Workshop: Getting to Know your Character

Welcome to my first little creativity “workshop” on my WordPress Blog. 🙂 This session focuses on one of my particular favourites: the concept of character.

Character is one of the most important aspects of any written fiction, and is in fact important in many other creative disciplines including art (adding character to your artwork makes it memorable and more captivating to an audience).  The basic concept of a “character” in fiction is normally a person or other creature (or thing…ie. the Brave Little Toaster!) who is important to the story you wish to write.

They can be the hero, a supporting character, a villain, or in some cases a secondary character you want to make a little more fascinating.

It doesn’t matter who or what your character is, if he/she is important to your books you can and should flesh them out to be the best they can be!

Hannibal Lecter (Thomas Harris’ novels), Schmendrick the Magician (The Last Unicorn) and Wallace (Wallace & Gromit series) might seem like pretty extreme character examples, and you might not necessarily have a cannibal, a wizard or a plasticine Northerner in your books.  But there is far more to each of these characters that you might want to look at.

Hannibal is an intellectual, a linguist, a gifted psychiatrist and art lover.  Though most people view him as a callous, evil man, he develops a bond of mutual respect with the story’s potagonist, Clarice Starling.

Schmendrick is an understated, world-weary young man frustrated by his inept magic and searching for his purpose in life – though he is utterly devoted to the Unicorn, he is innately shy of her.

Wallace is a cheese-lover who constantly relies on his best friend, his dog Gromit, to keep his life in order; he is an inventor, an optimist, and a hopeless romantic.

All of these additional traits are more common throughout the literary world, and one or more may well apply to your main character 🙂

Let’s get started – for these exercises you may have a blank page, the bare bones of a character, or an already established character you want to examine in more detail.

The basic information you need about your character to get started is:

  • Name (unless you develop a name later based on character traits)
  • Age
  • Species (if relevant)
  • Likes
  • Dislikes

If you have this groundwork ready, you can hone in on physical details and expand personality traits.  For example:

  • Hair/eye/skin colour
  • Height/weight
  • Outlook on life (is he/she a sceptic or an optimist?), can include religious beliefs
  • Hobbies
  • Life goal(s)
  • Key childhood/past life events that have defined him/her

Which can lead into other external aspects of your character such as:

  • Employment
  • Where they live (do they like it or are they there against their will?)
  • Family (your character’s relationship with parents, siblings, children, etc)
  • Friends (the people your character chooses to include in their life – how did they meet?)
  • Other contacts (these can be neighbours, colleagues, the postman – anyone else your character has a defined relationship with, whether positive, negative or neutral)

To get you thinking about your character in a more abstract way, you may like to consider the following questions.  It may never be information that appears in your story, but if you can answer these questions about him/her, you are developing a deeper understanding of their character. 🙂

  1. Hooray, your character has won a fortune on the lottery!  What does he/she do with the winnings? (example: give to charity, spend on family, buy a mansion and a yacht).  What aspect of his/her character influences this choice?
  2. If your character was an animal/colour/food item/emotion, what would they be and why?
  3. If your character was able to see your predicted image of their future, what would they tell themselves?  (example. That they are proud of themselves, that they are ashamed of themselves, that they wish they never change?)
  4. If your character was able to meet their child self, what would they tell them? (example. Comfort them, inform them of important decisions in the future?)
  5. If your character had the one thing in life that they’ve always dreamed of (ie. Wealth, power, the heart of their dream lover); what would be left for them to strive for?  Would having their dream come true make them a better person, or a worse one?
  6. How would your character act to his/her complete opposite? (example: your character is a compassionate, shy, older woman with religious tendencies; she meets a dismissive, outgoing teenage girl who believes only in herself)
  7. How would your character cope with prolonged illness or a permanent disability?  Would they shrink into themselves and be mad at the world, or use their circumstances to raise awareness and make others’ lives brighter?

And for some fun mini stories to help you think your way around your character’s thinking!

*

Your character arrives on the bank of a raging river.  There are trees and bushes close by, a precarious line of rocks crossing the river, and he/she guesses that the current slows further down the river.  They have no choice but to cross.

