Fleshing out Characters

by RS on December 27, 2010

As part of my outlining endeavors, I’m using a template that helps make my character three-dimensional. It’s a bit of a futile exercise for Corinne because as the main character and narrator, she tells the reader so much of her history as a kid, her feelings about certain topics that the reader gets a pretty good picture. As for Alvah, he’s also pretty well-developed because of the research I’ve done where most of the information I got from Alvah himself (his books), and from his son Dan.

Although in my mind I have a clear picture of Jake, I realize that he needs more muscle.I’m attempting to add more to his character, but I confess that this exercise is a bit boring. Is it the template I’m using or is it because I’m too enmeshed in the old habit of just writing what comes to mind? To help me make Jake a real person, I downloaded  How to Create Fictional Characters: A Proactical Template and Guide for Novelists and Short Story Writer, an e-book by Patricia Gilliam.

Gilliam has a broad background on psychology, TV broadcasting and she writes that her approach to character development is somewhat different than other writing guides.  This got me curious of how different it is and I pulled out Nancy Kress’ Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint out. Gilliam starts out by suggesting brainstorming ideas then she follows it up for the rest of the book with just about every question that you might have about an individual, from their name to their secrets. Overall, the list of questions are fairly comprehensive. Next she provides character traits on a scale where you rank each trait on scale of one to ten. The next section is creating a fictional, but flawed hero, and she comes up with good questions that fall under plotting.  Finally, she has a creating a believable villain which follows the same guidelines for creating a hero.

When I first skimmed through the book, I thought, “I know all this,” but after taking a closer look at the questions and reading it more carefully, I realized this isn’t a simple character sketch, but a full character’s biography. And of course it can take just as long to compile as to write the book.  What I discovered is that if the exercise is boring then that means the character is boring too, not good at all.

In the Kress book, she provides a modified template for a mini-template, but Kress also examines emotion and viewpoint. The techniques in her book are more in line of they typical book on craft. She writes about back story and flashback dramatized (which she notes you have to earn to write it. In Julius there are flashbacks, I think earned because of the sub-theme that you can’t understand the present without understanding the past).  Like other books on craft, she provides samples from published works to give the reader a better idea of how to bring to life emotion and the nuances of character development.

Overall, between Kress and Gilliam, using the template along with Kress’ more evolved character crafting, you can probably make yourself a pretty real character. So real in fact that people might think he actually exists. Now if you actually had the physical means to create the perfect man (or woman) and bring him or her to life, you’d have some story. Silly me, it’s called Frankenstein.

If you’re intrigued by Gilliam’s templates, you can download them from The Fictional Character Development Template. Just be prepared to spend time writing a lot about that character, and keep in mind not everything will make it to your story.

Onward to bring Jake to life. He’s got some things to do to improve Julius.

2 comments
sarah morgan
sarah morgan

I've used KM Weiland's "Crafting Unforgettable Characters." It's probably very similar, but here is a link to her website. You'll find the link to the e-book (green) on the left hand side of the page. I think it makes sense to flesh out characters whether fictional or nonfictional. I've found the idea useful for my memoir, so the main characters (my husband and I) as well as the antagonists have more depth. Anyway, here's the link:

http://wordplay-kmweiland.blogspot.com/

RS
RS

Sarah,

Thanks for the link! Her site looks fabulous. I'll be checking it out.

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