June 19th, 2017

The Art and Craft of Developing Characters

Aimie K. Runyan

As an author of historical fiction, my work must—almost by definition—begin with a concept. Am I going to write a gritty saga about the women who flew as combat pilots for Russia in the Second World War (I did and it was great fun)? Am I going to write a sweeping fictionalized biography of Joan of Arc? A dark and twisty Tudor-era mystery? I have to be grounded in that first to know what I’m doing. That’s the easy part in many ways. But as many writers will tell you, a story isn’t just something happening. It’s something happening to someone. Even in the case of a Joan of Arc biography, you have to decide who your Joan is. Bold and fearless or tentative and unsettled? These are all decisions you have to make.

I was recently asked if I could change direction on my work-in-progress. As in, shelve what I was working on and start over on something very, very different. Fine by me, I can come back to the other project when the market is right for it. I’m every bit as excited about the new project, and being flexible is definitely an indispensable trait for anyone in this crazy business. I was set to chat with my new editor the following week to discuss the new idea, so I had work to do. In order to nail the call I’d have to figure out one thing: Who is my protagonist?

I spent half a day driving around trying to get hold of a research book I’d need to get a better sense of the history. You might wonder why I needed the research book to figure that out. My protagonist—an invention of my own brain–had nothing to do with the dates, facts, and figures that I’d find in the book. But as I read about the life and times my unknown protagonist was living in, my brain would automatically try to figure out the type of woman who would be daunted by, and eventually thrive, under the stressors I would put on her. As I read, I began to ask myself what she looked like, what she wore, where she lived. Definitely a place to start. She also insisted that her name be Ruby. Sure thing, girl, you’re the star of the show.

But I had to ask her some deeper questions.

What do your days look like? Who are your friends? Do you have any friends? What is your secret pleasure? What embarrasses you? What annoys you? And even bigger: what do you want out of life? I’m not one to necessarily spend a lot of time writing character sketches, though I almost always take some notes. I prefer to have these ideas in my head and let them come out as I actually draft the story. Sometimes my characters really add another dimension in the second draft and that’s always a fun discovery. I’m a voracious plotter, so this organic development is how I regain the thrill of discovery that I lose by knowing the general direction of the narrative.

So once I have some ideas in my head, I open up my trusty OneNote Workbook that I use for everything (timelines, lists of names, interesting articles, and so on) and make a sheet for the protagonist. I Google for pictures to find someone who looks as I envision my character would, perhaps searching for images of some items in their life that are important as well and paste it all in the page. I might throw together a few paragraphs about my protagonist’s thoughts on life and goals we’ll see unveil in the story. Maybe some bigger goals we won’t see. Then I get to work clickety-clacking on some chapters.

Seems easy, right? Well some characters are easier to crack than others. A prime example of a difficult character is the protagonist from my upcoming novel, Daughters of the Night Sky. My protagonist, Katya, is an officer in the Red Army. She’s driven to learn how to fly from the time she’s a child because life has forced her to grow up before her time. She was focused, determined, and married to her work. She and I didn’t have a lot in common, and she was pretty closed-lipped (as any good officer in the Red Army would have been), so coaxing the character onto the page took some time.

I spent a lot more time doing freewriting exercises when I couldn’t reflect her personality on the page. Writing letters from Katya to important people in her life was one that helped a lot. Even then, my redheaded pilot was a character that really needed a second draft to add the final dimension into her personality. Even tweaks in drafts six and seven brought out some spark in her. It was a challenge, but I think she came into herself at long last. It was definitely worth the struggle, but thank goodness this new girl, Ruby, is a whole lot chattier than Katya ever was.

So, what tips and tricks do you use to breathe life into your protagonist?

Share with the crowd!

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Aimie K. Runyan is a historian and author who writes to celebrate history’s unsung heroines. She is the author of two previous historical novels: Promised to the Crown and Duty to the Crown. She is active as an educator and a speaker in the writing community and beyond. She lives in Colorado with her wonderful husband and two (usually) adorable children. To learn more about Aimie and her work, please visit www.aimiekrunyan.com.

 

24 comments to The Art and Craft of Developing Characters

  • I come at it a different way, Aimie (usually). I start with a human condition that interests me, like, say a person with control issues. Which, of course, is a fallacy – we have very little control over what happens to us, right?

