How Much Planning Should Go Into a Character?

Hello, I’ve returned!

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been anxiously awaiting the holidays, ready for all the feasting that will come with it.  And probably daydreaming about holiday hams and thanksgiving turkeys instead of writing like you should be.

Not that I’m projecting my sloth onto you, dear reader.  Heh.

Anyhoo, today, since I don’t have another short story section ready, I thought I’d talk a little bit more about developing characters.  Specifically for your fiction writing.

Now, I know I’ve talked quite a bit about this is the past but … there’s always new things to say on the topic because I always think of more things after I’ve already published the post.

So, let’s get to it! 🙂

There are so many character types, archetypes, stereotypes, roles, and relationships that have to be considered when you design a person for your story.  Maybe you don’t think these things out — maybe you just let it happen.  Let the character become who they will by themselves.  Organically if you will.

Well, to be honest, I think that’s a terrible idea.

And here’s why.

When you let the characters take shape by themselves, and only from what comes up in writing, you might miss key parts of them.  Like what they fear most.  And even worse, if you don’t plan the characters out before you start writing, you might end up with inconsistencies.  Like in their appearances or their reactions.

So to avoid this, you should definitely plan out your characters before you even begin writing their stories.  Consider it part of the brainstorming stage, right up there with the plot.

I can testify to the necessity of doing this.  The pieces that I free-wrote with no planning whatsoever, are inherently more flawed than the pieces where I sat down for hours at a time planning where I want my puzzle pieces to fall.

The puzzle pieces mainly consisting of facets of the characters’ personas.

Another reason to plan out your characters?  I don’t know if this applies to all the writers out there, but sometimes when I’m writing, I come across an idea for a plot twist, or a change in the story in general that I want to incorporate.  This change … the characters have to react to it.  Already having the characters made independently of plot, rather than because of the plot, I would have a better idea of how they would react to a variety of situations, rather than the one specific one I had in mind.

That is not to say that your characters can’t change too.  If the plot does something drastic, something to the characters for better or worse, it should change them.  They should grow and change.

What I’m saying is that you shouldn’t start the story by giving each character a clean slate.

You need to think through who they are.  You need to consider why you need them in your story.  You need to know what they want and need.

Your characters should read like they were real people themselves.

Now, there are many ways to do this–to create a person out of thin air.  I don’t think I’ve done it the same way twice.  And I have hundreds of characters between all of the projects I have going on in my head.

(It’s thirteen by the way … eleven prose projects and two poetry, excluding short stories.  Heh.)

Recently, I’ve been planning out the specifics of my underdeveloped characters.  What they look like, what they like, what their main goal is … things that will be important when I finally begin writing their stories.

In the past I’ve talked about observing the people around you.

Notice how they talk.  Do they light up with joy when discussing something they love?  Do they talk over other people until they are heard?  Quiet?  Loud?  Accent?  Do they voice everything they think or only the important things?  How do they swear?

Next, notice how they respond in social situations.  How do they react when smiled at?  Do they look away?  Smile back?  Glare at you?  What about where they stand in a crowded room?  Center or edges?  Do they stare at the floor?  Only look comfortable when alone?  Are they ever alone?  Do they talk to everyone or only their friends?  What is their body language saying?

Okay, so now that you have those key character-building elements, specifics and answers to the questions above collected by field observation, it’s time to apply what you’ve learned about the world to your characters.

Take pieces from here and there, never the whole observed picture.  Then, from those pieces, build your mosaic.

Now, you have the surface.  What will be seen by everyone else in the fiction piece.  Maybe that means the other characters.  Or even the reader too.

You have to keep going.  You need to add layers to the character.

People have pasts.  They have things that are going on under the surface.

Doubts.  insecurities.  Fears.  Dreams.  Ambitions.  Goals.  Wants.  Needs.

Consider their emotions.  positive and negative.

What makes them cry?  A baby’s shoe?  Airplane tickets?  A spilled drink?  Is what brings them to tears unusual?  Do they bottle their emotions or let everything out as it surfaces?  Do they ever get upset?  Are they unshakable, or already a jittery mess before the piece even starts?

What makes them laugh?  Puns?  Memes?  Someone falling down a flight of stairs?  A bird that barks like a dog?  Insults–self-directed, projected, or thrown at others?  Maybe they think the way another character says a certain word, or another character’s name, is the funniest thing in the world.  If they even laugh at all.

And then consider this.  Do any of the above answers change?

A current runs underneath the skin of everyone you talk to.  Everyone in your life has more to them than what is presented to you.  Sometimes they don’t know it themselves, but the depth is there.

You need to know the depths about the characters you create.  Before writing a single word.  If you want your piece to have depth, you need to store it within the characters that act out your plot.

I mean, think about the books you’ve read.  The ones you loved in particular.

Why did you like them?  Was it because of the plot?  Was it because of the characters?  What about how the plot changed the characters?  Or how the characters responded to the plot?

Do you think the authors made that up while they were writing it?

No.  Trust me, they didn’t.

They spent excruciating hours planning out minute details that were probably glossed over by the majority of the readers.  They took weeks to plan out the plot, and just as long, if not longer, to create the characters.

But, in my experience, the naming process is the hardest part.  Not any of the things listed above.

(I hope that’s encouraging …)

Plan your characters.  They have just as many fears, goals, wishes, and insecurities as you do.

The most important thing to remember though.  Not all of your planning will show up directly in your piece.  And that’s okay.  In fact it’s better that way.

Subtly is everything, especially in fiction when so much can be interpretive.  An information overload will have the opposite effect of what you want.  Less will be remembered by the reader, and the reader won’t care as much.

You shouldn’t hide anything from the reader, but you also shouldn’t let the reader know everything that you do.  You’re the creator.  You need some tricks up your sleeves.

I know this post was a little all over the place.  All this talk of planning things out, and I free-wrote this.

Sorry about that, my friends.  Also, sorry about all the trickery and character-secrets that I will be holding in the future when my published novels come around.

Actually … I’m not that sorry.  But I hope you will incorporate some of these methods in your own work.

Thank you for reading!  If you enjoyed, let me know with a like or comment, and I’ll keep creating more content like this.

Have a lovely day! 🙂

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