In writing, you are either a natural world-builder and plot-driven writer or you’re a natural character mastermind and character-driven writer. For me, I’m a plot-driven writer. Coming up with new worlds with complex issues and community conflicts for my characters to solve is naturally where my ideas originate. Even though I always have a notion of the personality of my characters, they start of as mere pieces that need to follow the conflict of my world. Their level of dimension is: one.
After spending years writing my first manuscript (which consisted of 90,000 words, one major re-write and three total drafts) I realised that while I have an interesting world for my characters to play in, my characters aren’t putting in enough work to drive the story forward. This realisation hurts, especially after all the time I committed to complete and improve the manuscript, only to realise that I didn’t put in the right work to make sure my natural weaknesses were lifted. But the benefit is that, now, as I write a brand new first-draft for a different story world, I can level-up my character writing game. And, if you’re a world-builder like me, I want to help you improve your characters too.
Even in the first 2000 words of my current WIP, I noticed a dramatic improvement in my story writing from following some basic steps (after some very intense thinking and research). If you want to know how I did it, keep reading!
STEP ONE: Understand People
Writers are often encouraged to be ‘people-watchers’. That’s because a deep understanding of how people think, react, make decisions, and move through life is essential to be able to recreate a character with artist realism like great books do. For myself, understanding people is not a strength. People-watching will often leave me creating a story for the person in my mind as I wonder who they are and how they think instead of observing and learning about them from their outward expression of self. (If we’re honest, it’s hard to know if you’re an efficient people-watcher without engaging in a conversation with the person to fact-check your assumptions. And, making assumptions of others isn’t considered socially polite!)
So, what do we do to understand people better?
There’s always one person that you can rely on to teach you about decisions and reactions: yourself. Being observant of yourself and how people make you feel and react can be a good place to start, but we often don’t want to write ourselves as the main character of our stories (where’s the fun in that, right?) The next best thing is to understand body language.
We all innately understand human cues of emotion and body language – if we didn’t, we’d struggle to make it through routine daily conversations without landing in hot water. If (like me) you struggle to understand people, instead of starting with people-watching, start by researching body language. While we understand body language cues innately – especially people we are familiar with – consciously recognising and observing body language on others to try and understand them is a different skillset. Having knowledge to apply onto the people you watch can help you understand more from afar and may allow you to notice tics and quirks that people may have that make them unique.
For my research, I explored every nook and cranny of the following website: scienceofpeople.com. I created a chart in a word document and listed the different facial and body language cues against emotions so that I have a quick-reference chart to help me remember body language.
The reason understanding body language and people watching is important is that you need to make sure as you write your characters you are including body language cues that make sense with the character’s mood and setting. Our readers, like ourselves, aren’t necessarily body-language experts, but they have the same innate understanding of body language cues that gives them impressions of character’s emotions from the body language you use to describe them. If you’re trying to write an angry character but describe them as ‘slouching’ you’re unintentionally disconnecting your reader from your story because the description and the emotion don’t align and become un-real.
Note: with your new understanding of body language, you may be tempted to describe your character’s body language with unnecessary detail that leaves the reader more confused (for example, very few people remember whether “liars” look left of right) – this is not the purpose of understanding body language. The purpose of understanding body language is to ensure that your description matches the tone of your characters and/or scene to create believable characters. It’s more of a fact-check or list of ways you can ‘show-not-tell’ character emotions.
STEP TWO: Understand Your Characters
Now that you know how to convey the emotions your characters are experiencing through accurate body language cues, it’s time to understand what causes your character to feel certain emotions and why.
Understanding our characters overlaps with understanding people, but here is where we need to make intentional decisions about our character’s past experiences, fears, traumas, loves and attributes. The better you understand your character, the easier it will be to write them with distinct personalities and responses to situations.
I created my own Character Profile form to help understand my characters. It wasn’t the usual Character Profile of hair colour, eye colour, height, age, and occupation. This one went much deeper. A character’s back story and history are important, but you need to take it another step and understand the impact the character’s back story has made on their decisions. (I’ll write more on decisions shortly).
To do this and force myself to make decisions about my characters in a meaningful way that made them each unique (instead of generic characters that all blend into one voice) I extended on these character prompts to create unique prompts in my Character Profile. I have shared them here so you can add them to your character development process too:
Answering these questions for each of your characters will help you create distinct voices before you even add any unique tics or quirks, horrific back stories or the normal ‘strengths and weaknesses’.
STEP THREE: Define Your Character’s Decisions
An incredible science-fiction trilogy I finished recently changed my understanding about characters description and characterisation because of the writer’s writing style. ‘The Arc of a Scythe’ by Neal Shusterman is described as a ‘romantic, sci-fi adventure’ novel, but by the end of the first book I was left wondering: where is the romance?
