This last post about character will focus on the full range of characters within a story, and how to build a character from nothing. I’ll end the post with a few links that I have found helpful with this process.
The last two posts on character focused on what I consider the MOST IMPORTANT aspects to building a character – their voice, and the nitty-gritty details about their personality and world. I focused on the main characters for both posts.
But what about the other characters – the side-kicks, the adjunct characters that are only in a scene – the extras? How much do you need to know about them?
My answer – it depends on the character. Some characters are almost as important as the main characters in a story. They provide filler to the storyline (like Pippin and others in the Lord of the Rings) and add depth. For these characters, voice is still key. But, background on their lives is not as essential.
Other characters – the waitress in a bar, for example – need little if any development. They are strictly in place to carry out a specific action in the storyline.
So, how do you decide when to layer in characters? Is there a point when there are too many characters? I believe that building a story, and likewise the characters, is much like painting a canvas. You start with dominant color and shape and more through layers until you have revealed the detail of the painting. A story, whether you are building a scene or plot, or focusing on characters, works the same way. Layer in the characters and their detail as you would layer in colors on a canvas. And as with a painting, be sure to step away from time to time to see the detail from the distance. Doing this will avoid “overworking” the picture – or in our case, overworking the story.
Okay, so we have all the layers of character now. But, what happens if you have no starting point – no voice or idea of the characters to begin with? In this case I recommend a few things. First, start by observing the world. Sit at a coffee shop and people watch. How do they look, what are they doing? This can often awaken the voices in your own head.
Didn’t work – try this…look at pictures of people and make up stories about them. Work on it until you start to hear their unique voices. As I stated in the first post, each character needs to have a unique voice. If they are all sounding alike, it isn’t their voice you hear, but your own.
Here’s an exercise taken straight from my work as a psychologist…find some great pictures of people doing something – anything. Spend a few minutes looking at the picture and craft a story. Make sure it is a complete story, with a beginning, middle and end. Include what happened that lead up to the picture (crisis) and what will happen after the picture (resolution). Do this a few times, focusing on voice and fullness of the characters involved in the story. Who knows, you may just wind up with a great short story out of it!
Finally, here are just a couple of the many, many links out there on building characters in your story: