Developing Memorable Characters

How many times have you been told you need to develop “round” or “3-dimensional” characters? If you’re a writer – or even if you just took a couple writing classes in school – you’ve undoubtedly been told this more times than you can count. But what does it really mean to develop a “round” character?

Basically, a round character lives and breathes as if they are alive. They have hopes, fears, and goals for the future. They have prejudices, obsessions, and past experiences that have shaped who they are.

Clearly we cannot make every character in every story 3-dimensional. Sometimes a character is there just to be the cashier in a single scene, or to cut our protagonist off during rush-hour traffic. Sometimes, it doesn’t make sense to develop a character further. And that’s okay.

But it’s always helpful to ask yourself if a character you’ve introduced could be rounder, or if it makes sense for them to be. It also helps if you take a hard look at your protagonist and other major characters, and decide whether they’re 3-dimensional enough.

Many books on writing will have lists of questions you can answer about your character to learn more about them, but I find many of these questions to be a bit useless, not to mention time-consuming. I mean, sure, my character’s favorite color might be relevant in some situations, but for the most part it doesn’t help me understand them as a person.

Keep in mind though: every writer is different. If answering lists of questions about your characters works for you, go for it. No need to mess with a good thing, after all. I just want to share with you the techniques I’ve learned work best for me when developing characters. Try them out, but keep in mind it’s always a good idea to do what works best for you.

Write Fan Fiction For Your Characters

My favorite technique for getting to know a character is to write them into a scene, usually one I don’t intend to put in the actual story. It’s like writing fan fiction for your own story! Put your character into a situation he or she wouldn’t normally find themselves in.

For instance, write a scene in which your character works at your current job. How do they fare? Is it a complete fiasco, or do they pull it off? I recently tried this, expecting my character to fail horribly, and he surprised me by being better at the job than I am! You can discover new and interesting things about your characters this way.

If nothing else, this gives you a method of getting to know your characters in a fun, low pressure way.

Give Your Character Goals

This one might seem like common sense. Most writers give their main characters a motive, their main goal which drives them and the story onward. But in the process of writing a very focused story, we might forget that very few people in the world have only a single goal.

So just take a moment to think about what other goals your character might have outside the story arc, and decide if you want to integrate them. I believe every good character has at least three major goals, whether they become the main focus of the story or not. And don’t forget to think about the flip side of the coin as well: what are your character’s three biggest fears?

I also have many “aha!” moments when I apply these questions toward secondary characters. Even if a character isn’t integral to the story, it’s often a good idea to understand their basic drives and fears so you’ll know how they should react to your character and the situations they find themselves in.

Theme Song

You know how in movies and TV shows, individual characters often have the same background music in every scene they make an appearance? That’s because it gives the audience a queue about what kind of person they are! For instance: a nefarious villain may always be introduced using a foreboding sequence of notes. Likewise, a childish, playful character might have bouncy, bubble-gum style background music.

Giving your character their own theme song may seem silly since this isn’t TV. But I find it’s quite useful because it helps me envision that character’s scenes and how they act. Try it. At the very least, it’s a lot of fun!

List of Words

This is a great technique to find out if you really know your character, or if you need to give him a bit more thought. Sit down, imagine this person in your mind, and then just write down phrases or words that remind you of them.

For instance, I spent about a minute doing this for a character in one of my current stories; his name is Azrael, and he’s a barkeeper with a dark past. This is the list I came up with for him:

Loneliness
Beer bottles
Darkness
Secrets
Broken
Unrequited love

You probably get the idea. But please keep in mind, this technique should be easy. If it’s not, then you probably don’t know your character very well, and should spend some time getting to know them using previous techniques.

Do What Works For You!

Please just keep in mind: you are unique, and your writing techniques should be as well. Feel free to try my methods. If they work for you, fantastic. If not, that’s totally fine! Writing is a mixture of both art and science, so sometimes you just need to do what “speaks” to you.

Do you have a special technique for getting to know your characters? If so, please share in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.

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