Some writers fill out character sketches/sheets with all the vital stats. Others prowl around the internet looking for pictures to use as a “muse.” Anything that helps develop a vital, realistic character is good. There are different ways to do that, but today I’m going to share what I do to remain consistent.
My Armageddon’s Ward Series is written in a first-person, past tense perspective. That means my readers are inside my main character’s head 24/7. While she grows throughout the books, there are some traits I stick to no matter what. We are who we are. She is who she is.
Tools I use:
Character sketch sheet. At the top is my character name, magician name, and what it means. Then the briefest description (hair and eye color). I include the elements they use in magic. I update this sheet if there is something I write later that effects who they are. That’s about it. I don’t look for pictures to inspire me. Characters are more real to me when I focus on their personality in my head. I wrote all but the last book one after another before publishing any of them, and when I was done, I knew Lia. It was easy to find pictures of people who looked like her after the fact. (She may look different to my readers. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to that.) I recommend a place for any writer to corral together their notes and ideas so they won’t get lost. A sketch sheet is a decent method.
Rules, rules, rules. That’s right! I’m a creative personality and hate to be boxed in, but there is a time and place for everything. Even rules. I assign characteristics to every person in my book, a backstory, and motives. Some are nebulous or don’t exist at all until I write (but anything key that comes up gets added to the sketch sheet so I won’t forget). This is especially important for my main character, Lia. She drives the story and I stick to her perspective like glue.
For instance, she is slightly dramatic so I use one-sentence paragraphs or fragments for emphasis. Sparingly. She also lacks confidence, causing occasional internal dialogue where she keeps it real about her failings. Her parents were formal, so she ALWAYS uses “mother and father” and NEVER says “mom and dad.” She had a high-class education – while she talks and acts like the typical teenager, she has occasional moments where she needs to operate with a more formal tone and easily does so. In the body of the story, I don’t use awkward contractions like “would’ve,” although I use “don’t” and “wouldn’t” because they are standard and fade into the background. Little things define a character as much as anyone real. In a first-person novel, everything defines the main character.
Bonus tip. If you are having trouble with a weak character, take a moment to work out some traits that will affect their voice. Set up a list with a handful of “rules” for yourself and stick to them. The better you know your character, the easier it is to write them. Also, do a reality check. The last thing I want is for my readers to think “Lia would never do/say that.” Anything that pulls the reader out of the story is a huge no-no. I want them immersed in the story, not missing paragraph after paragraph because their minds are half occupied with inconsistencies.
Show, don’t tell. Writers hear that a LOT. And it can be confusing, not to mention that advice doesn’t always apply. But when it comes to who my characters are, I don’t make a laundry list of traits and pop them into my book. They are a guide for me, and them. So if my character is stubborn, she’ll act that way. Any author should try to avoid writing things like “why am I in this situation? I guess because I’m stubborn.” Instead, we need show her ignoring advice to do it her way and then see the consequences. Maybe somebody will get fed up and yell at her about how irritating it is. Maybe she’ll cause an international incident. Or win against all odds. Don’t tell readers what the traits are – show how they affect them.
Story is key. This is more of a global strategy for everything I write, not specific to only characters. The story is the most important thing. I use words to convey actions and dialogue, but ultimately I want them to fade into the background until the reader is taking part in the world I’ve built. I actively hunt down and kill anything that detracts from that – typos, weird looking contractions, inconsistencies, etc. Solid characterization also fades into the background. They are who they are and act that way.
Are there any tips or tricks you have for character development? Do you have any examples of things you love about the characters you read? Please feel free to comment below – I’d love to hear about them!