Seven steps to creating characters that write themselves:
1. Label the Desire Essences of each of your main characters: The first key to deepening your work comes from finding the major motivators in the lives of your characters. What drives their actions and reactions? Do their desires stem from specific experiences? We all have deep-seeded aspirations that spur our choices, thoughts, acts, and responses. These stimuli are what differentiate us from one another and we will refer to them as “Desire Essences.” Some examples of Desire Essences are the desire to: be intellectually brilliant; be socially famous; hide from the world; belong to a group; be loved; party wildly; or end your suffering and die. Desire is at the core of every being. We naturally aspire to be, do, or possess something that is just beyond our reach. Desire can be simple or deeply passionate. Write down the ten most important desire essences of each of your main characters!
2. Label the Fear Essences of each of your main characters: What lies at the root of each of your characters’ darker sides? For every desire they possess, they should also exhibit the antithetical fear of failing at attaining that desire. These fears will battle their aspirations for control over their behavior. Understand and then label the darker sides of your characters. This step is imperative to creating the dimensional and imperfect characters you are after. Some examples of Fear Essences are the fear of being: stupid; ordinary; socially exposed; rejected by a group; loathed; boring; or having to face life or love. Write down the ten most important fear essences of each of your main characters.
3. Get specific with your backstory: Human behavior is made up of a string of moments and the reactions to those moments. A character’s present is carved out by her past. Current behavior is a battle between fear and desire, and your character’s immediate choices are based on very specific (yet unconscious) experiences from her past – experiences that leave imprints much like DNA. Though your characters should be unconscious of these past experiences that have influenced them, you the writer must create these histories in your preparation of their backstory and be fully aware of them before you move into your manuscript or screenplay. Here is an example of what won’t benefit you versus what will when you get specific with backstory.
Bad example of getting specific: Rachel is a pretty girl who thinks she is unattractive. She prefers to live in her books as opposed to being with friends or family. Her father abused her sexually throughout her youth. She hates attention.
Better example of getting specific: On her graduation day, at a party her mother is throwing for her, Rachel’s father shows up drunk and congratulates her, hugging her too closely, grabbing her rear end with both hands, and calling her pretty in front of a room full of her friends and family. She runs away humiliated and hides in her room, escaping into one of her fantasy stories. That night she moves out to stay with a friend and doesn’t tell anyone where she is going. Two weeks later she finds out through another friend that her father died in a car accident. He was drunk.
In the better example of getting specific, the reader can have a visceral reaction to your words and you as the writer can more easily understand what motivates your characters while you are writing them. This is caused by the detail. The generality of the bad example is logical, but lifeless. In the better example, it is easy to determine what the essences of our leading lady might be: desire to hide, maybe even desire to die, desire to live in her books, desire to be valued for her intellect instead of her body, fear of loneliness, fear of her appearance, fear of the opposite sex, fear of losing a loved one, fear of being abandoned, fear of people who drink.
4. Describe their current behavior: Take the essences and the specific examples you have created and determine what kind of behavior your character might exhibit as a result of their past.
Simple examples: our leading lady, a woman who: hides her body; avoids friends from her past; mistrusts anyone who comments favorably on her appearance; desires to control her education and her intellect; avoids alcohol.
5. Raise the stakes: Emotions are extreme. Play in the realm of this extreme when dealing with the fears and ambitions of your characters. These essences are all encompassing; meaning that we spend our lifetimes with them. Don’t cheat your characters by being afraid to raise the stakes as high as you can. Needing to find a precious stone to sell to an art dealer by midnight to raise the financing to save your character’s mother’s house before the bank takes it away from her tomorrow is exciting! Look back at your own life and think of how seriously you take your essences. When your essences are threatened, will you fight to extremes to defend them? Just as when they are fulfilled, do you enjoy some of your greatest moments in life? Play in the realm of the extreme. Raise the stakes. Your essences are life and death to you – let them be that way to your characters.
6. Don’t meddle: Of course, you might be saying to yourself, “How do I not meddle? I’m the writer!” But a truthful story is going to grow from your willingness to let your characters make their own decisions, based on how you have defined them (which, after these exercises, will be in great depth). As their “parent”, you have to let your children go; this is the point at which your story truly begins. DO NOT MEDDLE IN THEIR LIVES. Continually remind yourself that it’s not about you. You just serve the story. Let your characters make their own decisions. If you ever find yourself not knowing what decision they might make, question your homework and rework their essences, behaviors, and stakes until their choice becomes obvious.
7. Let your characters play: Once you have developed several characters by labeling their essences, getting specific, defining their behavior, and raising the stakes, you are ready to begin to let them interact. It’s like the first day at a new school, ripe with possibility. When properly developed, there is no way to predict how your characters will behave in any given situation, but they are so full of life and their own agendas that they are ready to interact with other characters who have been developed to the same level. If you have done the work to get to this place – this is where your characters will begin to write themselves.