As I flew through the next two books and was left contemplating life and writing (as you do after you get enveloped in an incredible story), it clicked. The romance written my Neal Shusterman in his trilogy doesn’t exist in sexual tension, physical contact between the characters or flirting in their interaction as you would expect – in fact, there’s very little of any of that, practically none! Neal Shusterman conveyed the romance through his character’s decisions.
Having a thorough understanding of your characters is essential to create complex characters that readers can connect with, but for us plot-driven, world-building writers, it’s easy for our characters to get swept into the currents of the story without them taking any action. What I mean by this is: you need to force your characters to make decisions and highlight the decision for the reader (in a show-not-tell kind of way).
Decisions were painfully lacking in my first manuscript. In my mind, I thought I was conveying my character’s personality because of the way they got swept into the story – they were engaging in certain scenarios, surely that counted as a decision? The problem with our characters just easily falling into certain situations is that it takes away from the complexity and background history that a well-highlighted decision can add.
So, as your naturally plotting mind comes up with a complex world and story, pay extra attention to the decisions your character must make to move the story. The easiest way to showcase decisions is to show what the character is giving-up to do something. For example, if your character must steal money from their employer, showcase how they are making the decision to forsake their integrity for their survival.
By highlighting character decisions, it allows the characters to act as story drivers that can compliment the strength of a complex plot. It also gives them more solidarity in the story while contributing to characterisation.
STEP FOUR: Plan Your Scenes.
As plotters we often have fragments of the story – the beginning, the end, the conflict, and its climax – but none of the in-between. I know I’m often stuck with what ‘stuff’ to fill my book with. If a scene isn’t driving the plot, then it’s unnecessary, right? The result of this mentality is a manuscript with lots of action, but no reader-character relationship because every scene is about moving the plot.
Taking a moment to plan and understand the purpose of your scene has the potential to dramatically improve your writing and allow you to incorporate all the work you’ve undergone leading up to the writing. So, whether you’re a Planner or a Pantser, take a moment to think about these two, simple steps.
- Decide on the purpose of the scene.
Every scene has a purpose. To keep it simple, something either needs to be done (an action) or something needs to be learned (a lesson). This is true for writing a plot-driven scene or a character-driven scene. So, the first thing you need to decide before you begin writing is decide on the purpose of your scene. There are only four combinations:
*It can also be something you need your reader to learn through the character.
Once you have determined the purpose you can move onto the next step.
Note: the 3rd and 4th combination are the one that is typically lacking in a plotter’s natural skillset. These combinations are the scenes that don’t necessarily contribute to any plot movement, but allow readers to understand the characters more, show character’s relationships or show a character’s development.
2. Dot-point the actions and/or lessons that needs to be included in the scene.
Even a plot-driven scene still needs to include characterisation. So, regardless of the scene purpose, there are a few questions you can ask yourself that allow you to make a list of 5-10 important details that need to be included in a scene. By dot-pointing the actions and/or lessons (even if it’s just mentally in your head, Pantsers) allows you to really highlight the important details that add complexity to your characters as you write. Ask yourself these questions if you need help creating your list of important details:
By asking these questions, it allows you to apply your understanding of body language to the scene, include subtle details of the Character Profiles you developed for your characters in ‘Step Two’ to the scene with clarity and highlight character decisions. Within a few quick prompts, all the work you’ve put into writing real characters gets to melt together into a beautiful masterpiece and instantly level-up your writing!
Details I need the reader to learn about my main character:
These quotes are from my current manuscript – I hope you enjoyed the sneak-peak!
Improving your writing by levelling-up your ‘weak arm’ doesn’t have to be complicated. All-in-all, if you invest some time in your writing by adding the first two steps into your manuscript planning – Understand People and Understand Your Characters – that leave only the final two steps to be applied on a regular basis. Defining your character’s decisions and planning the important details of a scene allows you to intentionally include all the sticky, complex, gooey parts of your character development into your story and increase you character dimension level from one to ten.
I hope you’ve gained a lot from this article. The lessons in this article are the results of five weeks stuck at home asking myself “how do I write better characters?” Being able to lay it all out here for you to benefit from makes me really excited because I know how pivotal it has been in my own writing. If you gained something from this article please share it with your fellow creative writing friends, give it a like or leave me a comment to tell me what your biggest take-away was!
Good luck with your new tool-belt of character development strategies and happy writing!
P.S. If you’re interested in owning my full Character Profile, make sure to comment so I know and then I can make it available for everyone!