Wednesday, December 23, 2020

5 Questions to Turn a Character from Flat to Fabulous

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Sometimes we just need a little help to create a memorable character.

Some writers develop incredibly detailed characters before they ever start a story.

I am not one of those writers.

I do the bare minimum necessary to create a character, then I throw them into my story and see what they do. By the time I’ve written the first draft, I know who they are and can revise accordingly.

Although I’ve written this way for decades, I’m not sure I’d recommend it. It’s an interesting tactic, but it has left me with a lot of revising I wouldn’t have needed if I’d done a bit more character work before I started writing.

Lately, I’ve wondered if I should change my process, or at the very least, add another layer of character creation at the start. Because I’ve always said that characters drive the plot, and I’m a plot-driven writer, so my process is missing a critical aspect when I think about it from that perspective.

It doesn’t take much effort to build a solid foundation for a character.

Yet there are plenty of writers like me, who ignore this side of the novel development stage. Our characters are flat, inconsistent, and their motives don’t always make sense. It takes multiple passes through a manuscript before we find out who they truly are, and if we don’t pay attention to the final version, they might still be a hot mess.

Luckily, science can help us craft well-developed characters with…

The Big Five Personality Traits

Psychologists over the last sixty years have broken personality down into five traits that influence how a person interacts with the world. These traits can help writers determine how our characters might interact with our story worlds.

The five traits are:
  • Openness/Intellect
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism/Emotional Stability

Creating a character is more than choosing a name and making a list of physical details. Who they are and how they act plays a stronger role in how a novel unfolds than what they look like. There are dozens of ways to develop the inner depths of a character, and one way is by understanding their personality.

(Here’s more on Character Creation Made Easy-ish) 

If you’re looking for a fun and easy way to create characters, or flesh out the characters you have, here are five questions to ask:

1. How do they face new experiences?

Determines Openness/Intellect: Gauges levels of curiosity and creativity, imagination and independence, and how one responds to new experiences.

A curious and imaginative character might question things, or want to figure things out, while someone with limited intelligence or creativity might be content to accept things as they are and not wonder why. 

This trait also determines how open your character is to the world around them, and can help you decide how far they might go to find an answer or solve a problem.
  • Do they question the world around them?
  • Do they want to know why, even if the reason is hard to understand or even find?
  • Do they accept the way things are or what people tell them?
  • Do they dream or wonder about things?
  • Do they want to do things on their terms or just follow along?

For flaws in this trait,
someone who isn’t afraid of asking a lot of questions might not know where the polite line is on what not to ask or say.
  • Are they pushy in how they search for answers?
  • Do they rarely show an interest in another character?
  • Do they not try to understand things that don’t make sense?
  • Are they happy doing what others tell them?
  • Does their imagination run away with them and cause problems?

Determines Conscientiousness: Gauges levels of organization and work ethic, self-discipline and ambition, planning vs. spontaneity.

This can help determine how hard a character might work to achieve a goal, and how they’d approach it. An organized person might create a well-thought-out plan before acting, while an impulsive character might dive in without thinking.
  • How organized is the character?
  • How self-motivated are they to act?
  • How much effort will they put in to achieve a goal?
  • Do they plan or react?
  • Can they be depended on?
  • How ambitious are they?

For flaws in this trait,
an unorganized character might miss important clues, lose critical information, or have to retrace steps along the way. A lack of ambition might create a need for outside forces to shove them into action, or they’ll only act when the situation becomes dire.
  • Are they careless?
  • Do they not think things through?
  • Does it take forever for them to finish tasks?
  • Are they too focused on things to the detriment of others?

3. How much do they like (or dislike) people?

Determines Extraversion: Gauges levels of sociability and enthusiasm, assertiveness and talkativeness.
This can help determine how comfortable your character feels around people.

An extroverted character might be chatty and gregarious at a party, while a shyer character might have troubles in crowded situations. 

