5 Unconventional Ways to Develop Your Characters

multi-colored wooden game piecesYou already know the single most important question to ask about your protagonist:

What does he/she want?

With that alone, you can make it pretty far into your story. But then something happens. You realize you still don’t know your protagonist. Maybe you have some backstory worked out, you know her education level, even her family history, but there’s a difference between the what of it and the who of it.

Does she like her environment neat and organized or prefer it messy? Does she value money or people more? Does she shut down and deny her involvement when something goes wrong or own up to it?

These are the questions that start to give your protagonist (and all your characters for that matter) the multi-dimensions that they and your readers deserve. Creating distinctive personality types ensures your characters aren’t, well, acting out of character or worse—reacting to situations in the same way. So here are five resources to check out that will help you understand your characters better:

1. The Enneagram Institute

https://www.enneagraminstitute.com

I recently learned about this one from author William Craig Reed at the La Jolla Writer’s Conference (you should check out his newest book and support a worthy cause here: 7 Secrets of Neuron Leadership: What Top Military Commanders, Neuroscientists, and the Ancient Greeks Teach Us about Inspiring Teams).

The Enneagram Institute breaks personalities down into nine major types, falling under the “Thinking,” “Feeling,” or “Intuiting” categories. Those types can then have “wings,” meaning someone can share traits of another personality. And each type can also “integrate” or “disintegrate,” becoming a better or worse version of that personality.

Whew! That’s a lot to take in, right? For the purposes of defining characters, you can start with reading about each of the nine types (enneagraminstitute.com/type-descriptions) and try to categorize your characters accordingly.

2. Astrology – Zodiac Signs

I might as well put the Google search link for this one because you’ll find plentiful articles and horoscopes out there for Zodiac signs. Astrology never resonated with me until I found out there was more than just a sun sign. There’s also a rising sign, a moon, a bunch of houses, ruling planets but without getting carried away, the two most useful categories are:

Sun sign: This is the sign that the sun was in when your character was born. This is your character’s essence or who they are at their core.

Rising sign aka Ascendant: This is the sign that was rising over the eastern horizon when your character was born. This is your character’s surface personality or how they appear to others.

For instance, your character might have a Leo sun and Libra rising sign. This means that, while she would run headfirst into battle to protect her own, she also has a harmonious side—a side that might try to stop a war or argument from happening in the first place. See how these two signs can interact and add some dimension to your characters?

3. Numerology

Again, there are many online resources for numerology, even a Numerology for Dummies book that will get your pretty far. Like Enneagram, numerology also has nine distinct number types. The most important number is the “birth number.” That is, the number you’re left with when adding up the birth date. For instance, someone born December 22, 2017, would be an 8:

1 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 2 + 0 + 1 + 7 = 17

1 + 7 = 8.

Okay, you don’t actually have to assign your characters birth dates and do a bunch of math, but you can read about each number and its basic traits and then assign a number to each character.

A 1, for instance, would be much more independent than a 2. A 4 would be a worker bee, while an 8 values money and power. A 7 would be very inward and pensive, while a 3 might be an artist. Once you get to know the numbers, you will see how assigning each character a different one will produce interesting conflict within your scenes.

4. Myer’s Briggs

16 Personalities.com

There’s been some backlash on this one recently, but I stand my ground as an INFJ and still believe there’s some merit to it! Myers Briggs claims there are sixteen possible personality combinations. They are broken down into polarities:

Introverted vs. Extroverted

Observant vs. Intuitive

Thinking vs. Feeling

Judging vs. Prospecting

Assertive vs. Turbulent

Since it would be an undertaking to read up on all sixteen types, you can work with these basic questions:

Is your character more introverted or extroverted?

Do they analyze their surrounding or go with their gut?

Do they use their head or their heart more?

Are they organized planners or flexible improvisers?

Are they self-assured or self-conscious?

Once you decide which way they sway, you can read up on that specific personality type.

5. Secret Language Birthdays

TheSecretLanguage.com/check/day

It’s actually scary how accurate this one is! The data was collected from a forty-year empirical study of the life stories of more than twenty thousand people, analyzed by date of birth. If you select your birthdate, you will get a two-word description of yourself. I, for instance, am “Revelational Winner.” My sister is “Wondrous Explosive.” See how fun these can be?!

