I’m a character-driven writer. I rarely come up with ideas for plots first. Instead, the idea of a character will spark in my mind, and I go on a journey to discover more about her. From there, a plot will usually form when I discover more about a character’s history and personality. I don’t think character-driven stories are any better than plot-driven stories, but they are what I enjoy reading and writing.
Here are the steps that I use when developing a character:
- The Spark – Something will spark an idea in my head. For a character I began forming today, the spark came from my friend Nathan who mentioned that I should play a barbarian in another Dungeons and Dragon’s campaign. That comment reminded me of the character of Etain, a Pictish woman warrior, from the 2010 film Centurion. From there, the idea of a silent, noble female warrior began to form in my mind. Inspired by Etain, this character is known for being silent, which led me to step two.
- The Names – All of the names I choose, from character’s first and last names to city, house, sea, and river names have meaning behind them. I use behindthename.com, a wonderful site for determining name meanings from various cultures. Having meaning behind all of these names not only helps me determine names but also adds a rich layer to the story. For this new character, I looked up the word “silent” and found Tacey, an archaic English name for “to be silent.” Perfect!
- The setting – When I have the names figured out, I begin developing a setting in which to put my character. I look at the nation/region/city she is from or lives in and how she relates to it. For example, Tacey is from a small island nation in the far north. The land is tundra, and the clans who live there subsist on what they can find by hunting and foraging. Because of this setting, Tacey grew up learning to be very self-sufficient. Mara grew up in a region that enslaved elves, so when her father had a child with his elven slave and welcomed the child into his home, Mara, even though a child, responded negatively.
- Background – Next, I learn more about the character’s background: Is she noble, peasant, or middle-class. What was her childhood like? How does she get along with parents and siblings? What is her profession and her parents’ professions.
- Appearance – Appearance can sometimes tell me more about a character, so I develop this fairly early on. For example, Mara is classically beautiful, a trait that plays into her high opinion of herself. I determine the character’s hair and eye color, their size, what they wear, how they wear their hair, their age, their complexion, and how they carry themselves.
- The Test – After I know my character’s background, I do a character “test” of them. I ask myself questions about who she is and what she is like. There are plenty of character development questions out there. These are a few of the ones I use:
- What’s her greatest fear?
- What’s her greatest strength? Weakness?
- What does she want more than anything in the world?
- What’s her favorite food/drink?
- What are her hobbies?
- Is she right-handed or left-handed?
- What does she carry in her pocket or wear around her neck?
- What makes her angry?
- What makes her happy?
- What makes her sad?
- What’s her favorite memory?
- What’s her least favorite memory?
- Who’s her hero?
- The plot – The plot usually begins to develop at this point. The combination of the setting, background, and character’s personality usually create an incident that happens in her past that leads to a specific path in adulthood. For Tacey, that event was the slaughtering of her tribe and her being sold into slavery as a child. For Mara, the event was her father’s giving her birthright to her half-elf bastard brother. For Alexis, the event was the imprisonment and execution of her parents. These incidents start the character’s story and determine where she goes from there.
So this is the process I use to go about developing my character and is my favorite part of the writing process. I feel that I don’t make up these characters but that they somehow reveal themselves to me and I am simply discovering who they are.
How do you go about figuring out your characters? Do you determine plot first or characters first, and how do you think that affects how you write?