Some of the best writing advice I ever received was this: your characters don’t drive your plot, they are your plot. Their brilliant or stupid choices decide what the hell happens between the front and back covers of your book, so make them good. In this spirit, I’m going to share a little bit about how I develop and name my characters as well as some of the key aspects that I think make a character lifelike.
Step One: Give him a name.
This might seem counterintuitive, but I find that a character appears more holistic and more reachable from a development standpoint if he or she has a name. The first thing we learn about a stranger is his name, so why not do the same thing with our characters?
What’s important here is context. Where and when was your character born? This influences name selection because certain names are common in each region and period of history. Was your character named after a family member (meaning does the character has strong ties to his family) or was your character named after something trendy (meaning that his parents were also trendy–this could indicate flightiness and lack of commitment). The easiest way to pick a name is to think about what his parents would name him. In the context of your character’s story, his parents picked out his name and thought it was half-alright, so picture your character’s parents and brainstorm some ideas. What name would they want to bestow onto their child? That’s always a good place to start.
So now that you’ve come up with the perfect name, where do you go from there?
Number Two: Steal from the people around you.
I’m not condoning petty theft here, but the easiest way to write real characters is to observe real people in real life. I talked about this in my post on why I write unapologetically and cannot condone this practice enough. I keep a document on my computer entitled “Interesting Stuff” where I jot down any unique things I see people doing or intriguing phrases that I hear; among this list is a gold mine of character traits.
I think that trying to over-engineer a character makes him feel over-engineered to a reader. Rather than mapping out every facet of his makeup, picture him as he wakes up and brushes his teeth. Was he sleeping alone or with someone? How much toothpaste does he use? What color is his mouthwash? Is he tired because he’s not a morning person or because he was out getting wasted with his friends all night? All these scenarios are telling of his character and if you run through them enough, you’ll start to see the patterns.
Now that you have the groundwork laid, where do you go from here?
Step Three: Nail down the aspects of his personality that are crucial to your plot.
At this point, your character is semi-developed and hopefully has a hair and eye color. Now you need to figure out how your character is going to respond to each challenge you set before him. Does he need to be stubborn or passive or an asshole to make your story go where it needs to go?
I’ll go with a classic example here: in order for Romeo to fall in love with Juliet and vice versa, they each needed to have a little youthful rebellion in their systems. Shakespeare’s plot wouldn’t have worked if the two lovers were fiercely loyal to their houses and wanted to kill every member of the opposing family they laid eyes on.
This might seem like a bit of an exaggeration (because it is), but the same goes for the nuances that you want in your story. If you want this to happen, figure out what character trait or flaw will allow you the freedom to make this happen.
Step Four: Don’t freak out if your character changes while you write your draft.
Change is encouraged. Your character needs to change in some aspect between the first and final page, even if that change is minute and seemingly irrelevant. He will develop with your plot and if you need backtrack and change a few things, then do it. Your character should feel like a living, breathing creature and living, breathing creatures do crazy stuff like change their minds. Let it happen.
So that’s it! Let me know your thoughts in the comments–how do you develop characters? And don’t forget to show some social media love and head over to my Twitter, Pinterest, Goodreads, Wattpad, and Spotify!