4 Questions to Help Develop Characters

Nearly two weeks ago, I had a conversation with my agent regarding what she thought after the latest round of edits. While there isn’t anything that is totally overwhelming, there are still things that aren’t as they could be, things I could improve before we send this manuscript on to the next phase of its life.

As I was talking and listening to the feedback, my mind jumped to the possibilities of plot: I could change this, I could enhance that, I could make everything FLY!

Thankfully, I’d just finished reading Wired for Story by Lisa Cron, and I had her ideas swimming around in my head along with the feedback I was getting. In particular, I remembered one specific part:

“What sets prose apart from plays, movies, and life itself is that it provides direct access to the most alluring and otherwise inaccessible realm imaginable: someone else’s mind.”

When I took a step back from what was being discussed in regards to the story and edits, I could see that what I still needed to strengthen was the way I depicted the inner workings of my characters. Here are a few ways to do that:.

1. What is the history of the group of characters? 

In our modern society, we don’t have to look very far to find people who have rich histories and deep memories, who have been and are impacted by the way that people interact with them, with their relatives, with attempts at political correctness and total disregard for them as a member of humanity. I don’t think there are very many groups out there who haven’t had something happen historically that still resonates with us today. If that’s the case, the resonance would obviously be with our characters as well, in some way. 

2. What is the history of the families of the characters? 

On one side of my family, we have several instances when use of force got things done, and when use of force ended lives before their time. My grandmother on the other side passed down her sweet pickle recipe with instructions like “add enough salt to float a small potato.” Myself, my mom, my aunts and uncles, my grandparents, and so forth, can’t stand to eat several desserts without some kind of ice cream or whipped cream, a tradition passed down from our Danish heritage. Even if we don’t know the stories, these kinds of events impacted our parents, impacted us, are impacting our children. Same with our characters. If we can hone in on what makes the family entity we are writing about unique, it will add further depth to that “otherwise inaccessible realm.” 

3. What is the history of the familial relationship? 

This is slightly different from the previous point in that I’m talking about the immediate family. I’m sure we’ve all seen those articles that talk about birth order and personality types, we’ve all read archetypes of siblings and probably had at least one moment of agreement for the depiction we encountered. If there is more than one sibling there is probably a “golden child” and a “black sheep”, contingent, of course, upon the values of the family. These kinds of identifications, even unspoken, have a resonating impact on the fabric of our character, and tend to reappear in diverse, and often unexpected, situations.  

4. What is the history of the characters’ social relationships? 

Has a majority of their life been as a leader or an outcast? Has interacting with those outside of their family come easily to them, or been a skill that they tried to learn? Did they ignore attempts at social skills altogether? Are they using the people outside of their family to try and recapture a desired role within their family? Does their level of tolerance regarding difficult behavior in others align with their desire to belong, regardless of of the consequences? Have they adopted a persona when in the company of others to maintain the appearance of a desired role? 
While it is absolutely essential to factor in external plot points when crafting a story, failure to really hone in on the people who are involved in the external conflict will leave the story flat, meaningless, and unsatisfying. As Lisa Cron says, “Stories are about how we, rather than the world around us, change….Thus story…is an internal journey, not an external one.” Showing a dedicated and concentrated effort to depicting the internal story is what will elevate the reader’s experience. 

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Tasha Seegmiller is a mom to three kids and coordinator of the project-based learning center (EDGE) at Southern Utah University. She writes contemporary women’s fiction with a hint of magic, and thrives on Diet Coke, chocolate and cinnamon bears. She is a co-founder and the managing editor for the Thinking Through Our Fingers blog as well as the Women’s Fiction Writers Association quarterly magazine, where she also serves as a board member. Tasha is represented by Annelise Robey of the Jane Rotrosen Agency.

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