It can also determine how they choose to solve their problems—one type might eagerly seek out help and enjoy the camaraderie, while another might feel asking for help is more terrifying than the problem they’re facing.
  • Is your character outgoing or reserved?
  • How large is their circle of friends?
  • What types of social situations are they comfortable with?
  • Are they energized by people or drained?
  • How assertive are they?
  • How positive are they?

For flaws in this trait,
social awkwardness or too much enthusiasm could put your character in difficult situations or cause trouble with the people they need to help them.
  • What situations bring out the worst in them?
  • What social gaffs do they regularly make, or fear they'll make?
  • Do they inspire others or drain them?
  • Do the make bad decisions during stressful social interactions?

Determines Agreeableness: Gauges levels of friendliness and kindness, cooperative and trusting, how well-tempered someone is.

This can help determine how nice your character is, and how they regard the people around them.

Backstory and upbringing can have a big influence here, as someone who was always lied to as a child is likely to grow up not trusting others. If you want your character to have troubles playing nice with others for plot or character growth reasons, this could be a good spot to figure out what happened in their past to make them that way.
  • How are their relationships with other characters?
  • How easily do they make new friends or allies?
  • How compassionate are they?
  • Are they willing to work with others?
  • Are they inherently trusting of people they don't know?
  • Are they helpful or do they worry about themselves first?

For flaws in this trait,
an untrusting character could misread intentions or expect the worst from everyone around them. Someone who is less than friendly might have trouble getting anyone to help them.
  • Are they suspicious in nature?
  • Do they expect people to let them down?
  • Are they bad tempered?
  • Do they detach themselves from situations?
  • Do they constantly check up to make sure things are being done correctly?

(Here’s more on 5 Ways to Create Likable Characters) 

5. How emotional are they?

Determines Neuroticism/Emotional Stability: Gauges levels of calmness and tranquility, confidence and sensitivity.

This can help determine how emotionally stable a character is and how they'll react when the unexpected happens.

A confident a character might risk a lot for what they want, while someone who's less sure might hedge their bets or play it safe. If they're calm, they might handle unexpected events with aplomb, while a more excitable character might freak out when events change.
  • How excitable is your character?
  • How confident are they?
  • How do they handle the unexpected?
  • How emotional are they overall?
  • How do they react when problems occur?

For flaws in this trait,
someone who never gets excited might not truly appreciate a miraculous event, or a lack of confidence might be the very thing keeping them from being happy.
  • Are they overly sensitive?
  • Are they not sensitive enough and lack compassion?
  • Do they second-guess everything?
  • Do they freak out easily?
  • Are they quick to anger?

(Here’s more on Create a Powerful Story Cast: A Master List of Character-Building Resources) 

These traits offer an endless supply of options, and there's no right or wrong answers when creating a character. Contradictions in personalities can create some wonderful quirks, such as the adventurous archaeologist who happens to be afraid of snakes.

Depending on your creation process, you might consider these traits before you start a novel, or refer to them during the first draft as your characters encounter problems. 

You might also think about questions that apply to your specific story that might play a much stronger role, such as a character with trust issues who might need to learn to trust someone to get what they want. 

Try creating your own template of basic questions to ask that fit your style and the types of characters you like to write about.

Want something a bit more spontaneous? I’ve written a character-creation game based on these traits. All you need is a six-sided die, or a link to a random number generator

Looking at the basic building blocks of personality can help you turn your characters into real people, with all the strengths and weakness that brings.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Create a character using these five questions. Or, take one of your existing characters and ask them these questions. Repeat the exercise for as many characters as you’d like.

How do you determine a character's personality?

*Originally published October 2014. Last updated December 2020.

Find out more about characters and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. i've been working on something similar for my peripheral characters, but this will work much better. Thanks for the post.

  2. Wow, you have given me lots to think about Thanks a bunch. Kath.

  3. This post is going to go a looooooong way in helping me lock down a few characters I've been having trouble with!! Thank you so much! :-)

  4. Great article, this was extremely helpful.

  5. Great post. Thank you for posting it. It will be most helpful.