    So then I think about a person who would have that problem – what would their days be like? How would they react to stress? (because you know I’m going to put them under stress, right? 😉

    Then I plan (to the extent I do) the plot – which is really forcing her to face what lies at the bottom of the control issue.

    Love this part of writing!

    • Aimie K. Runyan

      I think, given our genres, we’re actually coming at it from the same approach. Your human condition is essentially equivalent to my historical condition. And yes, this part of writing is the bee’s knees!

  • debraemarvin

    What amazes me is that these characters are all products of our imaginations yet they don’t always let us in. That’s a strange concept to explain to people, because I don’t understand it myself. Some are hard to keep up with, others make us work hard to get insides their heads. (which are inside our heads… ugh.)

  • Your system sounds a lot like mine, although I not a great plotter – more pants-ing until at least half the story is on paper. I also loved the Night Witches concept when I heard about them. You beat me to the story, so I’ll have to find your book and see how they did! Thanks for the blog!

    • Aimie K. Runyan

      My pleasure Terri! And I know what you mean about the pantsung of the early chapters. I can generally wing the early parts well, but I do sketch out the ideas first.

  • Your questions for characters are great. I start with the visualization what they physically look like, what they wear, the era in which my character lives in and what part he or she will play in the story. It can’t be a cliche’ that our characters speak to us because they certainly do to me. That’s when they come alive. What you say, “a story is something happening to someone” can sometimes be easy to forget when we just want to write what happens in the story.

    • Fae Rowen

      Ah, Lori, I feel like you were talking to me with your last line. I’m “revision city” because I just want to write what happens in the story. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Aimie K. Runyan

      It’s an easy pitfall. I try to become so close to my characters that I can’t divorce them from the events of the story.

  • My latest character was inspired by an object in a museum. I saw a poignant exhibit containing a pair of baby shoes from the Titanic. I wanted to know who wore them and the story followed me around for a few years before I knew. I researched the Titanic disaster and the lives of the Irish immigrants seeking a new life in America in 1912.

    The story came first, then the character, and then I folded a real boy seamlessly into an historic content.

    • Fae Rowen

      It’s so amazing how historical fiction writers can do what you do, Veronica. I don’t think I could ever write a story where fact and fiction collide repeatedly. Kudos to you.

    • Aimie K. Runyan

      That is absolutely brilliant. I may borrow that example when I teach!

  • I’m more of a pantser. For the protagonist of my novel, RED FLAGS, I heard her voice first. She was speaking English in a manner characteristic of America’s lower classes, except with a Russian accent. She had plenty to say, and she wasn’t afraid to say itr. As time went on, I found out where she came from and how she acquired this manner of speech. I also found out there was a time in her life when she *was* afraid to speak her mind. Putting all these pieces together= plotting. But the pieces themselves= pantsing.

  • Fae Rowen

    As I was reading, I thought, “These aren’t just tips for a writer of historical fiction, they’re things every writer must know about their characters.” Then you hit me with, “I’m a voracious plotter, so this organic development is how I regain the thrill of discovery…” Bam. It’s nice to hear that plotters need that surprise unfolding of the story. Especially when I’m looking at how this pantser can incorporate some plotting into a new book. Thanks, Aimie!

  • It kind of flows out and I try to get it on paper while hoping it make sense…then I ask a friend to look at it.

  • Aimie, I’ve been slowly coming closer to the plotting side of the fence, just because it makes the writing so much easier! That being said, I don’t know where the stories come from exactly – usually they are a character that pops into my head, doing some particular thing. I have to figure out the why, and the how they’re going to get what they really want out of life. Like Laura, I don’t know very many of those answers when I start.

    One thing I do know: I freaking love OneNote! And this post is magnificent. It’s so nice to meet a fellow lover of that fine software. Did you see the post I did on OneNote here at WITS?

    http://writersinthestormblog.com/2013/08/10-onenote-features-that-rock/

    Love. It.

    • Aimie K. Runyan

      Given my crazy, unordered, chaotic life, I love the organization that plotting gives me. I know it’s not for everyone, but I want every second of my writing time to count! And yes, OneNote is my dearest writing companion. I luuuurve it. Will check out your post!

  • I love your practice of writing letters from Katya to important people in her life. I’m having trouble getting a handle on the protagonist I’m trying to develop now. Maybe having her write letters will be the spark I need to get in her head. Thanks!

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