Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Creating Realistic Characters

By Katie DePoppe

After mastering the basics of grammar, punctuation, and diction -- and then navigating the uncharted waters of rules you're allowed to break -- comes what I believe is the second most daunting task in writing: creating realistic characters. 

How do you even begin?

Here are a few ideas to reflect upon that may help in building meaningful and layered characters.

Study Personality Types

Researching Jungian psychological types or archetypes is a good place to begin.The Myers-Briggs (based upon the theories of Swiss scientist, Carl Jung), the DISC assessment (which includes both positive and negative personality traits), and Strengthsfinders (the assessment and explanations are within one book) can help you gain insight into how a certain character may logically react in specific situations, interact with others, handle conflicts, etc. Let the personality type act as a sort of skeleton for the character, and use it to jump-start the creative process as you begin building a fictitious person.

Think About Their Life Before the Story 

Think critically about the main characteristics of characters that you're attempting to convey, and why they are the way they are. Say a character is ambitious or anxious or merciful or lacks in self-esteem. We don't become that way overnight, and neither should a character. What led them to that point? Why does this character seem to make the same mistake over and over again? Or why does this one never say what she means?

Even if there's a part of a character's growth that falls outside of the book or story's timeline, creating a sort of linear timeline of personal or emotional growth (or lack thereof) of a character in your notes can be extremely beneficial in creating a person who is realistic.  

Keep a Spreadsheet or Notebook

Are there regional sayings you love? Or witticisms from someone in your life that are too good to be lost? I keep files within my email, my Evernote account, and my commonplace book (more details on that in a later post) with uncommon or otherwise potentially characteristic words or phrases that could belong to specific characters. By keeping a record, not only do you remember clever, nostalgic, or memorable terms or phrases, but such notes can help you find and control aspects of language that may cause confusion or dilution of an otherwise memorable figure.

Study Acting 

This is purely anecdotal on my part, but it makes logical sense to me: Writers who have either studied acting or who have experience in script writing, seem to have an upper hand in creating believable characters. An acquaintance of mine suggested reading Constantin Stanislaski's book, Building a Character. He tells actors they should be able to answer one question at all times: "What would I do if I were this character in these circumstances?" If we ask ourselves this same question when we're writing, it certainly seems it would help to realistically shape both the scene and the people in it. 

Katie DePoppe is the founding editor at large for Azalea, a magazine that celebrates the lifestyle, history, and culture of the South Carolina Lowcountry. She is the curator of and a contributor to Azalea's blog, The Azalea Room, which explores Southern culture as a whole. Join her Facebook group, The Southern Lit Project, an extension of her blog series, The 50 Books Every Southerner Should Read. An aspiring author of Southern fiction, Katie is a member of Word Weavers International, ACFW, and is a life-long member of Sigma Tau Delta, the International English Honor Society. Connect with Katie on Twitter @KDePoppe or follow her on Instagram @katidepoppe.

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