Welcome to The Bump House

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

11 Character Building Moments

We all have character building moments in our lives. Decisions that shape who & what we are, how we react & ultimately what we will do in a given situation. Our characters also have these moments. And we, as their creators, have to give them depth & breadth to explore, grow & sometimes change.

Some important questions to ask your characters...

Where do you live? This is about time, place, country/region, living arrangements (parents, etc.). This is also about why he/she lives there & how they feel about it. If your hero lives in a trailer park with 15 children & no wife, then you as a writer have some material from which to build character & setting.

From where do you hail? If your trailer park hero (TPH) comes from a wealthy family, why he's chosen this path is integral to his character. This also plays a role in who his best friend is, where he works, the people he knows.

How old are ya? Age plays a vital role in attitudes & behaviors. If TPH is 85, he will not say, "Dude, where's my car?" He probably might start a conversation with, "In my day...."

What's in a name? A name is a label; it is indicative of upbringing, character, or character flaw. TPH, from a wealthy family, living in the trailer park could have the name Hyram Goodson. But his friends call him Hy or maybe they call him Ram. First & last names go together providing a sense of self or a delusion of self depending on how you tell the story. Pick up a book of names at your local library or even a phone book & see what happens.

Looks like rain? Physical characteristics tell us a lot about a person. Tall, vertically challenged, thin, rubenesque, etc. If TPH looked in the mirror what would he see? High school hero gone wrong, rich son turned social experimenter, disgruntled factory guy. How a character sees themselves & how we see them can sometimes be two different things. Give them the pen, they'll let you know.

Vat vas your childhood like? Sorry, Freudian joke. Supposing TPH came from money, what in his childhood caused him to run in the opposite direction. Did he get his high school girlfriend pregnant & get cut off? Did his parents fight over money? Was his mother an overbearing socialite insistent on good manners & bad affairs? Knowing from whence we come, determines where we are going.

What's your gig? Job, occupation, career. Each of these has a different meaning. A career woman is not the same as a salesclerk. CEOs have golden parachutes, vacation homes, IRAs. Career choice says a lot about your character. You're a writer & that says payloads about you. Self-motivated, goal-oriented, detail-oriented, creative, flexible, the list goes on.

Are you gonna pick that up buddy? Conflicts & change; the writers B&B. Passive-aggressive people do not, as a rule, go head-to-head with an adversary. But, maybe that's central to the struggle & pushing them to confrontation might be mission critical to your story. On the flip side, people who are confrontational don't go around grousing, they fight - bunches. Loud, gregarious, flamboyant even. Possibilities abound.

So, you got somebody special? And this isn't always the case. As a romance writer, my characters will have someone special. But, let's look at TPH - 15 kids, no wife. Um, he might not have time for a girlfriend or maybe he does. Depends on the story. But, how he interacts with others tells volumes about who he is as a person. If Flo three trailers down has been chasing him since his wife passed & he avoids her like mince meat pie, then we understand a bunch of different things about him.

What are your goals, son? Goals & motivations become the backbone of conflict in our stories. What your charcter wants, who he/she is & how they behave speak directly & conversely to this. For example, maybe TPH is a master of self-sabotage. Why? Because failure is not an option. But, maybe not trying is. So, he has to try, darn it. Or, the central conflict is lost.

What makes ya tic? Tics, those little things specific to each one of us. When you're nervous, happy, excited, angry what do you do? When I'm angry, my lips purse into a mottled concoction of lines reminiscent of too many lemons. That says something about how I deal with my own issues. And, it will say something about how your characters deal with theirs. Hand wringing, hair twirling, blank staring -  all are indicative of character. If TPH makes a fist every time he gets agitated that says something about who he is, how he deals & what his typical reactions might be.

Go to a favorite spot, watch people. It's research, if anybody asks. The mall's always fun - variety & all. There are also psychology books on everything from birth to death. For more information on character, I also recommend Writer's Guide to Character Traits.
 Happy Writing,



  1. This is a really great list! It's hard sometimes to get to know your characters, but this makes it SOOOO much easier:)

  2. Michelle & Candy,

    Glad I could help. Thanks for posting.


  3. That book looks great! I will look into it.


  4. Clarissa,
    It's one of the faves on my shelf. Let me know what you think of it.