Q&A: Where to Start When Figuring Out Your Characters?

I’ve been getting some great questions about character development from followers of my Facebook page.

Questions from Andrea Ortega:

1. How do you think a writer should start, when they’re first just starting off figuring out their characters and their character development?

2. Also, what’s your own approach for avoiding making a cardboard cut-out character?

Answers:

1. Start by figuring out two things:

  • what the character wants
  • what the character needs

Writers tend to approach stories in one of two ways:

  • plot first
  • character first

Both can work as a way for the writer to get into the story.

A plot-centered writer will probably first know the character’s want:

  • get the girl
  • get the treasure
  • get the promotion
  • etc.

Then the writer must figure out the inner life of the character.

A character-centered writer might first know the character’s need:

  • find love
  • feel secure
  • feel good about themselves
  • achieve a sense of freedom
  • prove their worth
  • etc.

Then the writer must figure out how that inner need creates or affects the plot.

2. If a character seems like a cardboard cut-out, that’s probably because they were written from the outside in, not the inside out.

We tend to write our main characters based on ourselves, from the inside out.

We know our own inner lives, and we bring that sense of ourselves to our main characters.

But it’s hard to know the inner lives of other people, so the supporting characters in our fiction tend to be written from the outside in, based on our observations of the behaviors of other people, perhaps friends or family.

So the key is to understand the inner lives of other people, then use that understanding to create fictional characters who are unlike us but who nonetheless mirror the inner lives of people in the real world.

Some writers are especially gifted at intuiting and/or observing the inner lives of others.

But for most writers, it helps to have a working model of human psychology and behavior.

For that, I suggest studying human psychology, especially archetypes.

And I firmly believe that learning the Enneagram is the best place for a writer to start.