This time I’ll address the critical questions in developing your MC, or the other central characters of your WIP. I’ve talked about character questionnaires before, but if you haven’t read my blog, you can check out this one: https://www.novel-software.com/theultimatecharacterquestionnaire#basic
What you see when you read a book is the tip of the iceberg. A fraction of character development ends up in the final text. The more work you put into building your character, the more natural he/she is during dialogue, action, and reaction.
Most writers start the difficult task of character creation from the physical features:
- The color of eyes, hair, and skin.
- Age, sex
- Body type
- Facial expressions
Choosing who goes through the difficult path of your story is a major decision.
“Am I still on the path of truth? Have I found fair equivalents into which to transpose the habits, the professions, the relations of feelings? For an act has by no means the same meaning if it is performed by a rich or a poor man, by a bachelor or a father of six, by an old man or a young girl.”
—Joseph Kessel, Army of Shadows.
When you meet a person for the first time, you pay attention to their physical features like hair and eye color. When you meet a love interest, you’re bound to notice eye color, but what if you’re applying for a job? Do you remember afterward what the person interviewing you looked like? I’d bet you didn’t take note of his eye color but you might recognize his voice, or mannerisms during the interview because you read his movements subliminally. You searched for clues: did he like you or did he hate your guts?
If you sit in the interrogation room and you face a powerful opponent who holds all the cards, what do you observe?
I see the body language of my opponent. I search for signs that he exaggerates what he knows. I’d wait for his hand to form a fist, in which case, I’d raise my arm to block a hit. Okay, the interrogation scenes in my books are bloodbaths, but your local sheriff might go easier on the suspect. Again, this depends on your worldbuilding.
Body language is essential
I cannot stress this one enough. I use the interrogation as an example because the power balance is unequal and offers the writer possibilities to bring out the worst and the best in people.
The body language depends on the character’s goals: does your hero have something to hide? What’s at stake? The fate of his comrades? If your MC is a professional soldier who received SERE training, he filters his reactions. If your heroine stands amidst her enemies, she might use different means to survive or impress her opponents. Her goal in the scene defines her responses.
Who is the attacker and who tries to block him? These positions cause our body language to change. Is your suspect a serial killer or a wrongly-accused ex-spouse? High- and low-power poses in the images below are just examples. The interpretation of body language is a science, and if you write a crime novel, studying this field pays.
The same unspoken language rises to the surface if two persons negotiate a deal in the middle of a bazaar, or if a husband and wife engage in an argument. What their mouths say, and what their bodies tell, are two different things. Body language is ancient—it predates speech. Our brains interpret these patterns instinctively, whether you like it or not.
Your character wasn’t born ready. He learned a few tricks along the way and his family and friends had an effect on him. He belongs to society: defending the status quo or fighting to topple it. That’s why the questions about his past are essential. Character questionnaires will guide you to develop a history for your MC.
Examples of questions which dig deeper:
- What are his biggest secrets?
- How does he display affection?
- How competitive is he?
- What are his political views?
- What will he stand up for?
You might never offer the reader a complete history, but you’ll choose a few star moments for painful flashbacks or golden memories… bitter chalk of defeat which fills your heroine with anger at the right moment. Build a past, and use it.
Each person comes with a past and future: an arc of development. You can’t create believable literary characters without the dimension of time, the essence of change. We age. We might become different persons because of painful trauma. What we expect from the future says a lot about our personality.
The writer faces a terrible dilemma. You must fit so much into a single scene and remember your plot outline. Most of your troubles might not even survive into the final manuscript.
Tips for writing dialogue that connects your characters to their world:
- Use background action to add tone and mood
- Add movement to dialogue to keep the story moving
- Use mid-dialogue actions for tense interruption
- Reveal character relationships through movement and action
- Add dramatic emphasis to characters’ emotions in a scene
- Use movement, gesture and action to reveal personality
The Now Novel article is pure genius. Source: https://www.nownovel.com/blog/movement-action-in-dialogue/
The job is impossible, I know. I’ve shed tears on my keyboard because the puzzle refuses to decode. That’s why I turn to writer thesauruses:
The scene and the character are inseparable. Otherwise, your character becomes an info dump upon entrance, and his presence remains shallow throughout the chain of events: the scenes.
I also advise you to write your characters bit by bit. Polishing through rewriting makes them perfect. What is a thin film, in the beginning, can evolve into a master portrait of a human being after the edits. The readers will love or hate your character. Both are equally desirable because you want to arouse an emotional response.
If you get stuck, take a look at an iconic character in your favorite author’s book. What traits catch your eye? Make a list.
The Art of Choosing
As you write a scene, you see every little detail with your mind’s eye. You notice the light reflecting from the heroine’s honey blonde hair, and you know she’s got blisters in her palm from wielding the massive sword. You feel the temptation to write every single detail into her movements, and the objects she uses, because you want to convey the movie which plays in your head.
But here comes the hard part. You should concentrate on significant action: on the parts which move your story forward and tell the reader what she needs to know. Remember to leave room for the reader’s imagination.
Trust your readers.
One of the most misunderstood rules among newbie writers is “Show, don’t tell.” Mastering that law is a basic lesson in writing, but you can’t show everything! Your book would stretch on forever as the plot would go nowhere. You must choose your battles. Picking what to tell is something you’ll learn only by writing and rewriting. Also, peer critique, beta-readers, and a skilled editor will help you get there. Separating the important stuff from useless junk is impossible if you sit in your hermit’s chamber alone.
The things which matter most to you might be the wrong ones! Hence the rule: “Kill your darlings.”
As you see, the theme of character development runs through the fabric of the book. Every essential element of storytelling has something to do with the character. Even the setting, which you might think is a standalone complex, must be shown through the eyes of the point-of-view character. If you show something the heroine couldn’t possibly observe, you break the spell of the POV.
When the character travels through the scenes, describing his movement is essential. When you’re on page 305 of your manuscript, you’ll feel the temptation to repeat the same key motions. Turn to the thesaurus for inspiration. Open your favorite book and write down the mannerisms of the characters amid different situations.
An excellent article by K. M. Weiland on character movements, with examples:
“You’ll note that correctly describing character movements doesn’t necessarily mean you have to describe every single detail.”