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Fleshing Out Characters

Writing is not something someone wakes up and just decides to do one day. Oh, writers will claim that, but when it comes down to it, writers are really haunted by characters that just beg to have their stories told. It’s our job to capture that character and share them to the world (and keep ourselves slightly sane)!

A couple months ago, a fellow employee approached me. He had heard that I was a writer and felt that need to talk to someone who could understand the “crazy.”

“Do you ever feel so consumed by a character that you can’t focus?”

I chuckled, knowing that just that morning I had made the 1-hour trip to work without actually remembering the drive, but during that time I had fleshed out another piece of Rally’s back-story. I then asked him, “Well who is this person?” He began to tell me about his protagonist and the rough sketches of a story. What he really had was a rough sketch of a promising protagonist and an interesting plot. His first question to me was, “Where do I start?”

Turning that Protagonist from 2D to 3D!

For a moment, think about your favorite character. Why do you like that character? What makes you relate to them? How much do you know about them? Can you picture them? Let’s face it, characters are what make the book, especially when it comes to genre. You can have the most interesting story but if your readers can’t relate to your protagonist, your story is dead in the water. On that same note, you can have a cliché story, with subpar writing, but it seems new and interesting because of a great characters. As a writer, it’s your job to take those characters living in your noggin, and make them sing on paper. Unfortunately, the number one issues writers face is that their characters fall flat.

Just because your protagonist is 2D on paper doesn’t mean he isn’t 3D. What I mean is that many of our characters are 3D in our minds. Unfortunately, without the proper research, tools, and preparation, they seem 2D on paper. So how do you add flesh to your character? Rest assured, I have a couple exercises to assist you with this!

BEFORE DOING ANY EXERCISES!

One of the things I suggest (and by suggest I mean strongly advise) my writing circle do is to keep binders for their protagonist and supporting characters (as well as a binder for unused characters). Why is this important? Because all that information is now at your fingertips! All your research, history, back-story etc., is localized in one place. This will help you be more organized and consistent when writing about your character.

Exercise 1:

Who is your protagonist? Many writers will tell you, “Write what you know,” but unfortunately in sci-fi and fantasy, sometimes we want to be someone we aren’t. Isn’t that the whole point of writing?! Unfortunately, if your protagonist is a butcher, and I grew up in a family of butchers, I may not find your character believable if you have not done the proper research. So for the first exercise, I always suggest that you write down important things to your character and then assess how much do you really know about those things.

For example: Amanda Tourney is a PI who hunts Chimeras. She uses a samurai sword, a revolver, and her mad ninja skills to capture them. Sounds interesting? So the first items on my research list are:

What kind of revolver? What would be the best revolver for her size/type? Is there are recoil? Is said revolver going to do enough damage against a chimera? What kind of bullets am I going to use? Does she have a name for the revolver?

Similarly, I may ask the same questions about the samurai sword. What kind of cuts, slashes, jabs does she use? Where did she learn to sword-fight? What kind of samurai sword?

What do I know about Chimeras? Do I want to stick to known fantasy-lore or am I going to mix it up with my own ideas for the chimera? Why does Amanda need to hunt Chimeras? How important are Chimeras to my world?

What type of ninja skills does Amanda have? Is she an apprentice ninja? Why would a ninja have a gun? And so on and so forth…

After some research, not only have I made my protagonist more believable and relatable for all your Chimera-hunting ninjas out there but I also have come up with some back-story I didn’t have before. Maybe I just learned a little more about my protagonist.

Exercise 2:

Take a few minutes and think about your protagonist. What kind of behaviors, values, and beliefs does your protagonist have? Would Amanda kill a baby chimera? What happens if Amanda found out that chimeras are just misunderstood and no more dangerous than a dog? Would she still do her job?

