There are a lot of resources out there for character development, from hundred-plus-question interviews to flowcharts to forms specific enough to rival tax documents. I find it to be kind of overwhelming, not to mention that each chart or list or form needs to be tweaked and modified to suit your story’s specific information. So when I wanted to refine the concept for a new YA fantasy novel, I tried a different idea: I wrote myself in.
Not into the novel, but into the world. I sat down with a blank document and wrote myself into a location where I could meet my main character for a chat. It sounds ridiculous, but it gave me the ability to not only address questions and information gaps in an organic way, but also to work on developing a voice and a personality for a character that up until today was merely a name and a series of connected actions.
I’m not going to pretend I’m the only writer in the world to interact directly on the page with my characters to get to know them. I know at least one other writer personally who uses that technique, and there must be millions more in the world. But having tried it out myself, I definitely want to recommend it.
So without further ado, here’s an exercise for character development: conversing with characters.
step one: get yourself in-scene
I suggest starting with the scene. Don’t worry about including too much detail, using flowery language, or even writing things that are contradictory. What’s most important now is that you write your way into getting a clear understanding of where you are in your book’s world. What time of day is it? What does it smell like? Are you cold, hot, comfortable? Are there people around? Is it noisy, or quiet? Keep writing until you can close your eyes and picture yourself there.
Spend as long as you like on this -- although it doesn’t directly tie into character development, it will get you firmly into your story’s world and mindset, setting you up to bring your character in strongly.
step two: get your character on the page
Oh, your main character’s here! Or maybe your villain, or your love interest. Whoever you need to get to know better, they’ve just arrived.
It’s up to you how they interact with you. Are they meeting you for a pre-arranged interview? Are they running into you by chance? Will you talk here, or will they invite you back to their camp, their castle, their apartment? Do they flirt with you? Kidnap you? Disdain you? Whatever they do, just remember the yes, and rule of improv: Never shut the interaction down. If your character tells you no, is rude, is stubborn, is terse, be pushy. You need to do whatever it takes to get the information you want. Get them drunk if you have to. Feel free to let them know you’re the author and leverage that to get your information.
Does this sound ridiculous? Good. Let it be ridiculous. As long as your lead stays in-character, you’re learning things about them.
step three: ask the big questions
Don’t waste your time asking your character how old they are or what their favorite food is. Get into something emotional. How’s their relationship with their parents? Are they afraid of the future? What’s their biggest regret?
These are things it might be hard to pull out of thin air when you need them later for motivation or depth or backstory, but right now, you should feel connected to your character, and ideas should flow freely.
They don’t need to be the ideas you stick with. You have complete freedom to change any of this later. Just get these things into your head so you can draw on them later when you need them.
step four: wash, rinse, repeat
I’ve only done this exercise once, but I already know it’s a keeper for me. Next time I feel iffy on my characterization, I’m going to pull up a fresh document and sit down with my characters.
Adapt it to suit your situation. Try with multiple characters together, in a group. Try talking to your characters at different points along their storyline. Try talking to your character when they were a child.
There are some major questions that you have to know how to answer in order to write a compelling story. Sit down with your lead over a nice cup of tea or mug of ale and ask them. You might be surprised to find that they know the answer better than you do.
Have you ever “interacted” directly with your characters? Did it help? Let’s discuss in the comments!