Ahh… I can already hear the sound of that gentle Gulf Coast surf… oh wait… where were we?
Oh, right. Blog entry.
I’ve written before about how mind-numbing I find the work of doing fill-in-the-blank character sketches. You know…
Place of birth:
In the past, two minutes of this was enough to make me run screaming away from the laptop.
Since then, I’ve rethought matters. In my current project, I found my lead character was sort of an automaton. He was doing some cool stuff, but I didn’t have a real feel for why. I mean, sure, he’s in Hell and he wants to leave, but I am talking about a deeper why, the psychological underpinnings of his nature that make him respond to the situation in the exact way he does.
When I started using terms like “psychological underpinnings” I knew I was in trouble, so for help I turned to Crafting Unforgettable Characters by K.M. Weiland. This little book is available at the author’s website for the price of signing up for her mailing list. I had already read Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel to some profit, so I went for the free book on characters.
I haven’t read the whole thing. Instead, I skipped right to the section on the character interview, which gives you a load of, yes, blanks to fill in. It’s an exhaustive list with some items that go beyond the usual fare.
I have completed three of these lists so far and found them very useful, especially for Colin, my main character. I didn’t complete every question; I don’t think you have to. Having done this work, I think I have more than an automaton now, I have a person, or at least the start of one.
If you’re in need of help with character development, I recommend this character interview list. Now, here’s a list I came up with and that’s all. Off to the beach!
Name: Colin Davis
Background: White, middle class
Birthday: July 23, ????
Place of birth: Columbia, SC
Parents: Hortence “Bebe” and Frank Davis
What was important to the people who raised him: Hard work, discipline and the American Way
Siblings: One sister, Mary Eliot
Economic/social status growing up: Middle class; a bit strapped after his parents divorced and his mother became primary caregiver
Ethnic background: White bread Scotch-Irish
Places lived: Columbia, Atlanta
Current address and phone number: N/A
Education: BA, English, USC
Favorite subject in school: English; creative writing, medieval studies
Special training: Pizza making and delivery. Society for Creative Anachronism fighting and weapons making. Singing
Jobs: Cafeteria utility in college. After moving to Atlanta, Pizza Haven guy.
Salary: A bit over minimum wage plus tips.
Friends: Pizza Haven guys, SCA & D&D gang. There is a portion of these that overlaps; these are his best pals; that is, the Haven/SCA/D&D-all-three folks.
How do people view this character: A nice guy, but a bit of a geek. He’s just average size, but has an athletic build from doing bodyweight exercises to burn energy; people wonder that he never played sports.
Lives with: Two roommates in a two-bedroom apartment; two of the Haven/SCA/D&D-all-three folks. Pete and Dundee, known as “Croc” because of the movie.
Fights with: Words and story lines. Sometimes his roomies, but not much.
Spends time with: His friends and co-workers.
Wishes to spend time with: A girlfriend, any girlfriend.
Who depends on him and why: He depends on himself; no parental contributions. His roommates depend on him for mutual support.
What people does he most admire: John Steinbeck, because he was a great modern writer and also took on the King Arthur legends.
Dating, marriage: He knows some girls, but there’s no romance. He’s a bit awkward about it.
Relationship with God: He is sure there is one, but not sure what the nature of it is.
Overall outlook on life: Romantic
Does this character like himself: Mostly, but he demands a lot of himself when it comes to writing.
What, if anything, would he like to change about his life: He’d like to not be poor, to have a girlfriend and to be a successful novelist.
What personal demons haunt him: Both his parents and his sister yelled at him a lot. When he first tried sports—peewee football—the coach yelled at him and he quit, never to play sports again. After his parents’ divorce, it just got worse. He is haunted by the sorrow over the split, the pain and anger of the psychological abuse, the feelings of inferiority that caused.
Is he lying to himself about something: He tells himself he is really a peaceful guy, that the SCA and D&D are just fun escapism, but deep within he is seething with rage.
