How to Build a Character – Start by Asking Questions

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In my last two posts, I described a specific technique for building well-rounded fictional characters that I learned at the International Writers’ Conference in San Miguel de Allende.  But there were other approaches to that goal presented at the conference and I want to pass along what I found intriguing in the sessions I attended. By no means are these techniques or tips mutually exclusive.

Deborah Brevoort, a distinguished and very engaging playwright from Alaska, presented an excellent workshop called “The ABC’s of Dramatic Action.”  She includes dialogue as an important component of physical action, for “when a character speaks, he acts.”  That is, he uses language in an attempt to get he wants. More often than not, the attempt is indirect, the agenda hidden, but the author should know what his/her characters are after and why they say what they do.

Ms. Brevoort’s contention is that “action is how you create character.” Although she was talking primarily about plays, her belief is that skillful authors of any type of fiction reveal a character by that character’s tactics in getting around obstacles to achieve his/her goal. Obviously, the nature of the goal can also be an important indicator of character, and in novels we also have internal reflection.

Ms. Brevoort stated that actors ask themselves 3 questions as they think about playing a character in a specific scene, and it would serve the novelist well to ask those same questions for their characters:

1.  What am I fighting for? (my objective and motive(s) in this scene and overall)

2. Who or what is standing in my way?  (the obstacle that creates conflict)

3.  What do I have to do to get what I want?  (tactics that will reveal character)

Some of her other helpful tips about characters included:

  • “Every character…must have a good reason to be there.”
  • Don’t include “foils,” those buddy characters who have no life or wants of their own and are just there to help a major character along  (often by revealing the major character’s thoughts or plans by way of dialogue).
  • All characters, like all people, have their wants. But every major character must have a want equally as strong as the others.  There’s no tension in an unequal battle.

Nancy Ellen Dodd, author of “The Writer’s Compass: From Story Map to Finished Draft in 7 Stages,” added a few factors beyond motive, goal and conflict to consider in creating characters. She asks “What makes your character unique? Intriguing to your audience?” She suggests thinking about the character’s timeline and the historical events that impact the character.

And finally (for this post), a suggestion from agent Jeff Kleinman, who pointed out that the “voice” of some characters might be defined in terms of a punctuation mark. One could imagine a character whose dialogue is curt and has a period after every few words. Similarly, a garrulous character might speak with commas between phrases and have difficulty getting to a period. A histrionic character might speak with an abundance of exclamation marks, and so on. “It doesn’t work for everybody,” said Jeff. Certainly. But then again, what does?

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