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David Farland’s Writing Tips – Twelve Exercises for Developing Characters

There are a lot of exercises that can help you create and develop characters. Most of them simply force you to focus on your character and stretch your imagination in some way by answering questions about the characters. These questions might touch upon the outer looks of the character, the character’s history,
the character family and contacts, or the character’s inner hopes and fears. But creating characters for
fantasy and science fiction worlds offers extra challenges. Here are a few exercises that I’ve found
helpful:

  1. Tie your character to the world that you’re creating. Where was your character born, raised,
    and educated? What places has he or she visited? If you’re creating an alternate world, what
    interesting this might he or she have experienced that would affect the character?
  2. Tie your character through others through relationships. Who are your characters parents,
    siblings, cousins, friends from school or from the neighborhood, and so on. This is particularly
    important for protagonists and love interests. One way that readers know whether to like your
    characters is by the wealth of and depth of their friendships.
  3. Answer the most fundamental questions about your character’s inner self. What does he
    want more than anything in the world? What does he need, even though he might not want it?
    This will tell you what his quest for the novel might be. What is his greatest fear? (He will have
    to face it.) What is he secretly ashamed of having done in the past?
  4. Create an inner mindscape for your character. What are his hobbies? What does he think
    about when he has nothing else to think about? What does he hope he might want to do
    someday? If he is single, what does he imagine that he wants in a mate? In a fantasy world, this
    list of wants might include such things as “What does he want in the way of a horse? A hunting
    dog? Or a perfect sword?”
  5. Create a character your reader will bond with. Ask yourself what you can do to make your
    character someone that you reader will sympathize with? In other words, what virtues does
    your character possess? (He might be patient, honest, generous, etc. But you need to realize
    that such things will need to be portrayed early on.) What great pain has he gone through? (I’m
    talking about emotional pains. Everyone has scars. We sympathize better with people who
    have gone through things that are really terrible.) What “secret powers” does your character
    have? By secret powers, I mean exceptional powers or abilities such as intelligence, the ability
    to perceive a lie, unwavering determination, and so on. These are unusual traits that makes
    others admire your character to the point that they “want to be” that character. The audience
    wants to see the value of those traits enough so that they actually fully bond with the character
    and put themselves in the character’s place.
  6. Define your character’s growth pattern. Looking at your character, consider what state he is in
    now, and what he will become by the end. This describes his growth-cycle. These should be
    one-word descriptions. For example: Orphan→Wanderer→Warrior→King. Do you see how
    each state not only describes what the character is, but also shows a path that he is taking? Your
    path could be just about anything: Killer→Penitent→Prisoner→Priest. Or: Free
    Man→Slave→Acolyte →Wizard.
  7. Try using the “Casting Director’s Method for Creating Characters.” Imagine that you’re casting
    a novel, and you’ve put out ads. Several people have responded to the ads, and you go into a room in your imagination and “look them over.” Each one is wrong for the part, but each has
  8. his or her own interesting points. Consider using the “wrong character” for the job.
  9. As you create your characters, try making them in pairs. For example, develop the hero and
    the protagonist together, and then develop a guardian and a contagonist at the same time. Put
    the sidekick and the heckler together, and both the true love and the temptress. Once you
    create such pairs, consider how they might be “foils” to one another, characters that set each
    other off. Create gads between them and other characters, those little annoying habits or traits
    that really set each other off. But also create circuitry between them, which may be ways that
    set each other off in good ways. For example, in creating circuitry, I might say, “When my
    protagonist John sees his wife doing dishes, he automatically helps in order to show how much
    he loves her. She shows her affection later on when they go to bed.
  10. Create a unique voice for your character. Think about what kind of accent he might have, the
    way that he might phrase his words, the extent of his vocabulary, metaphors that he might use,
    and so on. Try writing a few paragraphs from that character’s voice. As you do, keep pushing
    the envelope, until you are no long writing “like you.”
  11. Try “interviewing” your character. This is a technique that helps you refine the character and
    fill him or her out. Simply do this: imagine that you are in the room with the character, that
    you’re an interviewer writing about his life, and then ask him/her the first questions that pop
    into your mind. For example, my first question is “How old were you when your older brother
    drowned?” Now, I hadn’t known that my character had a brother until now. That’s a
    relationship that just formed. But my character answers, “I was only three, and he was five. We
    were playing by the pond when he slipped on a rock, fell in the water, and got caught under the
    branch of a sunken tree. I didn’t understand what was happening. I laughed because of the
    funny faces he was making. . .” This might sound a bit crazy, but it can yield some interesting
    results.
  12. Create an exterior body for your character. Consider creating a character sketch by using Mark
    McCutchons’ BUILDING BELIEVABLE CHARACTERS. In creating a body, I don’t just look at the
    character’s exterior, I like to go through and create a medical history, too. But have you noticed
    how I’ve left this step near the end? The way that your character looks is far less important than
    all of the other stuff, at least in novels.
  13. Look for ways to make your characters unique. This means that you might look for way to
    make your character quirky and unpredictable, particularly in how they act. A very off-the-wall
    response to a problem will work if it is properly motivated, but you can also make characters
    unpredictable by giving them very complex responses to situations.
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Another publicist I worked with would set up tours where authors would go on television news shows and try to get author interviews set up there.

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A fourth created press releases so that the author could get articles published in the Entertainment sections of newspapers.

A fifth was an image consultant and trained authors in public speaking, and would then focus on getting them gigs speaking at author events.

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