Does your character brave the dangerous river at once?

Do they gather wood to bridge the river or make a raft?

Do they try to stay dry by jumping across the rocks?

Do they wander further down the river to cross in the slow-moving shallows?

Or do they wander down in search of a bridge, which takes longer, but would keep them dry?

*

Your character is trapped in a murder mystery!  Old Great Uncle Christophe has declared that he is leaving his entire will to a group of acquaintances, of which he/she is a member.  Suspicion quickly escalates in the house, everyone intending to bump off the other benefactors of the will so that they can have the money all to themselves.  Your character is trapped overnight in a house full of potential killers!

Does your character attempt to barricade themselves in their bed chamber until dawn?

Do they sneak around the house to keep an eye on the goings-on in the mansion?

Do they try to protect any members of the group precious to them, like a relative or best friend?

Do they instinctively know the most dangerous people in the house and avoid them?  Or provoke them into attacking others in the house?

Do they try to escape from the house across the deadly moors?

Or are they the ultimate killer, creeping around the house and eradicating all other contenders to the will?

Perhaps most importantly…do they survive?

*

Something less deadly: your character is in charge of an important company project, and works above a group of other people.  Suddenly they are told by their superior that they must fire all but two employees due to budget cuts.  There is no option.  Out of the following employees, who do they keep and why?

Man A is an older gentleman, with a stay-at-home wife and grown up children who live away from home.  He takes complete pride in his work and will retire within the next five years.

Woman A is middle-aged and has been at the company for several years.  She has a working husband and two young children, with bills and a mortgage to pay.

Man B is a newcomer to the company with a recent business education and no dependents, but high levels of debt after university.  He rents a house which takes up a large percent of his wage.

Woman B is middle-aged and divorced.  She has no children, but works to support a chronically ill relative who lives with her.  The relative qualifies for some government income.

Man C is middle-aged and came to the company a few years ago after a prolonged period of unemployment.  He pays child support to three children, and is willing to work longer hours due to having no other family commitments.

Woman C is working at the company in addition to attending business school.  She is the least qualified employee but is learning, and is prompt with her shifts and keen to offer ideas.

Your character’s reason for choosing the two employees to keep may be financial, emotional, diplomatic?  Perhaps he/she relates more to some of these people than others, maybe they act in the interest of the company, or their own future?

*

And to finish, something simpler.  Your character is a hero in a grand adventure (whether or not they feature in an adventure or fantasy story doesn’t matter!).  At the end of their journey, they reach the dragon’s cave, where the great beast plaguing the land is fast asleep, snoring upon its hoard of treasure with tendrils of smoke snaking from its red nostrils.  Which treasure is your character interested in?

The handsome prince or princess clasped in the dragon’s talons?

The gold and gemstones the dragon sleeps upon?

Perhaps a unique artefact held by the dragon, a magic mirror, talisman or crystal?

Or perhaps a personal item, a favourite toy or family heirloom, that was taken from them?

Or does he/she merely wish to fight and kill the dragon, to gain wealth and fame in the kingdom?

Perhaps your character wants to even befriend the dragon? (definitely the one I’d go for, I’m silly like that!)

And if your character wants to fight the dragon or sneak past to their treasure…will they succeed?

*

*** SPOILERS!! ***

(Here I have written an example character sheet based on my character Maria – she isn’t part of my novels so there are no Grenamoya spoilers, but don’t let my example sheet change the way you write yours. 🙂 Maria is just one of an infinite number of characters that you could profile with the above exercises!

CASE STUDY: MARIA

Maria’s Basic info

Maria Ferreira; age 26; human.  Her likes include shopping, fashion, food and attention; her dislikes include scoldings, flat shoes, low fat meals and having her credit cards taken away.

