Five-year-olds are genius character developers

Most of my stories start out as a scene in a place I don’t know with characters I don’t know. It takes me a lot of work to dig into my characters and figure out who they are, why they’re there, where they’re going, and so on and so forth.

Which means that during the character development phase of writing, I revert to a five-year-old.

I sit down with a notebook, write the character’s name at the top of the page, and ask why over and over again, long past the point of sanity. Why is she wearing long sleeves in the summer? To hide the scars on her arms. Why does she have scars on her arms? Because she tried to break up a knife fight. Why was she breaking up a knife fight? Because she was trying to keep one of the guys from getting killed. Why did she care what happened to him? Because he’s the only person who knows where her brother is who ran away three years ago.

And that’s generally the point where my questions explode. Wait, what? She has a lost brother? Why did he run away? How did she feel about it? Did they get along? Has she been looking for him? Has she heard anything from him since then?

So I take each of those branches and why them to death too. Usually, as my characters develop, so does my plot. Motivations become clear, side plots sneak in, and important details begin to organize themselves for slow reveal.

How do you flesh out your characters? Do they come full of detail, or does it take effort to learn about them?

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16 Comments

  1. I guess it depends on the character. Since I didn’t have a lot of time when I first started writing my books, the details came in little tidbits here and there, usually in times and places that were inconvenient. The shower, dreams, when I’m driving, at work/school/church. Now I have a little more time, I try to do what you do, but I’m not very good at sitting still for a period of time. Kind of like a five year old! 🙂

  2. What a brilliant idea this is!

    I generally sit down and start looking at images, pictures of clothes and houses and things, and then pick out what suits a character. Generally things develop from there such as why does he like this style of clothing? What happened in this house?

  3. Pingback: Posts to Check Out! | A Writer's Life For Me.

  4. I like this method! A lot of the time I find my characters by writing my way to them (which can make for a real pain when it comes to the editing phase…cutting out those things that are discovering the characters and keeping the actual story). One character I’ve been working with lately has been giving me lots of answers about the “whys” of her past — ideas just floating up to my mind while I’m trying to write particular scenes. Of course, not helping much with the scenes themselves but… I get the background at least?

  5. I love this idea. One of the things that I have realised is that you can know your characters and then you can REALLY know your characters. It is hard to believe that there are so many levels to people of fiction who we create and yet there are. Your way of discovering all of their layers is fab. I have to say that I have not been so meticulous in my planning and it has tripped me up later down the line when I can’t answer those questions. Great post and definitely a tip that I shall take with me when I next plan a character. Thank you 🙂

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