Creating Active Characters

Good character development is essential for a story to work. The more complex a character is, the more we want to spend time with the character; the more the character surprises us.

Think about your favorite book.

The Princess Bride is my favorite book. The characters are well developed and they all have very clear objectives.
The Princess Bride is my favorite book. The characters are well developed and they all have very clear objectives.

Chances are the main characters are completely fleshed out, as if they could step right out of the book and into your living room. They probably have something that is driving them forward. They want something and we want them to succeed.

Many how to articles on the web will tell you to write out all of the descriptors for a character: age, appearance, where they live, etc.  But all of these details can be superficial unless used for a greater purpose. Ultimately, starting from this place will not help you develop a character and write your novel.

So what will?

My undergraduate degree is in theatre and acting. Uta Hagan has 9 questions that every actor should ask as they are creating a character. The first six are: Who am I? What time is it? Where am I? What surrounds me? What are the given circumstances? What is my relationship to events, other characters, and things?

The last three questions, in my opinion, trump all others. They can be applied to creating a character for a novel as well as on stage.

What does my character want?

What does the character need to do to get what they want?

What stands in the way?

Really want to get your imagination going?

Pick an inanimate object, and then find this character’s unique point of view.  For example, Toby the Toaster lives on the counter with his best friend Betty Blender. He reveres electricity because without it, he would cease to function. He fears small children who try to toast little plastic army men that melt all over him.

I could then take this Toby Toaster character and turn him into Toby the Electrician. He lives in the apartment next door to Betty, who is a pastry chef. He doesn’t quite know how to talk to Betty. He fears small children, because it is his job to fix things and children always seem to be in the business of breaking things.

Let’s apply our three essential questions to Toby.

WHAT DOES YOUR CHARACTER WANT?

Each character will have an objective. This is what they want chapter by chapter, or in a given situation. Their objective is always tied to their super objective, which is what they want as an overall arching want/need throughout the entire novel.Super Objective

For example…

Toby’s super objective is: To Be Loved

In one chapter, maybe Toby knocks on Betty’s door. His objective: Get Betty to Say Yes to a Date.

WHAT DOES YOUR CHARACTER NEED TO DO TO GET WHAT HE WANTS?

Toby then will have a few strategies to ultimately be loved.

1.  Toby will have to get close to Betty, so he arranges some chance meetings in the hallway and the elevator of his apartment building.

2. Toby will have to be a successful electrician in order for Betty to respect him, so he tries to get a promotion at work.

3. Toby will have to be charming and knowledgeable about the world for Betty to think he is interesting, so he takes a wine-tasting class and a painting class at the local Y.

WHAT STANDS IN THEIR WAY?

I like to link whatever it is that is standing in the character’s way to the greatest fear. Toby fears children.  Betty has a five-year-old son. Every time Toby lets someone in emotionally, he gets burned (get it, toaster burning toast) which means he keeps his feelings close to the breast.

These three questions will help drive any character through a novel and keep them active protagonists who solve problems for themselves. With a strong objective, they will have to act, and as readers, we will root for them along the way.

Related Articles: How To Write Successful Dialogue

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