Developing Characters
August 2, 2019 4:42 PM   Subscribe

What are some fun tools / techniques / tricks, etc., to help me develop interesting and dynamic fictional characters?

I really like writing fiction. But I've realized a pretty big flaw in my writing: my characters tend to be extremely inert. I tend to come up with characters that don't want anything, or have no drive to do anything. They aren't motivated to go on adventures or, you know, push forward plot. This, you know, isn't good for writing. It's not good for having fun with writing, either.

I'm looking for things that can help me explore different ways to develop fictional characters, or help me flesh out fictional characters so that they are more active and have motivations that can propel plot forward. I'm looking less for theory about what makes for a good fictional character (but I won't turn it down, if you know something that is really awesome and helpful), instead I'm looking for practical activities, etc., that can help me with character creation.

I'm worried I'm not really being clear about what I'm looking for -- probably because I don't really know what sorts of things I'm looking for! I'm hoping some of you may know better than I do. Any suggestions?

posted by meese to Writing & Language (16 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
There’s a screenwriter named Todd Alcott who has a blog ( on which he used to analyze movies from a writing perspective. (He scarcely posts anymore but he has a hefty archive.) The lens through which he always analyzes (and writes) movies is, What does the protagonist want? I would suggest reading a bunch of his analyses. You’ll see that good, vital stories always grow from that question, and when the answer is “nothing,” the story is a dud.

So I don’t know your writing process, but when you come up with characters in the future, try making that your central question around which everything else is based. What does this character want?
posted by ejs at 5:09 PM on August 2, 2019

Some things I use:

- Interview them, as if for a magazine profile (usually a little more general) or news article (so probably you're interviewing them about a significant event).
- Write them having a catch-up dinner/weekend/long phone call with their best friend/closest parent or sibling.
- Write other people gossiping about the character. What do they see? What do they project on her? How do they misunderstand what she really wants?

I also have a problem with my characters wanting things mildly, and sometimes I just write iterations of want. How badly do they want it on a terrible day at work? When they're having a long dark night of the soul, what do they fantasize about happening to make their dream come true? Do they - just for a moment - consider committing a crime to get the thing? Are they holding themselves back by waiting for someone to give them permission to have the thing? Maybe the thing they want really badly is to open a bakery, and the actual plot of your story is that they work hard and save money and luck out on a perfect available storefront one day, but before it all works out do they lay in bed fantasizing they're badass enough to rob a bank? That tells you something about them, even if they'd never even tear a tag off a mattress in real life.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:21 PM on August 2, 2019 [4 favorites]

Read interviews. Read pulp fiction from the 30s-60s. Read obituaries.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:30 PM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Take any recent piece of media you've read/watched/listened to. Put your character in one of the main characters' roles. See what would change, what choices they would make differently. It's extra fun if you do this with another writer, who puts one of their characters in another main character role, and you play off of each other, back and forth. Ask me how often I've done this, and how many times I've ended up going, "Damn, I like my version better!"...
posted by brook horse at 5:41 PM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Lyn Never's suggestions are exactly the sort of thing I'm looking for! More things like that, please.
posted by meese at 5:41 PM on August 2, 2019

Seconding interviews. I write reams and reams of Q and As with my characters before embroiing them in plot. I like hanging out with them. Interesting things turn up.
posted by freya_lamb at 5:43 PM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

I like to look at where my character is in the present. Then go back to childhood/teens.

How did they get here? What big events shaped them? What are their big hurts and scars?

I usually add in a talent or two to flesh them out, and you have a pretty decent start
posted by Jacen at 7:01 PM on August 2, 2019

Write out their answers to those quizzes in self-help books, the ones where you list how you want to spend your time and how you actually spend your time, and then you realize you love re-binging Gilmore Girls too much to ever write the great American novel.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 7:07 PM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Interrogate them: Fine. You're nothing. What are you nothing without? (Then take that thing away and make them get it back.)
posted by sourcequench at 7:40 PM on August 2, 2019

Practice writing characters who get themselves in trouble. When a character is about to make a safe, passive, risk-adverse decision, imagine the worst thing they could do in this situation, and write that instead.
posted by toastedcheese at 7:43 PM on August 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Another thing I do as a list exercise about all my characters, especially the most cinnamon-roll-est ones: what do they do that's not-great? Like, what about them irritates their coworkers, what's the 5 most likely things they'll have conflict with a partner over, what do they and their dad just agree to not discuss because it never goes well, what are their prejudices? What pushes their buttons, what topics are they unreasonable about? What are the things they've never forgiven other people for doing to them, and what are the things they've never forgiven themselves for?