One great way I have found to get an idea of your characters personality and values is to take a look at character types. Take a look at the traditional Astrology. Ignore the date your character was born, and instead look at common traits of each sign. Which fits your character the best? Take a look at Chinese Astrology. Ignore what year your protagonist was born in and figure out whether her/she fits more with the Year of the Rat or the Year of the Monkey. You can also look at Japanese blood types, AD&D personality types, as well as the four temperaments. Do at least three of these for your protagonist and get intimate with them. Write a page on how your protagonist is Type A; a page on what Virgo attributes she has and how it effects her life. This will help you be more consistent when it comes to how your protagonist reacts to situations as well as how intimately you know that character.

Exercise 3:

Does Amanda have any quirks that make her unique? I sure hope so! No one wants to read about a super god like ninja girl who has no quirks, problems, setbacks, etc. They want to read about someone they can relate to. They want to have that strong female who kills chimeras but sleeps with a penguin. Why? Because that makes her human! It makes her relatable and believable.

Having some trouble finding some quirks or weaknesses? Take a look at a Gurps character sheet. Gurps is a pen and paper (tabletop) role-playing system and I like how they encourage players to create quirks and disadvantages. For every quirk or disadvantage you take, you get more points you get to sink into making them more powerful. Take a few minutes and plug your protagonist into this Gurps Character Sheet and see how you can flesh out some quirks for your characters.

So let’s do a quick revisit of Amanda Tourney? Amanda is an apprentice ninja who couldn’t cut it as a ninja after a chimera nearly took off her leg. She walks with a slight limp, but makes up for it with her lightening quick reflexes. Because of her accident, Amanda carries a Browning Revolver just in case. In her world, chimeras run rampant: eating small children, causing traffic jams, and destroying houses. While Chimeras are a traditional mythological beast, Amanda’s chimeras have a slight twist. If someone survives a chimera’s attack, they slowly begin to become one. This can take many years. Amanda struggles to keep her humanity and is searching for information about how to reverse the change. She is a Virgo: creative, independent, but can become too absorbed in her work that she misses the obvious.

Definitely, we can go on and on but this gives you an idea of some of Amanda’s weaknesses, some of her baggage, a little more about her world, which is something we didn’t have before. Remember, you don’t want to hit your readers’ over the head with all this information! Give them just a little at a time and slowly work it into the story by showing NOT telling. Keep them wanting to know more and more about your protagonist’s and his/her world.

– – –

Check back in with me next time where we’ll explore why choosing a genre and sticking to it is important to your character, world, and readers!

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9 Comments

  1. Overlord says:

    Such an awesome article… As I was saying to Jamie yesterday over E-mail – this will help me out so much as I’ve always struggled bringing my characters into actuality!!!

    Welcome to another talented writer… that makes a very strong grouping of you on Fantasy-Faction now 🙂

  2. MTMaenpaa says:

    Jamie, this article is great. I couldn’t have said it better myself and now I have to rewrite my next article.

  3. Chris N. says:

    Some excellent considerations when imagining a character.

  4. Libertine says:

    Fantastic article, I’ll certainly be putting those exercises into practise and I’m glad to hear there are others out the who have folders for their characters!

  5. Thank you all for the feedback on the article. I”m glad that the exercises can help inspire or find new little ways to make everyone’s characters unique.

    @Libertine I have folders upon folders of characters just waiting for their chance to shine! I always make sure any ideas for characters are immediately written down. As I was saying to Overlord the other day, writers have so much already crammed in their heads that unfortunately if we don’t write it down no matter how unforgettable something may seem, we will forget parts and even a small part is an important part.

    @MTMaenpaa Drats on having to rewrite your article but glad you enjoyed the article!

    Feel free to follow me at twitter: merikay or search Jamie Provencher in FB

  6. Kit says:

    Wonderful article, darlin’! Definitely going to have to put some of this awesome to good use for Mercy; I’m still working on that damned story… It’s taking forever! D:

  7. ChrisMB87 says:

    Fantastic article! If only some writers – not just in fantasy, but other genres – followed these principles!

  8. Paul Skelding says:

    Good article, I also want to recommend Michael Stackpole’s 21 Days to a Novel. His character development exercises in that novel are great.

  9. […] Earlier this week I wrote an article for Fantasy Faction called “FLESHING OUT YOUR PROTAGONIST – WHO AM I?“ […]

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