After my last post about side characters, I was asked to write about main character development and I thought it would be useful to offer you some of the quirks of my process and how I think of characters.
For one, like anything in writing, this comes down to asking a lot of questions. We can assume you've answered the major questions like name, gender identity, sexual preference, job, home, physical etc. But how do you get deeper with your character than the surface?
Why don't we take a character I'm working with in the revision process right now and answer some questions I ask myself about her. As a bit of a primer, this is for a sci-fi noir book I've written and am preparing to query called The Fatal Woman.
Let's start with the basics. Her name is Monika Archer. She is a cis-woman who is attracted to women. She was a self-employed smuggler and pilot and lives aboard her ship because she lost her apartment aboard her home space station. She's lean and muscly, with wiry black hair and dark brown skin.
These are fine surface attributes, but let's go a little further.
What was her childhood like? She was an orphan and only had her twin sister to rely on. The two of them worked as crews on ships until they could afford their own. It was a hard life and they had to learn a lot about people before they were ready and they had to navigate the complex web of people on the underbelly of society. They fell through the cracks and learned to not only survive, but flourish.
Why did she lose her apartment? Mainly because she's a drunk. She's having a hard time keeping jobs nailed down or even caring about them.
What turned her into a drunk? The death of her twin sister.
What's Monika's goal? At the start of the story, it's to continue drinking herself to death and forget the loss of her sister.
What's her secret? This is something that I insist I give every character, a secret they keep from other characters, possibly even the reader. For Monika, it's that she feels like she's the one responsible for her sister's death.
How does that draw Monika into a story? Well, as threads of her sister's life continue to be dangled in front of her, she wonders if she really is the reason her sister died. Absolving that secret (but also overt) guilt is the unspoken and underlying motivation
What's her weakness? With Monika, it's her arrogance and anger. But this rage is a side-effect from what she's gone through. But she's also got the weakness of alcoholism. She needs a drink to just get through the day and the longer she goes without a drink, the more difficult tasks become for her. And since she's down on her luck enough to the point where she's lost her apartment, maybe she doesn't always have the money for a drink.
How does she see the world? Cynically. Everyone wants something and everyone has a price. Those who don't are naive.
Is there anything she actually likes? There's one thing. A lover who also works for the station's security force. They've been an off-and-on fling for years, but in her self-destructive spiral, she hasn't seen much of Officer Banner lately. And even then, in that spiral, she's more in a mood to tolerate Banner, rather than like her.
What will she fight to keep? What does she care about? At the top of her list at the moment is getting drunk. But when the chips fall a little harder, she's willing to fight to keep her ship. It's the only thing she has left and the last reminder of her sister.
What's her soft spot? She definitely has a soft spot for the vulnerable and people who are in situations that remind her of hers. She's also invested in caring about things her sister cared about.
How does she see herself? She feels she's pretty worthless, but used to think of herself as a valued member of a team and a family. How could she bring that feeling back?
How do others see her? Some see her as a shell of her former self. Others secretly wish the other sister had lived instead. Others look at her as a means to an end.
Other questions you might want to ask: Are they spontaneous or are their actions spur of the moment? Do they suffer from any medical ailments (allergies, mental health issues, etc.)? What do they like to do in their spare time? Who was their favorite teacher when they were young? What do they keep around to remind themselves of better times? What's their dream? What do they fear? Are they religious?
Once you have all of these questions, and dozens of others besides, answered, you need to ask yourself what these add up to in the context of the story. None of this means anything if it's not tested against the forces in the story. How would a person with these circumstances react to the forces arrayed against them with the minimal effort required? When that minimal effort fails, what would they do next? Once we've built a character, we need to kick them to see what they're made of. If you've done enough groundwork with their flaws and issues at the front end and have the antagonists kick them sufficiently through the story, you'll naturally see that character growth and development. Maybe they won't fall for the same thing twice. Maybe they overcome their fear in order to achieve their goal.
I'm not the sort who writes all of this down like this on a character sheet, but I know many writers who do. I seem to do okay keeping it all in my head and jotted occasionally in my notebook. But if you are the type of writer who wants those answers handy on a separate sheet, then absolutely go for it.
And this is only one way to build a character. When I first started out, I never thought about this kind of stuff (to my detriment), but I faked it pretty capably. I would write each character with an actor in mind. In my first draft, I'd write all their dialogue as though a dead actor from classic Hollywood was reading it. Cary Grant. Or Katherine Hepburn. People like that. I'd just imagine how I expected those sorts of characters would act in situations. Then in my rewrites, I'd pick a modern actor that was sort of the opposite of the original actor and see how that changed the character. Maybe the pairing would be Cary Grant and Yaphet Kotto. Or Katherine Hepburn and Meryl Streep. It would change the dynamic and give it a depth that I hadn't expected.
I don't think that works as well as really knowing your character, though.
And hopefully this has given you some ideas on how to really know your character. Not biblically, though. That would be weird.
As for my writing recently, one of my favorite pieces I've ever worked on came out. It's about Earring Magic Ken. During the course of writing this piece, I had Dan Savage email me a photograph of his sex-toy bearing Ken doll, which is a sentence I never imagined being able to write.
Here it is.
I also had a new short story come out for my Patreon. It's called Doctor Blackheart and is the fifth story I've written about the bounty hunter Sashsa Blackheart. She's the character on the cover of my collection of stories called Escape Vector, which would be well worth your money to pick up.
I'm working on some cool top secret stuff, too. And even have a top secret trip coming up. And am showing a piece of my short film at a festival in a couple of weeks. It's all going well, it seems. On paper, at any rate.
As a reminder: Please join my short story Patreon here. Your contributions to the Patreon help me write more like this. When I hit 50 patrons, everyone will get a copy of Lost at the Con.
The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page.
Also! here's the full list of "rules and guidelines" I've been collecting over my years of studying writing advice and process.
As far as my work outside of all this: There's a lot of great stuff on Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith for you.
And please, please, please don't forget to check out any of my books, drop reviews of them on Amazon or Goodreads, and follow me on Twitter and Facebook!