Q&A: Character Development

Q: How do you tap into your own experiences and memories when writing characters?

A: I don’t deliberately scan my memories or experiences for character traits or actions, although there have been times when something interesting happens to me or someone says something in conversation and I make a mental note of it, “I should use that in one of my books.” I’ll make notes of it in Evernote to save for later use. I also keep a paper notebook and pen nearby to jot down ideas.

Q: How do you write characters that are very different from your own personality or values?

A: There are times when a writer has a character do or say something they personally find reprehensible or ill-advised. If a character isn’t very bright, you make them do and say things that you know will produce a bad outcome. Although I’ve never taken acting classes, I think actors would make good authors because they have the ability to put themselves into a role that is dissimilar to their own personality. Those without acting experience, like myself, must simply use some creativity and ask, “What makes sense for this type of character to do in this situation?”

Q: Do you have a specific or formal process for developing your characters?

A: The initial genesis for my characters is based on pure creativity or chance. But once I have the seed idea for a character, I flesh out their background and personality using a formal process. In the Research section of Scrivener, I create a new card for each main character with sections for appearance, goals, background, personality traits, fears and motivation, etc. I even make notes about where the character lives, who they’re related to, and so forth. It’s similar to making a character sheet in a role playing game, minus the stats and equipment. I often refer to these character cards while writing

Q: Is there a method or formula you use to differentiate your characters and make them unique and memorable?

A: Once I have character sheets for each main character, I read through them to make sure they aren’t too similar to other main characters. I even make sure the names of main characters don’t start with the same letter as others, or share too many physical similarities.

Q: Do you live vicariously through your characters?

A: I think it’s human nature for authors to do this to a certain extent. One of the joys of being an author is I get to create an entire world and fill it with characters that are exactly what I want. That gives me a certain feeling of power and control. There have been times when I’ve given my characters certain lines of dialog that is witty or brave. I’m a witty guy, but not until well after the fact, when it’s too late. Through my characters, I can have them do the cool thing at the best moment. In the end, however, my characters are their own individuals that are separate from me and have their own set of problems. I’ve yet to write a character that truly was an extension of me.

Q: Do you have a process to test your characters and their personalities? Do you read them like actors or play-test them at all?

A: Reading character dialog out loud, preferably with someone else acting out the other characters, is a fantastic technique for giving the book life. It also helps the author make sure the dialog flows and isn’t disjointed or out of touch with the action at the time. I, however, never take my own advice and only read their dialog in my head, alone. I also rely on the feedback of my editor and beta readers and modify dialog accordingly.

Q: Do you ever create characters specifically to be matched in some way to other characters? Or do you create them individually and let the chemistry happen organically?

A: Although I don’t think characters should be too similar to each other, I don’t create one character and then think, “I really need another character to counter this one or play sidekick.” My characters are created individually. Having said that, however, I do give my characters some traits or personality quirks that are unique to them with an eye toward what my other characters are like. I prefer to let the chemisty between my characters happen organically, as it would in real life.

Q: Are you drawn to characters more by what they say or by what they do?

A: I enjoy writing dialog, especially friendly banter between characters, more than writing action. However, I don’t like to spend too much time reading a character’s thoughts. To me, Moby Dick was one of the worst books ever written because it is needlessly verbose compared to the action that’s actually taking place. I like books with a lot of stuff going on, at a fast pace. So I guess my answer is I’m more drawn to what characters do than by what they say.

Q: What makes a good villain?

A: To me, a villain has to be evil, but not necessarily in a direct way. Sometimes villains are good from their own perspective, and the definition of what makes their actions evil depends entirely upon the perspective of who’s affected by it. I think Vilos Abbelard, a key villain in Ohlen’s Arrow and Ohlen’s Bane, is that way. When you read about what happened to him as a boy, his actions as an adult make sense. I like the idea of the reader being able to sympathize with the villain, at least to a certain extent. Perhaps the villain takes their reasonable motivation a few steps too far, but deep down they’re people just like us.

Q: What makes a good hero?

A: Have you ever known someone that was really good at everything they tried? To me, those type of people are the most annoying to be around because their ubiquitous success only makes me feel like my flaws are highlighted even more. For that reason, I like heroes that are flawed, perhaps very flawed, and their success in the story requires the help of a lot of other people. I don’t believe in the success of the story’s hero simply by virtue of being good or pure. In fact, I’d argue that the best heroes are the characters that are more flawed than the villain. It’s uninteresting, however, if the hero succeeds by virtue of mere chance. They have to struggle to get their success, but in the end, they earned it honestly.

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