Blogger, writer, and photographer Holly Callen Berardi shares some of the techniques she used to invent a back story for a character in a novel she is currently working on.
I’ve heard it said that the key to any good story is to find out what your characters want more than anything and then make it seem impossible for them to obtain it. In order to do this, we must know
Recently, I had come to a standstill with my novel. It wasn’t for lack of ideas. I had an outline, the first and last chapter written, even important scenes to fill the empty space in-between. But I didn’t know my characters. I had an idea of their overall needs and personalities, but I couldn’t see them. One character in particular, Christina, eluded me. I didn’t know the motivation behind her actions. If her life had played out differently, what kind of life would she have led? What dreams had gone unfulfilled, and why did she press forward despite overwhelming reasons to give up?.
Tools to uncover the secrets our characters try to hide can come from many sources. The first step is the old-fashioned character sketch. Take a page or two and describe the person. Find a list of questions to ask about each character. These often cover such basics as their childhood, family dynamics, occupation, hobbies and dress. But there are times that I want more than that. I want to understand how they interact with those around them. What does it mean when they drop their shoulders and look at their feet? Are they shy? Guilty? In pain? To learn these things I’ve turned to personality profile tests and books and taken their questionnaires, not as myself, but as a representative of my character. This gives valuable insights into how they communicate and what their strengths and weakness might be. In the case of Christina, I discovered that she had the personality of a take-charge leader, yet she was living the lifestyle of a stay-at-home mother and care-provider to her terminally ill sister. The personality profile helped me to see that she would keep “firm control while others are losing theirs…” and has a “willingness to take a chance in a doubtful situation.” While she would be goal-oriented and organized, I realized she could also be bossy and domineering.
Another valuable tool is the study of body language. This helps tremendously with the “show, don’t tell” mantra of good writing, but it also helps us discern the personality of our characters. Even Forbes recognizes the value of body language in business. It can define interactions and tell a much deeper story than mere dialog alone. My character, Christina, would show her confidence in the speed and length of her stride. She would stand up straight, have a strong handshake, make eye contact. Her moves would be deliberate and decisive because she always knew in her heart she was doing what was right.
Additionally, to break through writers’ block, I created a word web where I placed one word inside of a bubble in the center of the page, in this case “Death.” Then I did word association, from the perspective of my character, not myself, and branched out to many other words. These new words became the hub of another set of spokes to even more words. After the page was nearly filled, a theme emerged, and I realized that Christina associated death with the ultimate loneliness. Because she was the caretaker of her dying sister, I came to realize that this was the driving force behind her not wanting to accept her sister’s terminal diagnosis. It wasn’t only her sister’s life that she was clinging to: it was her own sense of loss she was trying to avoid. To her take-charge personality, loss equaled failure, a concept she could never accept without a fight. This new insight helped me to adjust the story’s outline and enrich the scenes.
Just as time and shared experience are the true foundation of a friendship, character development requires attention. Once the foundation is laid then the words will flow more easily. As William Faulkner said, “It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”