You’re at a party and there’s a man dressed as a priest. He has a black shirt, black trousers, and a white collar around his neck. He has a small gold crucifix hanging from a chain outside his shirt, visible to everyone. He is smiling and talking to people. You notice his shoes are highly polished, reflecting the room around them in the black leather. In one hand he holds a bottle of beer, in the other an unlit cigarette. The hand with the cigarette has been tattooed with an image of a bird in mid-flight.
What is his name?
This man, at this party, he doesn’t exist. He is as much in my head as he is in yours. The difference between my version of him and yours, though, is I know what school he went to. I know how old he was when his grandmother died. I know whether he is actually a priest or not.
There is nothing worse than a shallow, flat character. Whenever a writer dreams up a character, they need to know all the above information, and more. They need to know everything. If you just met that man, at a party, would you be able to predict what he was going to do next? Could you explain his actions by looking into his past? The answer, quite simply, is no.
Getting to know a character is very much like getting to know a real person. The only real difference is that an actual person will not let you decide who they are, whereas a character doesn’t have that choice. At least, not initially.
The greatest moment you can have as a writer is when, after creating a character, you tell them to do something and they refuse. They become alive, they exist. They think, therefore they are.
The question is, therefore, how do you get to know your character? Whenever I write in or dream up a new character, I start with their immediate disposition. Then I work backwards, creating a history for them in my mind. I answer a full character questionnaire, so I have a complete and well-rounded understanding of who they are as a person. Then I walk a mental mile in their shoes.
Living as your character is a strange concept. Some people advise going and buying a coffee the way your character would, walking like them, talking like them, ordering what they would drink, being them. Although I appreciate the method of this kind of immersive acting, I don’t find it necessary. Instead, I become them internally, and think about situations and how I, as them, would respond or react. Then I start writing.
Once you have that character in your mind you can step away and focus on someone else. Whenever you need them, you just slip back into their head and write what they say, what they do, how they feel, into your scene. I have written this Developing Characters class to help you do just that.
To complete this class you will need a notepad and a pen, an open mind, and be willing to think in a different way. The better you know your characters, the more your readers will get to know them, and the more realistic they become. Consider it as having multiple personalities, but by choice.
Scott O. Lilienfeld, Hal Arkowitz, Can People Have Multiple Personalities?, Scientific American, 1 September 2011
How to Develop Fictional Characters: 8 Tips for Character Development, MasterClass, 8 November 2020