I've recently updated the character worksheet I use for brainstorming because I found myself wanting to dig even deeper into my characters than I did when I first put my worksheet together.
I was very lucky to attend a workshop on Saturday presented by literary agent Tracey Adams of Adams Literary, supported by editors Emma Dryden, Lorin Oberweger, and Brenda Windberg. The workshop overall is a week-long event called Your Best Book. I would highly recommend these to anyone serious about developing their craft. It's been an incredible experience so far, and I feel beyond lucky to be able to attend.
Saturday's topic was Developing Character, and Tracey Adams began with the origins of the word. Language and so forth aside, it came back to this:
A stamping tool, distinctive mark, token, feature, or trait.
Isn't that perfect? It's something that we often forget when we're creating character, at least I do. A character isn't just a laundry-list of features, mannerisms, habits, likes, and dislikes. Sure, in a well-defined character, a rounded character, all of these exist, and they exist in minute detail--the finer the detail the better. But a character also needs to have a hook, something that defines them, both in personality and in appearance to keep them from being generic and forgettable. J.K. Rowling is a master of that. Think of all her characters. Everyone of them has a hook, some trait that makes them completely distinct and instantly recognizable both in the way they behave and in the way they look.
The workshop also brought up the point of a character. Every character has to have a point, but that's especially critical in a main character. Why are they in the story at all if they could be exchanged for any other character? When a character is integral, the story feeds and precipitates from their character arc. We may love the plot of a book, but we don't fall in love with plot the way we do with characters.
Emma Dryden put it this way: the point of the character is what they want. And the point of the book is what the main character wants, which may be different from what he or she needs. That's what makes a character drive the action.
Characters We Love
As part of the workshop exercises, Tracey had us list the characteristics of our favorite literary characters from the present as well as from our childhood. The characters and the books they came from varied, but oddly, the characteristics were always similar. We love characters who stood up for what was right, who had one or more positive traits like courage, sass, smarts, curiosity, independence, non-conformity, hope, and the ability to grow . . . We love characters that make things happen.
Emma Dryden asked us to consider why we were able to fall in love with our favorite characters. The answer to that was very telling. We fell in love because they were pushed into circumstances that left them with no choice but to show us how brave, or smart, or hopeful they were. We saw them in circumstances that tested them, pushed them to the wall, and would have broken a lesser character.
Positive versus Negative Characteristics
It's easy to create a character with a wound. That's important. But it's even more important to let us fall in love with that character by giving us a reason to love them, as Lorin Oberweger pointed out. No matter how fantastic their character arc is going to be, how wonderful that person will become by the end of the book, readers aren't going to read far enough to find out unless we first create a foundation for the characters novel-worthiness and use that as our starting point.
Characters, like humans, have filters that show them the world through the lens of their own experiences. As writers, we embrace the flaws, but readers need more. They don't want characters who are too perfect, but they don't want characters who are horrible all the time either. In antagonists as well as protagonists, there has to be something redeeming and understandable, something lovable.
As we're brainstorming our characters, it's important to put the characteristics into pro and con columns. For protagonists, Lorin reminded us, we need to convert as many negative straits into positive ones to give the reader something to connect to.