What’s your favorite song?” You know, “What’s your favorite book? Do you watch TV?” You know, “Do you get into politics?” “Where do you hang out?” “Where do you hang out with your friends?” “Is it different now?” “What annoys you?” “What’s your favorite weather?” “Favorite time of day?” “What’s your favorite food?” “Your favorite drink?” “If you could have any meal right now, what would it be?”
Don’t Forget About Pets
19:20 You ask about their pets. If they have them, find out what kind they are, how many they have, what do they like about them? I ask about their habits; what habits about other people annoy them? Do they have any pet peeves?
19:41 Of course, we have to get into sex and intimacy. Especially if they are of age. Umm…ask them. you know. “What do you consider yourself?” “Are you straight? Are you gay? Are you bi? Are you something else? Why? Don’t forget the “why.”
20:01 Who was the first person you had sex with? When did it happen? How did it go? What was it like? You know, have you ever had a gay experience? If yes, how did that go? Who was it with? What was it like? If you, do you have any sexual fantasies that other people know about? What are the sexual fantasies you have that people don’t know about?
Learn Their Tastes
20:31 You want to ask, you know, things like “what’s your ideal mate? What…what’s romantic? What is something that you want to do with a partner? What do you look for in a partner? Do you have a partner? What’s the worst thing you’ve done to someone you loved?
20:57 That one is actually one of my favorite questions, both from the visual response and the actual response. But, you asked them about their recent relationship. Who was it with?
21:11 It doesn’t even have to be a romantic relationship. But the most recent relationship. Find out who it was with, what was that person like, what was their name, you know?
21:21 Is this something that is still ongoing? Is it over? If it was over you, want to find out what happened. Why? Because this could bleed into your story and you want to know ahead of time what’s going on.
Ask About Bad Habits
21:38 You want to ask them about drugs and alcohol as well, you know? Have they ever tried things? What did they like? What do they don’t like? They have a favorite type of drink, you know? Do they smoke? Things like that.
21:56 I’m, also, we want to find out about the morals of our characters. What one thing in your past are you the most ashamed of? Or, What are you most proud of? When was the last time you were in an argument? Who was it with? What was it for? You know, things like this.
Time to go Out on a Limb
22:20 You also want to ask questions that are just weird, you know?
22:30 Are you supernatural? What did you do that made you supernatural? You know, are you magic? Do you have any magical items?
22:44 Don’t forget we’re trying to get into these people’s heads. We want to know who they are. So, you’re gonna ask them what are their goals, long term, short term? If you were to gain an obscenely large amount of money, what would you do with it? What do you do when you get bored now? Are you ticklish? What are your bad habits? What are your good habits? What’s the worst injury you’ve ever received, and how did it happen?
Included in The Course
23:17 All of these questions, and a lot more are in the download on the course, that when you sign up for you, you’ll get. But it all goes to show you that these people become real. And just like any other person out there that you would interact with on a normal day.
23:42 That’s how you need to start seeing your characters and the more you see your character as a real person, the more your readers will also see your character as a real person. And when that happens, that is true literary magic. And we can get you there.
See You Next Week
24:06 But for now we’re gonna sign off. Go ahead, stop by the course at ExtraDraft.com, sign up for the newsletter. You’ll get advance notice about the Freebie Friday topic of that week. You’ll get information from behind the scenes, where the course is, what’s going on. All exciting news and happenings.
24:29 So that’ll do it for this week. We will see you next Friday.
24:33 In the meantime, have fun and write words.