The ABCs of Character Development

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I am teaching a short course at my daughters’ school this month.  Three sessions of about 90 minutes each, all of them focused on issues relating to character (character development; point of view and voice; dialog and plot).  We had our first class meeting this past Friday evening and had a terrific discussion.  And it made me realize that it had been some time since I had posted on character issues.

When I begin work on my characters — not just my main character and her/his antagonist, but also major secondary characters — I tend to gather a great deal of information on them.  Over the years I have found a convenient way of thinking of the various categories of detail that I like to have for each character, and that’s where the ABCs come in.  It’s not just the basics, it’s also a helpful mnemonic.  Attributes, Backstory, Circumstance — ABC.

Let’s start with Attributes.  These are fairly straightforward and self-explanatory.  What is your character’s name?  What does your character look like?  What race?  Gender?  Religion?  What does she do for a living?  Is she married?  In a relationship?  Looking for someone new?  Does she have kids?  Where does she live?  How does she move and speak and interact with people?  What does she do with her spare time?  What music does she like?  What are her favorite foods?  Obviously, a lot of this information is unnecessary.  I don’t necessarily have a list of hobbies, favorite foods, and musical preferences for all of my characters.  But I might have a favorite food for one, an interesting hobby for another, a musical preference for a third.  The point is to come up with details about your characters that begin to make them come alive, that make them more than just names and physical descriptions on a page.  I don’t necessarily share all of these details with my reader.  Some of it is stuff I need to know so that I have a clear sense of each character as a person.  But some of it is necessary.  Attributes are more than just collections of information.  They are the markers our readers use to distinguish our characters from each other.  How many of you have read books with a lot of characters only to find that the names of these characters begin to blur after a while.  Attributes — markers — help with this.  If Sally is merely another woman in the story, we might not remember her.  If Sally is the tall redhead who loves sushi and repairs vintage cars in her spare time . . . well, now we have something to remember.

Backstory is also pretty much self-explanatory.  Where does your character come from?  What was her childhood like?  What events from her past have shaped her personality, her world view, her ability to get along with other people she encounters in your book?  When she smells leaves burning in the fall, or hears strains of “Love Me Do” coming from a car radio, what memories stir inside of her?  Again, we don’t need to catalog every memory.  But, like Attributes, Backstory is more than just something to put on an index card.  This is where the secrets are.  This is where we find the seeds of plot, of conflict.  This is where we find the weaknesses and strengths that will shape our character’s ability to respond to all the crap we’re going to throw in her path over the next 400 pages.  Because now we know that Sally is not only the tall redhead who loves sushi and repairs antique cars.  As a child, she was also the sole witness to the murder of her father, who was an auto mechanic in Wilkes Barre.  Early on, she turned to repairing cars rather than putting on make-up and trying to meet boys because she had a terrible stammer — a souvenir of that horrific night at her father’s shop.

Circumstance is what ties your character to your narrative.  What is happening to your character right now that will change the trajectory of her life, that will bring together her Attributes and her Backstory, and force her to deal with the other characters you place in her path?  In other words, Circumstance is what propels your plot forward.  Circumstance is the discovery Sally makes while rummaging through the boxes of papers from her father’s shop — papers she hasn’t looked at in years.  She has always assumed that her father’s killer was the husband of a woman with whom he had been having an affair.  But while looking for the invoice for that old ’63 Thunderbird that’s been sitting out back forever, she finds a cryptic note that seems to tie her father to the local crime boss.  The crime boss is old now — a shell of what he was.  But his son is running for mayor, and the son’s car is sitting in her lot, waiting for a brake job.

And suddenly, we have a story.

I don’t go into this much detail for every character.  Doing so would take way too much time, and would leave me with a lot of superfluous information.  But for the Thieftaker books, for instance, I have this kind of detail not only for Ethan and his nemesis, Sephira Pryce.  I also have it for Ethan’s love, for his best friend, for the villain of each book (Ethan usually has two villains to deal with — Sephira, and a second foe who is particular to each stand alone mystery), for his ex-fiancee, for a young minister who has become his friend and confidant, and for a second sorcerer who sometimes helps him with his investigations.  I don’t use every detail in every book, and in fact, I don’t use every character in each volume.  Trevor Pell, the minister, plays a major role in book I, but a much smaller role in the second book.

But because I have all of this information at my disposal — I keep track of it all in Scrivener — I can draw upon episodes from one character’s past for one volume, and then use a different character’s backstory for the next.  I might never use all the information I’ve gathered, but I feel comfortable knowing that I have lots to draw upon if I choose to continue the series for several more books.

Attributes, Backstory, Circumstance — as with anything else, this mnemonic might not work for you.  There is, after all, no right way to do any of this.  But these ABCs have proven helpful for me over the years.  And maybe they will for you, too.

David B. Coe
http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com
http://www.DavidBCoe.com
http://magicalwords.net
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22 comments to The ABCs of Character Development

  • Mikaela

    Thank you, David!
    I must admit that I rarely write character sketches before I write the first draft. But maybe I should do them before the second draft instead… I’ll try! 🙂

  • mudepoz

    Scrivner?

  • mudepoz

    Scrivener?

  • Mikaela, I like to get as much down about my characters before I even start the first draft, although sometimes I work them out during that first draft. But yes, for me, the earlier the better.

