Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Developing Characters with a Character Trait Checklist

Are you sick of articles that prod you to develop strong characters but leave out the important part? Like…how to actually DO that? Just vividly portray each personality, they say. Do so in a manner that makes them flawed, realistic, lively, they say. Well, I say, DUH. You think I don’t already KNOW that? You don’t think I want my characters lively? I’d love for them to be lively. In fact, lively enough to crawl off the screen and write the freaking book themselves!

Ok, sorry. Hissy-fit over. I just hate it when articles give generic advice.

This is NOT one of those articles.

The method I developed for defining my characters is called the Character Trait Checklist.

Here’s how it works:

Step 1: List your characters

Step 2: Choose their traits
For each character, make a list of 5+ traits you want to emphasize. I don’t think I’m the only one who’s read a book, envisioning the character a certain way, only to be thrown for a loop in Chapter 9 when the author describes them as having red hair. But they have BLOND hair, I want to scream. Nope, I flip back to Chapter 1 and sure enough, they have red hair. But I’d forgotten! That’s why I think it’s important to remind readers of the physical or personality traits you think are most important for each character.

Choose physical, emotional and personality traits. You can even give your character an interesting quirk. Check out Anthony Owens’ list for some great examples.

Step 3: Differentiate your characters
When putting together these lists, try to make the main characters as different as possible. If one character is funny and light-hearted, make the other morbid and dark. And avoid clich├ęs. Even for minor characters. For example, in my novel, one of my characters interacts with a gas station attendant. In the first draft, the attendant grunted and wore a flannel shirt. In the rewrite, I made him a gushing fan of musicals. It’s weird, but it’s unexpected.

Step 4: Revise using checklist
Make a document that lists each character in each scene of your story, their traits listed below their name. Read through your scene and each time you recognize a trait being used, check it off by placing a descriptive bullet below the trait. Make sure you ask yourself if what you wrote is the best way to display this character’s trait. For example, when my drama queen found someone wearing a necklace she thought was stolen, she doesn’t just demand it back and cuss them out. She rips it off their neck and swallows it to keep it safe (cause that’s the way my little freak acts)!

The checklist document is helpful because it will also show you what traits haven’t been used. Not every trait has to be used in every scene, but examining this might inspire new twists that are consistent with the personalities you’ve created.

Don’t forget about dialogue. Use your character traits to edit your characters’ conversations. Not all your characters should talk the same way. This doesn’t mean start writing in dialect (we’re not all Mark Twain), but you can have characters use different words and different slang.

This method worked well for me in the revision stage, but experiment with using it to help outline a first draft.

I hope this helps! Let me know if it does!

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