Maria’s Slightly Less Basic info

Maria is Brazilian and has shoulder-length black hair, orange-ish brown eyes and tanned skin.  She is about 5’5”, and has a slim build (I’m bad at guessing weights, about 8 stone).  She has a naïve, optimistic outlook because she is spoiled by her family (mainly her brother), and is technically a Catholic, although in the last few years she and her brother have stopped going to church after being disillusioned by scandals.  Plus she likes to lie in on a Sunday.  Her hobbies include shopping, fashion and makeup, and her recent new job, modeling.  She has no particular life goals but aims to live a comfortable life and remain beautiful as long as possible – she also wants to be a good mother to her son, Rico.  She was abandoned as a child and raised in a strip club in Rio de Janeiro, and danced there from the age of sixteen: she has a very liberal attitude to her body and those of others, and loves to flaunt herself for attention

Which Leads to More info

She has been employed as an exotic dancer, a museum guide, secretary to a government official, and is currently working as a model for Anne Summers lingerie and adult accessories.  She currently lives in Belfast with her family, and as it is a very big house in which she has her own room and en suite and pays no rent or food bills, so she loves it. 🙂 Maria has been reunited with her large family in recent years, and is closest to her big brother, Miguel, whom she loves with an illegal passion, though she still picks on him and steals his dinner sometimes.  She is close and amiable with her sisters, Menace and LunaLuna (her twin), but is closest to her brother as they were reunited earliest.  She is a single mother to her son, Rico, whom she adores and overfeeds.  She doesn’t always know the best way to deal with him and is often giving him to babysitters.  She generally gets along with other occupants of the house, and is probably most close to Miguel’s partner, Chris, and his sister, Mika.  Chris was Maria’s first lover, and the two share a bond as a result, though it is often more of a big brother/little sister relationship as she misbehaves.

Numbered Questions about Maria

1. If Maria won the lottery, she would spend it on clothes, shoes and needless luxuries, for herself, Rico, and perhaps her brother.  She is impulsive so would probably spend it all quickly and regret it.

2. Maria would be a pampered pedigree cat, the colour lime green, an extravagant ice cream sundae, and the emotion “enthusiasm”.

3. Maria would probably tell her future self that she should never have worn such bad shoes, as her feet and posture will be knackered by the time she’s forty!

4. If Maria met her child self, she would tell her to be brave and never feel alone, because she has a brother and sisters somewhere in the world, looking for her.

5. To some extent Maria already has all she could ask for – she lives in luxury and is looked after – but if she were to be relieved of all responsibilities and live like an empress, she would probably become more shallow and demanding, and probably gain weight.  It would amplify her worst character traits.

6. Maria’s complete opposite would be a selfless, morally perfect girl who cares nothing for her appearance, and who devotes her time to volunteer work but is a loner who doesn’t care for family company.  Maria would find her annoying and probably rant at her.

7. If Maria was disabled or permanently ill, she would become more needy than ever and expect her family to dote on her for the rest of her life.  This is merely an exaggeration of how she already is, and in fact if she was only unwell for a short time she would do the same.  Dependent on the illness, she might in time learn to cope, and as she loves attention she might want to publicise her condition for sympathy and fundraising.

Mini Stories

Maria would not want to mess herself up in the river, and would probably walk downstream in search of a bridge.  She is used to walking in her high heels so a trek wouldn’t daunt her.

Maria is a coward and would probably hide away all night in the mansion.  Not only would she lock her door but she would barricade it and hide under the bed until morning came.  I think she would survive due to her determination to hide!

Maria would be biased towards the employees as she is a young woman and a single mother.  She would fire Man C because he is an absent father, Man B because she doesn’t know what it’s like to have student debts, and Man A because “he was going to retire anyway”.  She might see Woman C as a rival with her intellect and new ideas.  She would keep Woman A (who has children) and Woman B (Maria would have some sympathy for the disabled relative).

Maria would enter the dragon’s cave to rescue her brother.  Miguel would realistically not need rescuing, but Maria has such a high drive to impress him she would do it anyway.  In her version of events, her brother would be helpless, and she would distract the dragon with some of her prettiest jewellery, then grab the opportunity to stab it and rescue Miguel.  This would make her look amazing.  She would then have the bonus of stealing some of the dead dragon’s treasure.

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