Tools for Developing Characters
Many tools exist to help you craft believable and engaging characters. Below you’ll find some of the best I’ve encountered and a very helpful technique called the secret snapshot approach which can help you discover and reveal your character’s inner most self in a way which readers will love.
Bestselling fantasy author Brandon Sanderson promotes a helpful and somewhat fun tool for developing characters—sliding scales.
He posits that each character has three core features which we can measure on sliding scales: competence, likeability, and proactivity. Each scale links with the others. Let’s take a look at a few examples:
Villains tend to be competent and proactive but fall low on the likeability scale. Darth Vader for instance, is hell-bent on destroying the rebels and he’s not too shabby at it.
Everyone loves a trier, but despite their efforts they never succeed ,or end up making things worse.
Let’s get to the heart of each scale.
We all want our characters to be likeable, even the bad guys, but how can we as writers do that?
A good way is to have other characters talk about them in positive ways. But strive for subtlety—what they say must have relevance to the tale.
It’s said if you want someone to like a character have them stroke a dog. If you want them to be hated, have them kick it, or worse, kill it.
Readers like characters who move the story along, who always strive to do their best. Frodo wouldn’t stop until he got the ring to Mordor, for example. A reluctant character, someone riddled with fear, or one who’s content with their lot, would fall low on the proactivity scale.
How can you make a character proactive?
- They may have dreams or aspirations.
- They may have an oath to keep, a promise to fulfil.
- A character may have been forced into a difficult situation, one they must get out of. For example, being enslaved or kidnapped.
- A character may have a longing to explore, to break free.
These are just a few; there’s many more. See what you can come up with.
Most characters tend to be competent in one way or another. There are the hapless village idiots, of course (see ‘the fool’ scale above), your supermen or women who can defeat armies single-handedly, like David Gemmell’s Druss the Legend. And you have characters who are competent in one particular area, like smithing or archery. But that’s not to say your average Joes can’t improve and develop new skills. In fact, readers love to see this happen (we’ll come to this next).
We enjoy reading about a master or expert going about their business. It can get tedious, but done well it works. Over twenty movies down the line and people still aren’t bored of James Bond saving the world, massacring henchmen and blowing shit up. Who doesn’t love watching Aragorn battling hordes of orcs, Legolas taking down an oliphaunt or Pug from the Riftwar Cycle destroying a planet?
But highly competent characters don’t always have to be likeable, like Darth Vader, as shown in the villain scale above. Readers enjoy a competent antagonist. It creates tension too—how can the good guys defeat the arse holes when they’re so awesome?
You don’t have to limit yourself to these three scales. You could go into more specific detail. If you’re a fan of computer games, you could approach it like picking your character’s attributes.
Many fantasy stories involve characters who start off in a humble setting and go on to achieve mastery. Pug in Raymond Feist’s Riftwar Cycle, Kvothe in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings.
Characters who develop by learning new skills or overcoming hurdles tend to be interesting and likeable. We overcome obstacles in our day to day lives and enjoy reading about others doing the same.
I don’t particularly like the word ‘ordinary’ to describe people, but for lack of a better word, we enjoy people who live ordinary lives and go on to achieve greatness. I suppose it makes us feel like we can do the same, that if they can do it against the odds, so can we.
There’s a nifty tool to aid you with character growth, a development line of sorts, known as ‘the everyman and the superman.’
Generally, a story involving a ‘superman‘ tends to involve a highly competent character saving the world. There isn’t much room for character growth because they’re already the best at everything ever. Take James Bond. He’s forever foiling plots to destroy the world and nobody ever doubts that he’s going to fail.
Supermen, however, can fall like redwoods, and this is an interesting approach you can take to shake things up.
The secret snapshot approach
How can you discover the deepest, darkest aspects of your characters? One which will give them an emotional and empathetic edge, an edge so sharp it cuts through to your theme and moves readers. The theory is simple, the practice is a little trickier.
Master editor Sol Stein utilised the secret snapshot approach when teaching his writing students. He first asked them to think of a snapshot of a memory so private that if that snapshot was a tangible image they wouldn’t carry it in their wallet or purse in case anyone found it, family included.
For an exercise, write down what you see in your most secret snapshot. Be brutally honest. To help, I’ll give my own example. I have a vivid recollection of the day my mum and dad told me they were splitting up. I was about thirteen. I remember crying about not being able to go to football training any more, which my dad took me to each day after school. Looking back, what I was really upset about was the fact that my life was never going to be the same again, that the image of the life I knew was being shattered before my eyes.
When you’ve come up with your example, ask yourself whether you’d carry your snapshot in your purse or wallet. If yes, think of another. You want to reach deep into your emotional memories and find the most personal. “The best fiction reveals the hidden things we usually don’t want to talk about.”
Think of ways you can apply these personal moments to your characters. You can also look to conjure the secret snapshots of other people, ones you wouldn’t be allowed to see under any circumstance.
The bravest writing someone can do is to explore the recesses in which the secret snapshots of their friends, enemies, and themselves are stored.
About the author
Thank you for reading, and thank you to the wonderful folks at Writing Bad for letting me loose. The site and Facebook group are fantastic, full of people willing to help each other out. It’s a hard thing to find these days. Continue to support it!