Again, these things never need to see the final manuscript, but all people are products of their experiences to some extent, all people carry traumas large and small in their pockets, all people don't have enough experience of some other perspective and are dismissive or scornful inappropriately.

A thing I always say about people in real life is that most humans are the biggest assholes when they are the most anxious. Explore that anxiety in your characters, and rub them wrong against each other sometimes.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:51 PM on August 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

Honestly, character creation for me often involves me finding a part of myself and then exaggerating and distorting it into a whole new character. (Aka, the self-insert) For example, I have perfectionistic tendencies, and I've more recently become more self-confident. How about a character who's a perfectionist and a nerd, who's literally never felt a shred of self-doubt in their life?
It also helps to be interactive! I chat about a new OC with a friend, and we'll roleplay as our characters interacting with each other (ie, they're both hanging out in a school dorm and my character suggests they set the kitchen on fire. To test the fire alarm. No really!) Through our joking around and egging each other on, we'll learn way more about our characters. (Turns out my character is utterly unconcerned about arson because they're confident they can contain the fire) Think about your characters in different environments / alternative universes (AUs). If the setting is suddenly a cyberpunk hyper-capitalist world, would they be on top or under the boot? Would they fight back against the power? Would they care? Exploring how the setting affects them is a great way to understand the core of your characters & figure out what really drives them.
posted by devrim at 9:15 PM on August 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

Create a playlist of songs. What kind of songs I can't tell you; I'd recommend songs you like but don't love. Shuffle it. Have the song that comes up be either:

A) About your character--which is to say create a character inspired by the song.

B) The character's favorite song or least favorite song. Answer the question of why that's the case.

You could make lists of books, movies, tv shows, video games, food, drink, motivations, nightmares, other characters for them to like or dislike, whatever, and then use an online dice roller to randomly select your object from the category (if you don't own dice of the appropriate size) and apply it to a character or use it to come up with a new one.

I mean, there's stuff like this out there on the web that can autogenerate this sort of stuff too, but personalized lists help in my experience.
posted by Caduceus at 10:58 PM on August 2, 2019

Tumblr masterpost of resources for fiction writers, which has a whole section on characters, including:

* 10 Days of Character Building
* Epiguide Character Chart
* 100 Character Development Questions for Writers (wayback link)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:44 AM on August 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

I'm going to go answer your question in a whole different direction. (Why? Why would TAMG go in a different direction to answer my question?)

Do you know enough about people to write about people? (What does she mean? Why would she ask me that?)

Do you know enough about yourself to write about people? (WTF, TAMG!?)

When I get stuck on a character, I talk to people. Actual living people with whom I can interact for realsies. (Why does she do that? And what's with "for realsies"?)

I ask them to tell me a story from their life. I might ask for something that was hard, or funny, or sad, or devastating, or frightening, or demoralizing, or pick an emotion. Or I might just ask them to tell me a story, because any time I do that, I get a wide range of emotions. (Why does she do that? Does talking to people work? Would she be telling me about it if it didn't work? Isn't it weird to just ask random people to tell you a story?)

I tell them I'm a writer, and that I'm stuck in a story. I've got a character who isn't behaving, and maybe their story can knock something loose in my head. Or that my character is sad, but I don't know why. Or I might ask them what they would do in the situation my character is in, to see if that helps. (Do people go with that? What would their motivation be to help TAMG?)

Or I'll let them read a portion of what I've written, ask if the character sounds like they could be a real person, and for why or why not. Does the character's voice sound real, their word choices, their actions? What happened before this? What might happen after? (Seriously? People help that freaking much?)

All those questions in parentheses? Ask those about your characters. Ask them about the people you're interacting with. Ask them about yourself. Ask them about that funky looking chick at the grocery store. The worn out old man waiting for a bus. The busy executive with spit-up on his lapel. The homeless woman dumpster diving behind the Panera.

To write people, you have to know people.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 12:53 PM on August 3, 2019

Excerpted from prolific genre writer S.L. Viehl's old blog:
...every character I imagine takes form by answering three basic questions:

Who are you?
What do you want?
What's the worst thing that I can do to you?

StarDoc: I'm a doctor, I want to do no harm, start a war over me.
Heat of the Moment: I'm a cop, I want justice, make the man I love a criminal.
Blade Dancer: I'm an orphan, I want a family, make me a pariah.

When I have those three answers, I've got my protagonist, and the foundation for his or her novel. This is also known as the novel premise.

The "worst thing" that can happen is simply the keystone of the novel's main conflict.
A related, previous ask: How did you get to know the characters in your novel?
posted by Iris Gambol at 8:17 PM on August 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

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