    Mudepoz, Scrivener is a mac-based program that is geared specifically to the needs of fiction writers. It does a lot of things — I am still learning it — but in part it allows you to create electronic index cards for every character, every setting, every plot point, every research source, etc. and organize them however you wish. It also has a word processing function (which I don’t use much, because I have another mac-based program — Nisus Writer Pro — that I use for writing). But with the Scrivener WP function, you can write your chapters and then shuffle them into any order you want before exporting as a Word or .rtf file. You can import web pages just the way they appear so that you can reference them again and again, without having to be online. In short it is a brilliant program. Here’s the URL. http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php The best part about it is that it’s really inexpensive. The new version is out and it seems to be selling (downloadable) for $45. So if you hate it, you don’t have to use it. There is now a Windows Beta version available — I’ve never used it, but I can’t imagine it will be anything but excellent, once they get the bugs out.

  • Great post, David. I am (predictably) less systematic, but I like the simplicity of your ABC approach and will use it. Maybe I’ll get a little more method to my madness.

  • David, I love the way you not only HAVE attributes, backstory and circumstances for your character, but LINK them together. That synthesis of the ABC’s is what makes a story really come to life.

  • Like AJ, I am way less systematic while in the character creation process. I do all of that, though not so logically.

    But I like ABCs! It makes it much easier to explain what is going on!

    And now — we have 3 inches of snow and I am going out to play!

  • Tom G

    Great post, David. I like your ABCs. My list of characters gives only the basics, life age, sex, appearance, occupation, etc. No backstory. No circumstances. I’m eager to try your idea on my next story.

    BTW, I usual create my characters while outlining. I rarely have more than the protag and antag before starting on the outline.

  • Thanks for the comments, all. A.J., as with everything else, I would never suggest that everyone needs to embrace my particular brand of obsessive compulsive writing behavior. But the ABCs do work for me, and more, they are a handy teaching tool for conveying to aspiring writers the idea of getting to know the basics of their characters’ lives.

    Edmund, thank you. I’m actually eager now to write a book or story about Sally, who I just made up for this post….

    Faith, thanks. And enjoy the snow. We have at least 5 or 6 inches here. It’s beautiful.

    Tom, glad you liked this. And I find that I come up with many of my characters in that planning/outlining stage, too. That is also the stage where I sometimes pause to write a short piece about some event in the life of one character or another, as a way of developing voice. As a result, I end up with additional work to market.

  • Great way of looking at this. And definitely a great place to start for a beginning writer. Your method makes sure the writer is thinking broadly about the character and not just about the moments of the actual story. Too often, I think beginning writers struggle to make a fully realized character because they don’t understand the work beyond the story that has to be done.

  • Thanks, Stuart. You raise a fine point. When we limit our knowledge of our characters strictly to what we need to know for a story or book, we risk making those characters feel flat and like they were made with a cookie cutter to fit their particular roles in the narrative.

  • David> Great post! I’ve been thinking about using scrivner, too. I might when I get ready to start something new. I downloaded a trial version, but using it felt like essentially restarting the project and seemed like it would take too much time. And can you say more about the mac word program you use. I use MS Word on my mac, but if there is something better, I’d definitely be up for it!

  • Emily, thank you. Glad you liked the post. The word processing program I use is called Nisus Writer Pro. I actually posted about it back in November, I believe. I like it because it is far more like Word Perfect than any other program I have encountered. And also because it got me away from MS Word, which I despise. Here is the URL for the program: http://nisus.com/pro/ One of the first things you’ll notice is that, like Scrivener, it is incredibly inexpensive: $80.00 for a license that covers at least two machines. It is a powerful word processor, with few annoying quirks (I’ve yet to find any program that has none — the one that annoys me most is that its autocorrect feature, which will capitalize the first letter of a new sentence, doesn’t recognize quotation marks. So if you write ‘”Is he home?” she asked.’ it will automatically switch “she” to “She”. Easy to correct — you go back and change it and it will let the small “s” stand — but it is annoying). It has a full range of fonts, formatting options, etc. It has a far better built in thesaurus than Word. And it’s fairly easy to customize. Overall, I love it.

  • Hm. Might do this on the next novel. I usually don’t have quite as much structure, but that also may have been why I had a couple character issues with the WIP. I think I’ll set up an excel sheet for the characters with their Word doc bios linked to their names in the spreadsheet.

  • I don’t use one tenth of the features available in Scrivener (especially with the expanded capabilities of version 2), but it still makes many of the tasks of writing so simple and easy to track. Its cork-board feature alone is worth the low price.

  • Daniel, this kind of structured approach can be hugely helpful, even if just for a single project to get you thinking in these terms. Best of luck.

    Wolf, I’m in the same boat. I don’t use all those features (although I hope to learn them eventually) but the few that I do use, are more than worth the money I paid.

  • What a cool idea. I’ve been keeping a list of “impressions” in my notebook, for when I get an idea for an A, B, or C. I like how you bring them together. This sounds really neat.

    As does Scrivener … poor little PC user me awaits with bated breath the release of the version I can use.

  • Laura/Moira, thanks. Glad you like the idea. I hope it proves useful to you. The Scrivener for Windows beta version might be worth checking out. It’s available for free right now, so that people can contact Literature and Latte with information on bugs and problems. It’s not ideal, I know. But you can at least check it out and see if it’s right for you.

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    If you are teaching a class on writing, you might find something helpful in an article John just posted. I found something I really want to pass on to the two people whose writing I am currently coaching:

    http://www.scifiwright.com/2011/01/john-c-wrights-patented-one-session-lesson-in-the-mechanics-of-fiction/comment-page-1/#comment-57266

  • Thanks for the link, Jagi.

  • Just downloaded Scrivener for windows beta. I’ll give it a try. Thanks for the info on Scrivener.

  • No problem, Melissa. Hope you like it and find it useful.