Great Heroes and Nasty Villains

Character development is one of my favorite parts of writing a novel. Giving life to a new person is an amazing birthing process that always gets the creative juices flowing. Part of it comes from wanting to create a memorable character that readers will love or love to hate. Someone they can root for or against while the story unfolds.
When I create a character I’m not just creating a new actor for my tale, I feel as though I’m creating a partner, a person who will work their own magic on the story as they develop their skills, insights and experiences. My characters often take over and move the plot forward in ways I hadn’t imagined.
That’s why early character development is so important. Here are a few of my strategies for creating great characters.

Build a psychological profile. Creating a complete psychological profile is one of the best ways to get to know a character. Yes, the physical description and demographic information is important but the motives and emotions and choices that real people make come from their psychological profile: how they think; their belief systems; values, and worldview. I use a 20-page character worksheet that I’ve developed to create major characters. It has sections on family background; habits, tastes and hobbies; education and work history; relationship history; and faith, morality and world view scenarios. I use this long worksheet with two or three main characters, the ones who are driving the story, not the entire cast.

Take the character out of the story. When I’m developing a major character, I don’t leave them on the page, I take them around with me out in the real world. As real life happens, I ask myself how this character would react to that event. Even better I ask them and we have a conversation about it. Often I’ll take that conversation and write it as a scene as if it were going to be in the story. This has a dual purpose. One, seeing how the character reacts. Two, sometimes the scene does make into the story as a new plot angle or twist.

Eavesdrop. Another method for getting to know your characters is to start a conversation between two or more of them and step back and let the conversation flow. It’s like you are sitting in a restaurant eavesdropping on someone else’s dinnertime chat. Sometimes this occurs as I’m writing a scene and the conversation goes in a completely new direction and I just let it flow even if I don’t think it will make it into the story. Sometimes it just happens in my head and I stop what I’m doing and watch the scene play out in front of me. This is also a good strategy for breaking writer’s block. Just go somewhere quiet and visualize the characters’ conversation. Don’t feel compelled to write it down, just let it flow.  

Ask them. This happened when I was writing Web of Betrayal. My main character, Peter Ellis, kept referring to a time when he was four years old. I had no idea what he meant but this was clearly a strong memory for him so I went to a quiet place where I can visualize and asked him: “Peter, what happened to you when you were four?” I waited, and all these memories poured forth about a traumatic event that happened when he was four. That memory unexpectedly ended up being one of the major plot turns and character conflicts of my novel.

Write the backstory. Almost every writer creates backstories for their characters. That’s part of what’s needed to make the character come alive. Usually the backstory, like the profile, is something the writer records so they have the details to work from. Consider taking that one step further and actually writing the backstory as a real scene. Write the description and the dialog precisely as it would occur then the backstory is not just background information, it is a real life experience that your characters have. I used this technique in a story in which the characters had known each other for several years. They had a conflict and I wanted to know how that conflict began. By writing their very first meeting as a real scene, I was able to experience the root of their initial anger and frustration and make the scenes in the novel much more powerful.  

Every reader has at least one character they can never forget. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that character was yours?  

Clare witnessed the birth of the commercial Internet firsthand as a research director with the Gartner Group, the global leader in information technology consulting. As a principle analyst in Gartner’s Internet Strategies Service, Clare assisted many of the world’s biggest technology companies (IBM, Microsoft, Cisco, HP, Sun Microsystems, Oracle) in their bid to make the information highway a reality. That experience prompted her to write her first novel, WEB OF BETRAYAL, set in 1994 at the birth of the Internet. Fury is unleashed when a long simmering grudge match between a brilliant hacker turned killer and a renegade tech visionary erupts into murder and betrayal, and a struggling reporter risks his life and one true love to find the truth. Clare began writing at age five with her short story, “My Dog Nicky.” In her career she has been a business journalist, tech industry journalist, Internet industry analyst and a VP of marketing for several software startups. Clare is an Ohio native and a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, with a B.A. degree in Rhetoric. She currently lives in Sacramento, California with her two Shetland Sheepdogs, Dan and Toby.

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  1. Thanks so much for sharing all this information on character development. Fully realized characters make all the difference in how a good mystery plays out.


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