by Bethany Maines
A few weeks ago I set out to write about my character development process, but got somewhat distracted by cheese. I don’t apologize for that – cheese is great. It’s not an obsession or anything; it’s perfectly natural to like cheese. I don’t have a problem; I can quit any time I want to. Stop staring at me. Anyway, I promised I would really get back to the topic of character development in today’s blog.
When I first start my characters, I like to start with a template I developed that includes these basic statistics. (You can check out some condensed versions of my character dossiers on my website.)
NAME: Nikki Lanier
DOB: 22 April (25 years old)
Now I know some of you are probably thinking, “Why start with physical stats? Can’t I just start writing?” Of course you can! I frequently discover many excellent things about my character as my story progresses. But I think a story really only gets good when the facts of the plot collide with the facts of the character. The conflicts between plot events and character drive action, and the better I know my characters, the more realistically I can depict their reactions to events.
You’ll notice in my example, that I don’t put a year on my Date of Birth. The reason for this is purely practical. While it is important that you know what was going on while my character was growing up, my experience that if I put down 1987 for my 25 year old heroine, that by the time I get done editing and get the book into print that my heroine could be 34. My advice? Don’t mess with maths. Within the text of the book, just say that your character is 25 and leave it at that.
I also know a lot of writers who struggle with the height and weight aspect when building a character, particularly when it comes to the opposite gender. To that problem I offer you Mixed Martial Arts, or really any sport that lists fighter stats. I personally love the UFC website. Using their fighter pics allow me to get a look at body types and more closely match height & weight to the character in my mind. I also usually add about 10 pounds to my character since the weights listed are “fighting” weights and even the fighters don’t live at those weights. Another option is to use one of the multitude of free on-line BMI calculators that allow you to play with height & weight to build a person. (Note to dude writers: asking women friends their weight is not a good option. Danger! Danger! Avoid!)
Once I get the basics filled in I add a couple of other items to my dossiers. Favorite swear word, favorite Super Bowl food, nick-names or aliases, scars, favorite band, and favorite color are a few the common selections on my character template. From there I usually branch out into character exercises, write up a brief outline of a characters back-story, and sometimes put together a Pinterest board of things the character would love. My goal is to make my characters as real as I possibly can. Sometimes, when they wake me up or won’t leave alone until I write something down, I think maybe I succeed too much. But I’m ok with that.