Craft Monday: What a character!

Happy Monday, writers! This week we’re going to take a look at character development. Why? My husband and I watched a “new” movie (meaning we had to pay to rent) over the weekend, and we also started a “new” series on Netflix (meaning everyone else has watched it for years and we’re just discovering it), and the main characters struck me.

The first was Chris Kyle in American Sniper. You might say this is a poor example because he was a real person, but I mean the way the movie portrayed him–i.e., flawlessly. From the opening scenes, his character is clearly defined as one who considered himself a protector.  In his job as a Navy SEAL sniper (who achieved legendary status), he was required to make horrifically troubling decisions–whether others would live or die–that I (and probably most of us) could never do. Near the end of the movie, he’s asked if he has any regrets. He answers that his job was to protect his buddies in arms, and he could meet his maker with a clear conscience. As the film progresses we see him struggling with the effects of war, but his main character never strays from that core person. That is perfect character portrayal.

The other interesting character is Sherlock Holmes as portrayed in the CBS show Elementary. On one hand, to have a character so clearly defined in the original fiction series by author Arthur Conan Doyle might seem easy for the script-writers. On the other hand, they have to find modern and fresh ways to bring that character to life every week, and to keep him true to the original. I’m only a few episodes into the series, but I’d say they have. The television Holmes is annoyingly forthright, seemingly lacking in most social graces, and self-absorbed to almost a child-like degree. But moments of humanity and kindness peek through, and those moments are what make him so interesting.

For a look at some other interesting characters from television, check out my post on this topic from November 2013.

So…how do we writers create characters like Holmes or Chris Klye, with solid core characteristics, yet give them humanity? I think you have to know your character, inside and out. Some authors prefer to get to know the character as they write, but I think it’s smart to at least start with some basics. Otherwise you could drive yourself crazy trying to keep his or her traits straight in your head.

Here are a few tools that might help:IMG_0026

Write ten ‘factual’ statements about your character, then ten lies, then ten odd/bizarre statements. The ‘lies’ work as a stepping-stone to finding the odd habits that make your character unique.

  • I found these character development exercises from author Sandra Miller. I like them because they aren’t a list of traits; they lead you to that point by posing “what if” type scenarios, like this one:

Your two main characters have to change a flat tire, in the rain.
(This exercise helps you to learn more about your characters through handling adversity–which can be very telling!)

Collect mannerisms–as revealing on the printed page as they are in real life. Pick an emotion and for the next few days, track it in the people that you see.

Need more? Next time you’re watching a favorite movie or TV show, take a look at your favorite characters and figure out what about them intrigues you.

Happy reading, happy writing!

Leah

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After spending her life working with words in various roles in both government and the private sector, including a 10-year stint as a freelance line editor, lifelong grammar fanatic Leah Price is excited about putting her skills and knowledge to work in the publishing industry as author liaison for Edward Allen Publishing. She also writes commercial fiction under a pseudonym and knows how tough it is to get all the pieces in the story puzzle to fit, but she loves the journey.