Developing characters can be a daunting task. Sure, you may start out with a character type in mind; you might see him, know his mannerisms, hear him speak. But how do you develop a character that stays authentic with his actions, motivations, and rings true with a reader? As a writer, how do you keep from getting overwhelmed with all the facets writing a character can encompass?
Consider the Character Mask When Developing Characters.
I start with the first layer. The surface. The skin. The façade the character shows to the world. The character mask that hides what’s really inside and keeps the character safe…or so he thinks. Turns out, the surface of a character runs deep, and exploring the reasons he looks, moves, and sounds the way he does can reveal much about his inner workings.
When developing characters, the surface and façade of the character goes beyond the way he looks and acts, although those specifics are a part of the surface.
To go deeper, think of the surface from the character’s point of view. The façade is what he shows to the world, wants others in the story to think of him, how he wants to be perceived. And importantly, the façade is the key to what he is hiding deep inside and why. This gives the reader clues on what makes a character tick beneath the surface.
In Lori Devoti’s: Scrooge, a Character Study, she shows the character mask Dickens developed for Scrooge (and if you missed this blog, Lori gives wonderful insights on developing characters).
In the series The Dresden Files, Jim Butcher’s lead character comes up with smart-aleck comments and springs into action when he’s afraid. He also gets angry when he feels fear, and the anger is what he chooses to show. The more threatening the situation, the sharper his sarcasm becomes and the harder he attacks. We know he’s terrified because his internal narrative tells us this, but those around him see and hear a smart-mouthed wizard who fights back every time. Almost. Sometimes he does run, and those moments are not only surprising and funny, but because we know he’s frightened, seeing him take off is believable and for this character, rings true.
In the Dexter series by Jeff Lindsay it’s fun to read along and watch the lead character take extensive steps to mimic normal emotional behavior while the reader knows he’s a sociopath and has none of the reactions he depicts. The reader knows what is going on inside him, but the other characters in the book are completely fooled.
In the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series the lead character, Lisbeth Salander, is seen by others as a troubled, perhaps insane, socially inept young woman who is vicious and violent in her actions when provoked. Deep beneath is a frightened child who has been abused by not only the people in her life, but she’s been betrayed by a system meant to protect the vulnerable members of society. She’s brilliant and she hides it, so when she needs to use her special talents, no one expects it of her. She’s able to stay ahead of serious trouble and get out of horrific events using her gifts and the element of surprise.
So how do you develop the façade for your characters?
- Dig into your character and discover the façade he or she shows the world (versus who they truly are inside).
- How does ___________________________see the world?
- How does s/he see herself in relationship to the world?
- What internal defenses has s/he built in response to this?
- How does s/he want to be seen in the world?
- What does s/he let the world see?
- Does this work?
- How do others see these traits?
- What does the world see?
Figure out specific traits the character exhibits. From the character’s belief (internal fear) you can then develop how the character copes with the fear and what defense and mask he constructs. Next, list out what others see as a result of this defense mechanism and you will have traits stemming from the defense of the cha racter’s fear.
Character Belief: (internal fear)
Defense/Strength: (how character copes and masks this fear)
Traits Exhibited: (external manifestation–what others see as a result)
How do other characters see this character?
Another great way to explore the character and his surface is to “see” the character through other characters’ point of view in your story. Each character will bring a different perception.
Going back to our example in The Dresden Files, Morgan (a rival wizard) sees Harry Dresden as an impulsive, immature hot-head with too much power and not enough restraint. Harry is a threat that must be eliminated. Susan Rodriguez, a reporter turned girlfriend (and finally turned vampire) sees Harry (in the early novels) as a protective wizard who finally works up the nerve to tell her he loves her and brings her out of a destructive bloodlust. Karrin Murphy, a cop who works with Harry, first sees him as a secretive wizard keeping vital information from her for his own gains; a man she can’t trust. As the books go on the reader watches trust build between them until they become good friends.
Whether or not you write from a specific character’s POV, this is a wonderful exercise to bring clarity to motivations and actions that will ring true in the characters surrounding your lead or protagonist.
How ___________________________ views___________________________(lead character)
Starting with the surface of the character will give you insights into what is truly inside him and how other characters view him. The more of the surface you understand, the deeper you can go when developing characters.
Award-winning novelist Kathy Steffen teaches fiction writing and speaks at writing programs across the country. Additionally, Kathy is also published in short fiction and pens a monthly writing column, Between the Lines. She loves developing characters for her books. FIRST THERE IS A RIVER, JASPER MOUNTAIN and THEATER OF ILLUSION are available online and at bookstores everywhere.
Thanks for a useful tool in developing character layers. I took Lori’s class on characters at the U of Wisconsin Writers’ Institute last spring and it was one of my favorite classes.
You are welcome, Chris! I completely agree, Lori’s classes are AWESOME!:)
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