This week is all about characters. Do you develop a character to fit the theme or develop the theme to fit the character? No matter what you do you’re going to have to come up with some three dimensional characters if you want to write a novel. One technique I use, which I call layering, is a good way to get started on developing a character when you have a specific role to fill. Here’s how I developed one of my main characters, B:
- For one crucial role in my novel I need a character who is a bit of a drifter and quite enigmatic. I thought about people I’d known as a child and remembered one fellow my family knew, Trevor. Trevor was not a drifter as such – he worked on a cargo ship and every six months or so we’d visit him on the ship at port when it came in. I loved being on the ship and loved the stories he’d tell to my siblings and me. Though this was Trevor’s full time occupation, his transient lifestyle was a source of fascination for me. I lifted this aspect of Trevor’s lifestyle and added it to the framework for B. Being a sailor seemed a perfect occupation for my drifter character. I have layer one.
- B needs to be a good story teller. He needs to be credible but there must a folkloric, almost mythical quality to his stories. I have known and do know a few people who fit this description. I’ll take gestures from one, articulation from another, and mannerisms from yet another. I have the second layer.
- B has an unusual history which is important to the main plot. We live in a diverse world – there are a myriad of characters to choose from. Truth is stranger than fiction, as they say. For layer three I’m thinking about people I know with unusual histories. Layer three is shaping up
- Character B has many layers so I continue adding to the framework until I’m satisfied with the construction. Now it’s just a matter transposing the layers, filling in the holes, decorating the finer details, and checking that he is structurally sound.
The main points for layering are:
- define the role your character needs to fill
- use dot points to list the key traits and mannerisms etc. Each dot point represents a layer.
- it’s okay to base characters on people you know, or have known as long as they’re not carbon copies – unless it’s biographical
- characters are more than just personality traits, they gesture, have accents, mannerisms, they have back-stories, lifestyles, passions, secrets, dress sense (or no dress sense) and so on. When you’re thinking about subjects think about everything they do, what they wear, how they behave
- one disadvantage of layering is that some layers can conflict – but this can work to your advantage. There’s no such thing as a uniform human being. We’re all multi-layered and sometimes traits do conflict
- don’t always pick the best traits. No character is perfect.
- sometimes a character’s behaviour deviates from what is considered natural for them. Think about people whose behaviour or deeds have surprised you
Today’s writing exercise is to develop a character based on this layering technique. I’m interested to know if it works for anyone else, or better, how do you develop characters?