One of the most frequently asked questions people ask me is how I develop three-dimensional characters that are all unique. I’m used to writing characters from the inside out, and it’s both more complicated and easier than it sounds.
I’ve written a ton of different characters: everything from a gay teenager who is trying to figure out his relationship on top of figuring out his future to a 16-year-old girl who is secretly dating a too-old-for-her college student. But all of them have something important in common.
They were created with something missing inside of them, something that they want so badly they can barely think of anything else even though they aren’t consciously aware that that’s what drives all of their behavior.
And they got that way through the process I’m going to share with you in this post.
Step 1: Give Your Character a Name
This might seem obvious, but it isn’t. Names are important because they sum up someone else’s hopes and dreams for that person as well as giving that person an identity. In some dystopian stories, your protagonist might not be called by his or her name as part of an effort to dehumanize them, but you should still know what that name is.
Every character should have a name, whether it’s used in the story or not, and any character you want to develop should definitely have one as a starting point.
Once you pick out a name, look up what it means. There are lots of baby-name sites online that can help you with this (and you can use them if you get stuck trying to figure out a character’s name.) Take some time to reflect not only on the literal meaning of the name, but why that character was given that name.
Open a file in your favorite note-taking app or get pen and paper so you can do your reflecting in long-hand. Put the character’s name at the top of the page and then answer questions like the following:
- Who named the character?
- Why was s/he given that name?
- Is there any religious significance to the character’s name?
- Are there any family or cultural traditions related to the character’s name?
- How does the character feel about their name?
- Does the character have any other names they go by? (Nicknames, middle names, etc.)
- If yes, who calls them what name, and how do they feel about being called this name?
As you can see, there’s a wealth of information about your character related to his or her name! Names tell you everything from the character’s religious background to how well they fit in with their family.
Nicknames are especially helpful to explore. They can show different sides of the character’s personality.
A hated nickname can also provide rich information about both the character and the person who gave them that nickname. For example, my character Hannah’s friends call her Mouse because she’s so quiet and unassuming, and throughout the story her reactions to her nickname mirror her external struggle to become more assertive.
Step #2: Invite your character to shadow you.
I think that one of the reasons character development is sometimes so hard is because we struggle to get inside our character’s heads. An easy way to overcome this is to allow your character to shadow you. That is, as you’re going through your day, imagine your character is by your side and periodically check in with him or her to see their reactions to what you’re doing.
I often do this when I’m watching TV, reading a book, or engaging in other hobby-type activities. It can be fun to imagine talking to my character about the book or show and see what they think of it.
If you’re not used to doing this, here are a few ways to begin.
- During the commercial break on your favorite TV show, imagine asking your character what they think of the plot so far or if they like this show at all!
- Walk through the shelves at the library or at your favorite bookstore. Look for a book that you think your character would like to read. Check out the dust jacket or back cover and check in to see if your character still likes it.
- If you drive, choose music for your car ride to share with your character.
- Think about what foods your character might like to eat as you’re choosing what to have/make for lunch or dinner.
Step #3: Go deep into your character’s psyche
By the time you’ve finished these first two steps, you’ve gathered a lot of information about your character’s personality, feelings, wants, likes, and dislikes. Now it’s time to go to a deeper level.
When I was studying under the playwright Donald Freed at the University of Southern California, I learned to identify my characters’ public intention and secret intention. The idea behind this is that everyone has a face they show to the world and a secret, hidden self that is often at odds with that public self.
For example, a character might have the public intention of being seen as a good person — a good daughter, a good student, a good worker, whatever. But that same character might have a secret intention of being adventurous. If her need to be adventurous involves breaking rules or inviting the disapproval of others, it’ll be naturally at odds with her need to be seen as good.
As you can see, this inner tension leads to conflict within the character herself on top of whatever plot is going on. She’s going to lose in some way no matter what she does because of having two opposing needs driving her behavior at the same time, and she may not even be aware of what’s really going on with her.
The million dollar question, of course, is how to figure this out. Sometimes, after doing all the other work, the character’s secret intention pops into your head naturally when you think about it. Other times, it’s more elusive.
I find it helpful to start with the public intention. After all, that’s how the character needs and wants to be seen by the world so it’s closer to the surface.
To define the public intention, ask yourself how your character’s best friend would describe them, how their boss or a teacher would describe them, and how their worst enemy would describe them. After you have that all written down, read over those descriptions and see what they have in common.
After you have a public intention for your character, ask yourself again what the character’s secret intention might be. If it’s still not clear, think about what the opposite of the public intention is. Make a list of four or five traits that could work and see what feels right.
And don’t forget that this is all an experiment! None of it is written in stone; you’re just playing around with ways your character might feel deep down to see how they impact your character.
Knowing all this stuff helps you when you get stuck. If you have no idea what to write, you can ask yourself, “If I were my character and I wanted X, what might I do now?” and that can sometimes yield new creative directions to go in.
So there you have it: three ways to develop characters from the inside out.
Try one or more of these techniques and then comment below to let me know how it went! And if you have another go-to technique for character building, I’d love to hear about it. Let’s all help each other build stronger characters by sharing the way we do it.