One of the most frequent questions I receive as a fiction writer is how I develop my characters. There’s no set formula for this. You can buy books and read articles, but the truth is every writer has their own way of breathing life into their characters. I kind of stumbled into mine.
When I created my first character from scratch, it wasn’t for the sake of a novel. I had a friend who invited me to participate in an online activity. She called it “role playing”. It was an awkward concept for me. At least, in the beginning. It went a little something like this:
First, I had to create a character. Okay, simple enough. Off the top of my head, I thought of the name Rayhan Mendeley (it sounded cool when I was thirteen). There wasn’t much prepping after that.
Seconds later, I was invited into an AOL IM chat where an ongoing story took place. Sink or swim, the only way to participate was to jump right in. I think the setting was a tavern. There the characters mingled. At the time, poor Rayhan had no back story. I had no idea who he was or what he looked like. But when someone else’s character started to interact with him, I had to say something. So I made it up as we went along.
At the time, I had been working with horses a lot at my friend’s barn. I loved it there, and often wondered what Bacardi (the Appaloosa gelding I rode) would say if he could speak. The idea seeped into my character. He sprouted horse ears, a sword, and shaggy hair to boot. As the conversation progressed, he introduced himself as a soldier. His race?
A creation of my own design called rahee.
Within minutes I had this awkward mule-ish character with a generic background, but I had a character. The deeper I got into this living story, he lost his two-dimensionality. Ray wasn’t just a soldier. As the role play progressed, his background did too. A couple weeks later, I could describe him in detail:
Rayhan Mendeley was the 32-year-old middle son of a gruff general who demanded excellence. He had a compassionate heart in spite of his warrior background, and he secretly struggled with dyslexia; a disability his father used to hang over his head constantly. Rayhan was young, but war worn. His father fell alongside him during a fierce battle against the elves. A year after the war, he would return to the land in which his father fell to establish a peace treaty with the forest dwellers. There he fell in love with an elven maiden.
I played this imaginative game for nearly four years. New characters arose in that span of time, including Arelee, Jaycent, Sadi and Patchi. I grew to “know” them, just as I did Ray.
While I haven’t role played since high school, I have yet to uncover a better way to learn about my characters. By “getting into character” and seeing stories unfold through their eyes, you begin to learn how they speak, think, and react to things.
This is how mine developed. I spent time with them, so to speak. It’s the best advice I can give to any writer preparing to compose a new book. Before you begin writing, find a way to “get to know” your character(s). Whether it’s conducting a mock interview, writing a bio, or even role play, find something that works for you. Be creative.
Development takes time. Hours, days, weeks. Yet you’ll find the better you know your characters, the more your story will begin to write itself.