This is a short blog today, because I wrote ‘the end’ on the final draft of the book (and turned it in so I would quit tweaking the damned thing)… and it occurred to me that a lot of what I do in a final draft is to go through each character and make sure they are articulated on the page clearly, that their motivations track across the story, that their actions are both in sync with their goals but that they also are contradictory beings, as humans are. Strong character development is to me the Holy Grail–I enjoy a thousand different things about writing and reading, everything from high concept to literary–if the characters are interesting.
Interesting characters. Now there’s the subject of entire workshops–lots of how-tos (inner goal, outer goal, background, mannerisms, style, voice, etc.) Tons of good advice out there. When I was in a screenwriting course, my teacher had us do an exercise which crystallized character for me in a way that I hadn’t experienced with any other exercise, and I use the concept to this day: what is your character ashamed of? Nothing quite gets to the core of a person like shame will, because it’ll tell several things: where they failed, what they valued, if they’re continuing to fail, what they learned, and if it broke them. True character=choices under pressure. The choice your character makes at their worst moment is who they are, really, even if they manage to lie to themselves most of the rest of the time.
Our assignment was to write two pages which showed the shameful action, showed how the character both chose that action and felt about it… without explaining that they were ashamed. No telling, just showing. It was probably the most difficult two pages I ever wrote, but I learned more about showing character in that one exercise than in the rest of the entire degree coursework.
So, if you’re a writer, what sort of questions to you ask yourself in order to hone your characters? Do you have any exercises you do, or lists, or what?
And for everyone: memorable characters you wish you would have written or could meet?