Under the title, there are specific traits and then larger descriptions of each aspect. While I don’t recommend painstakingly sifting through hundreds of birthday combinations, try searching for yourself and a few friends or family members. Start to pick up on traits and how those simple, two-word descriptions can define someone. As a bonus, you can choose a second birthday and read about how two personalities would be in a relationship together.

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There are many other ways to develop your characters, but these five techniques will give you a jump-start. The technique that resonates with you may be different from project to project. On my last book, I used both numerology and astrology to develop my characters, whereas on my current project I’m finding the Enneagram personalities incredibly helpful. There’s no one right way, and not many wrong ways either!

 

Melissa Bloom is a writer, writing coach, and certified yoga instructor who is passionate about exploring the connection between productivity and wellness. As the founder and director of the Mindful Writer, Melissa has developed targeted writing tools and techniques that help people develop a sustainable writing practice to accomplish their writing goals without burning out. Melissa has a background in film, animation, and creative writing. She travels often, learns daily, and attends workshops, trainings, and conferences in a continued effort to hone the crafts of writing and living well.

 

Scene and Sequel, or How I Got to Know My Protagonist Two Years into Writing the Book

 

Doctor looking at x-rays

A couple of years ago I wrote an adventure novel full of terror, magic, romance, derring-do, etcetera. The main character wanted things, she went out and got them, and there were consequences for her—terrible ones. I figured the faster I paced it, the more exciting it would be. I rushed from exciting event to exciting event. I thought it was great.

But my lovely writing groups (to whom I am eternally grateful) kept saying the same things: “Am I supposed to feel something here?” “Does your protagonist have an emotional reaction to this?” “She seems very … calm.”

I didn’t get it. I’d blown up this character’s life. I’d wrung her heart out. Why couldn’t they tell?

The answer was that I never paused to let her think. I thought it would bog down the pacing if she sat around having feelings or wondering what to do. Instead, her lack of downtime stripped her of personality and robbed the book of impact.

In short, I needed sequels to my scenes.

First, a note: both “scenes” and “sequels” occur during scenes, which is a murderously confusing terminology problem. For more on scene and sequel, this is the blog post that helped me understand what it was. And this one looks like an excellent in-depth discussion.

Scene and sequel is a basic (the basic?) unit of storytelling.

First, there’s a SCENE:

The protagonist pursues a goal.

A conflict mucks up her plans, and she struggles to overcome it.

She achieves success, failure, or a complication.

This is followed by a SEQUEL:

The protagonist reacts to her new situation (emotional response, action, dialogue, etc.).

The protagonist considers how the situation affects her goals. She may face a dilemma.

The protagonist formulates a new plan.

The protagonist enacts her plan, beginning another SCENE.

There are large- and small-scale versions of this. A character can enact a plan, fail, react, and adapt multiple times within a single scene, but eventually she’ll reach success, failure, or complication that stops her cold and forces her to process and recalibrate.

You won’t write out all these steps every time. Sometimes sequels are short: a well-chosen action or line of dialogue can say more than pages of introspection. (Other times, you’ll likely want the introspection.) Sometimes another catastrophe hits before your protagonist can draw breath.

But this cycle of action, consequence, feeling, and planning gives solidity to a character’s personality. Because I’d been skipping it, people didn’t know who my main character was. I didn’t know who my main character was. Once I paused to let her think, she took on reality and depth. I understood her better. The book was better.

Here’s the big lesson I learned: Events can happen to anybody. What makes characters unique is how they react.

For instance:

A man catches his wife cheating …

… He’s heartbroken. He confronts her, and they have a terrible argument.

A man catches his wife cheating …

… He snaps. He sneaks out and buys a gun.

A man catches his wife cheating …

… He’s secretly pleased. He berates her, knowing that in her guilt she’ll let him get away with anything.

A man catches his wife cheating …

… He’s happy for her. She’s seemed less stressed lately, and now he knows why. He buys her flowers.

Those are very different men.

If I left out the man’s reaction (like I did to my poor protagonist), it would erase those differences. Lacking cues, we as readers would rely on stereotypes and familiar tropes to guess how the man feels. Our guesses might differ, but they’d almost certainly be less rich and varied than the reactions of fleshed-out characters or real people. This omission would impoverish both character and story.

And I believe it would do something worse. Without scene and sequel, it’s harder to talk about characters whose emotions defy expectations. It’s harder to show readers the minds of people different from themselves.

In short, it’s harder to tell the stories no one has heard before.

And I want to hear those stories.

Photo credit: http://nos.twnsnd.co/image/138158162774