Optimistic/pessimistic: Despite everything, optimistic. Otherwise, he couldn’t write.
Morality level: He’s a good guy, though at times mischievous.
Confidence level: He is plagues by an inferiority complex.
Typical day: Work making/delivery pizzas, hang out with friends, write. Weekends and evenings are often for D&D, SCA. Writing happens first thing in the morning and often last thing at night.
Physical appearance: He’s just average size, but has an athletic build from doing bodyweight exercises to burn energy; people wonder that he never played sports.
Body type: Medium, athletic, but not totally ripped
Head shape: Like a head!
Nose: Straight, short
Tattoos/piercings/scars: A small scar over his left eyebrow from a childhood encounter with a bully, which he won.
What people notice first: The hair
Clothing: He’s a jeans and t-shirt guy, with tennis. If it’s hot, cargo/boarding shorts.
How would he describe himself: I’m a fiction writer, so of course I work at Pizza Haven.
Personality type (choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholy): Laid-back about most things, but fiery about his passions, which are writing and his friends
Strongest/weakest character traits: Determination is his strength—he is determined to be a successful writer. The inferiority complex is his big weakness.
How can the flip side of his strong point be a weakness: He can be so bullheaded he ignores other factors, ignores the big picture.
How much self-control and self-discipline does he have: A good amount.
What makes him irrationally angry: Bullying or yelling, at himself or others.
What makes him cry: Big life moments—births, weddings, etc.
Fears: Failure as a writer. Never being loved.
Talents: Writing. Singing. Making SCA weapons. Being dungeonmaster.
What people like best about him: His easygoing warmth.
Interests and favorites: N/A
Political leaning: N/A
Food, drink: N/A
Music: Medieval music, to listen to and sing [research]
Books: All of Steinbeck.
Sports, recreation: SCA, D&D
Did he play in school: N/A
Best way to spend a weekend: SCA battle during the day, D&D-cum-drinking-game in the evening
A great gift for this person: N/A
Vehicles: Chinese scooter
What large possessions does he own (car, home, furnishings, boat, etc.)
and which does he like best: Just the scooter and his laptop. The laptop is best.
Laughs or jeers at:
Ways to cheer up this person:
Ways to annoy this person:
Hopes and dreams: Successful novelist. Happily girlfriended guy.
How does he see himself accomplishing these dreams: Novelist: He works hard and succeeds. Girlfriend: He has no idea, but dreams of her just kind of falling into his lap.
What’s the worst thing he’s ever done to someone and why: He beat the crap out of that bully.
Greatest success: Published a short story in a well regarded regional journal.
Biggest trauma: See above.
Most embarrassing thing that ever happened to him: Tried to ask a girl out and halfway through spilled his beer on her.
What does he care about most in the world: Writing
Does he have a secret: No
If he could do one thing and succeed at it, what would it be:
He is the kind of person who:
What do you love most about this character: That he is so committed and kind of naïve.
Why will the reader sympathize with this person right away: Because he has big dreams and is willing to work hard to win them on his own.
How is the character ordinary or extraordinary: He has extraordinary talent and determination. He has ordinary needs & wants of a young man.
How is his situation ordinary or extraordinary: It’s ordinary except for his writing.
Core Need: His core need is to overcome his feelings of rage and inferiority.
Corresponding psychological maneuver (delusions, obsessions,
compulsions, addictions, denials, hysterical ailments, hypochondria, illnesses,
behaviors harming the self, behavior harming others, manias, and phobias): The maneuver that comes from rage and the inferiority complex is the writing. Also the SCA battling.
Anecdote (defining moment): He pulled a bully off a smaller kid in the sixth grade. The bully punched him hard, giving him the scar over his eye with a ring. After reeling a moment, Colin freaked out on the bully and was all over him. Colin’s dad pulled him off the bully and yelled at him for fighting as the bully ran off. Later Colin’s mom yelled at him and his sister made snide remarks. So, even though he felt good for his victory on the one hand, he felt miserable and put down on the other hand.