Friday, February 25, 2011

Brainstorming Character Development

Hi all! Please give a warm welcome to Shannon. Her blog, On Writing: Voyeuristic Explorers Unite, has a bit of everything from reviews to some insights on what to ponder when writing. I am particularly enjoying her posts about brainstorming her new novel.

Which is why I am so thrilled that she sent me this post...

Brainstorming Character Development

How well do we know our characters, really?

That’s the question I ask myself whenever I sit down to write or edit my work. There are many techniques you can use to find out the superficial details and basic opinions, but it’s a lot of work to really understand the characters better than they understand themselves. What do they want? I mean, really want? And more importantly, why?

The biggest trouble with diving down into the core of the character is that it’s easy to get sidetracked by our own schemas (structured clusters of pre-conceived ideas). Schemas can lead us to apply stereotypical responses to our characters and make basic assumptions that make them more stereotypical at a base level. I could design a focused and career driven woman, let’s call her Bridget, who wants to make it in a man’s world and shrugs off the trappings of femininity. She’s strong, calm, collected, late middle-aged, works as a CEO of a large corporation, loves to golf, is happily married, and has three children. She doesn’t mind getting dirty and prefers rough and tumble to anything else. In and of herself, she isn’t a stereotype although her dislike of all things feminine is a fairly common trope for characters working in a Man’s World.

But if I turn around and say ‘Oh, she resents reminders of her femininity because her parents always wanted a son and ignored her’ or ‘because her parents always wanted a son and so they pretended she was their son’, you’re taking the easy option. True, it happens, and it might be the right answer for this character, but can you be sure if you don’t brainstorm other possibilities?

What if she was a very feminine child but realised that trappings of femininity really reduced your chances of business success and just made a very prudent decision? What if she always gravitated toward so-called masculine hobbies, had more male friends, and therefore just happened to be more comfortable surrounded by masculine trappings? You could even have the whole ‘raised in a big family of brothers’ though that’s still a more common trope for tomboy women. Perhaps she’s actually very power-hungry and originally tried to coerce people as an ultra-feminine girl but found that no one took her seriously so she adapted her behavior? Or maybe her mother was just the same as her and it’s just a family tradition?

Some of you may be wondering if it even matters why she’s more masculine and whether you should mention it. The answer to the first part is that it never hurts to know the reasons behind why your character does what she does. The answer to the second part is: perhaps not. However, the reasons driving your character’s actions will manifest in subtle ways and even if it’s not overtly stated, you can change a lot about how a character behaves and talks just by changing the fundamental driving mechanisms behind key character traits.

So give it a go. Brainstorm. Question. Wonder just what might have made your character into the person they are today. Clues can be found at any point of their lifespan or even in the lifespans of the generations who came before them.

What do you have to lose?
Thank you again for you're insightful post, Shannon!
Before I go, I want to remind you that I have Friday spots open from June. Drop me a line if you want to take part. My e-mail address it (mishagericke(AT)gmail(DOT)com).
Also, remember to enter the competition for Treasures of Carmelidrium!
And finally, I have been interviewed for the first time! Click here if you want to read it.


  1. Great interview. I'm not good at doing this sort of thing and I really should be!

  2. Great interview, Misha. This post gave me lots of brainstorming tips and ideas.

  3. Lots of tidbits to think about, I shall try to bare them in mind. Now I'm off to check out your interview.

  4. Great post, Shannon. That's something I'm working on in my current edits: not over explaining but letting the reasons behind my MC's behavior come out in subtle ways.

    Thanks for the interview, Misha!
    Have a great weekend,

  5. An excellent guest post! Examining beyond a cliche at least reinvents it rather than propagating the same old tired stereotypes.

  6. Hi Misha *waves*

    Hi Shannon. Your post interests me - you've made some really important points. I think that if I understand enough about my characters I can represent them better in my characterisation even if I never refer directly to the facts of their history or personality. As you say, these things manifest in subtle ways when we portray a character.

    Great post. Thank you both.

  7. It does indeed require a lot of concentration to get into one's characters. Excellent guest post.

    I came over to meet you after reading your comment on L'Aussie's blog where she guested me, the last on her list, about my writing journey. Thanks for wishing me success on my memoir, and much success also to you! I hope you make your April rewrite deadline. Just keep at it, one day at a time!

    Ann @ Long Journey Home

  8. Great post! This interview provided great tips and tricks. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Hi Shannon! I like your idea of brainstorming. It gives writers a chance to identify and layer the character with more than an outer shell. Asking these sort of questions makes the character nuanced and far more complex. Not only does it make them more interesting, but more realistic as well.

    It was so nice to meet you and peek into your processes.

  10. Thank you everyone for your kind words. And thank you Ann Best for reminding me about my April Re-Write date. I took a week off editing because it was doing my head in but this reminded me how I've really got to jump back into it.

  11. Great post. A lot of good information. Thank you.

  12. Great interview, and amazing advice! Thank you :)

  13. Interesting points to ponder. Hmmm--I'm thinking that maybe for my MCs I should play pschoanalyst and put them on the couch to see what exactly does make them tick. Now you've got me considering a new approach to take for creating character studies.
    I like brainstorming.

    Tossing It Out

  14. It's true! We writers need to act like detectives, examining the suspects (characters) from every angle.

  15. I hope you got some great tips then, Ellie. :-)

    I'm glad, Rachna. :-)

    Thanks Jacqueline!

    I write like that too, Jen. I want the character to come out subtly. But for us to get it right, we need to know and understand our characters. :-)

    Great point, Schmidty.

    *Waves* Hi Tony, couldn't agree with you more. :-)

    Thank you very much Ann.

    Glad you liked it, Ciara.

    Thanks for stopping by, Maria. :-)

    I'm glad you enjoyed it, Michael and Regina. :-)

    It is a great idea, Lee. I am also thinking about brainstorming my characters. At least to give it a try.:-)

    So true, Samantha. If you only look at a character from one dimention, they tend to come over as flat. ;-)


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