On Getting to Know Your Characters


How well do you know your characters? Are they just there to advance your plot, or do they have a history, a meaning, a purpose? Getting to know your characters will help you to add depth and motivation to your characters. Writing a back story for your character will allow you to get to know some vital information about who they are, where there come from and thus why they do what they do.

Here are some exercises to help you get better acquainted with your characters:

Back-story:

Many people advise you to create a past for your character, but I suggest that you take it a step further and imagine that you are in an interview with them. Ask them where they came from, where were they born, what were there parents like, how did they do at school, etc. As you’re picturing the interview, think of how they are dressed, what they look like and how they act. By imagining their response you’ll gain information from both what they say and how they say it.

What’s in their…

Take an object such as a car, or a handbag, or a place such as their bedroom or office. What’s in it? If your character works in an office, then what does it look like? Is the room spotlessly tidy, organized chaos, or a just a mess? Are there old coffee cups lying around, or perhaps a bottle of gin hidden in the filing cabinet? What do they keep in their desk? Only work related items or perhaps a listening device to record conversations with clients? The tiniest detail can tell you volumes about their personality.

Résumé:

Design a CV or résumé for your character. What information would they put on it? Would they give references and contact numbers, or would they lie about their education and working experience? Is it handwritten, one page or ten pages? Do they make it look professional, or cover it with flamboyant borders and bright colors? Each option that your character chooses will reveal information to you much as a normal résumé will reveal information to a potential employer.

You don’t need to incorporate every aspect of your character’s back story into your plot. That much information would end up confusing and boring your reader. These exercises are designed to help you understand why your characters do what they do. Getting to know your characters is like getting to know a real person. Once you get to know bits of information about where they come from and how they got here, then you can begin to understand what drives them to do what they do and act the way they act. Understanding where your characters come from will increase your ability to explain to the reader what motivates and drives the characters, which in turn gives your readers a better ability to relate to your characters.

What’s in a Name?

Names are an important aspect of any character. They help us point out our characters as individuals, give them life and, if we so dream, make them memorable . We can use names to our advantage as they can convey ideas or meanings and, while there are never ‘bad’ names, there are poorly suited ones. The most common mistake in naming a character is choosing a name for the sake of it and not thinking about the consequences, meanings or associations.

Rhymes?
Having Ben, Ken, Jen and Len all in one story leaves the reader confused and bored. Make sure that there are variations in your choice of names, not just in sound but in syllables. There are thousands of names to choose from, so don’t settle for the easiest or most common.

Avoid clichés:
When it comes to writing horror, we are bound to come across an evil mastermind or two, and when we do, we hate to find them called ‘Doctor Doom’ or ‘The Evil One’ or even those delightful characters who are known by such painful titles as ‘The One Without a Name” or the “The One We Cannot Name”. Give your mad scientist or crazed biologist a believable name, something that makes them seem a little more real and thus a little more disconcerting for your reader.

This applies to our everyday, ‘normal’ characters as well. John Smith and Jane Doe…? Well, they speak for themselves. Put some effort into finding a decent name and surname. When creating a character, write a back story that mentions their parents and ask yourself what this character’s parents would have named them. Those who raise us play a part in shaping our personality. Think of Johnny Cash’s song ‘A Boy Named Sue’.

When it comes to monsters and creatures, creepies and crawlies, think outside the box. Instead of ‘the blob’, look up the translation in another language, it will mean the same thing but add a little air of mystery for those not in the know.

Spelling:
Changing the spelling of a name can work for or against you. If you change the spelling and manage to keep the right pronunciation, then this can add to your character’s unique identity. However, changing the spelling too much can leave the name open to mispronunciation which can affect the way your reader interprets it.

Connotations:
It is inevitable that great names in history come with certain connotations. Let’s take a prime example: Adolph Hitler. Already thoughts and ideas have come into your mind, most of them presumably negative. Be careful if you take inspiration from the names historical figures, both good and bad, as these will lead the reader to draw conclusions about your characters that have no place in your story. On the other hand, choosing a well-known name can enhance the image of your character, providing that he or she fits the general image.

Age appropriate:
A little research can go a long way towards authenticity. The popularity of names fluctuates year by year, and names that were common in the 1920’s were not as common in the 1980’s. If your character is 80 years old, do a quick search on the Internet and see what names were common back then. Little aspects such as these can add extra credibility and authenticity to you story.

Abbreviations:
Don’t be afraid to abbreviate your character’s name, or use their surname as their predominant form of reference. We all give nicknames, drop or add part of a name or (casually or formally) drop the first name completely in everyday life, so there’s no reason why your characters shouldn’t either. A nickname says a lot about the character who has it, and the one who gives it.

Finding Names:
So what happens when you can’t find a name that seems right for your character? Don’t settle for just anything, do some looking around: names are everywhere. So where are some good places to find them?
– Fictional name generators (many are available if you do a quick Internet search)
– Baby name websites (these are useful and some offer statistics about popularity, origins and meaning)
– Watch movie credits
– Open a phone book.
– Take inspiration from history (Salem Witch Trials? Titanic?)

Never underestimate the power of a name. We can’t help but associate meanings and ideas to certain names and while we are not always conscious of this, we do it nonetheless. Giving a little extra thought when it comes to naming your characters means that you give your writing that little extra edge.

Phobias

 

Looking for a little extra something to add to your character or plot? Phobias are a great character trait for increasing internal and external conflict. A common example is arachnophobia, an intense fear of spiders. But I’m not talking about fear as in ‘ew that’s a gross spider someone grab a shoe and squish it’ type of fear. By phobia I mean a debilitating terror, an inability to function or react as your palms sweat and you struggle to breathe when confronted with the tiniest arachnid.

Another common phobia is acrophobia, the fear of heights. Think of Hitchcock’s film “Vertigo” in which Scottie Ferguson, a former police detective, is so affected by acrophobia that he quits his job and struggles to react appropriately when confronted with heights. Would this character or film have been as interesting if he wasn’t affected by this phobia? No, it would just have been another mystery film.

Phobias are interesting in that they can stem from a specific incident, or have no real rhyme or reason behind them. In the start of “Vertigo”, Scottie nearly falls off a building while pursuing a suspect and watches a man fall to his death in an attempt to rescue Scottie. This sparks his extreme fear of heights. In contrast, Howard Hughes in “The Aviator” has no specific event that initiates his fear of dirt and germs. This fear stems from his obsessive compulsive personality disorder, yet it is just as incapacitating as Scotties.

In short, phobias are a great way to spark off conflict, create primary and subplots and add another dimension to a story that may otherwise lack complexity.

Below is a list of thirty phobias that I find stand out from the rest:

Name… Fear of…
Agyiophobia crossing busy streets
Aichmophobia sharp or pointed objects
Amaxophobia riding in a car
Arachibutyrophobia peanut butter sticking to roof of mouth
Ballistophobia missiles
Belonephobia pins and needles
Bibliophobia books
Cathisophobia sitting
Cenophobia empty spaces
Chrematophobia money
Climacophobia falling down stairs
Cyberphobia computers
Eosophobia dawn
Erythrophobia red lights
Geniophobia chins
Hierophobia sacred things
Iatrophobia going to the doctor
Iconophobia of images
Linonophobia string
Lygophobia darkness
Mysophobia contamination or dirt
Onomatophobia hearing a certain word
Ophthalmophobia being stared at
Optophobia opening your eyes
Paedophobia Children or dolls
Pteronophobia being tickled by feathers
Sciaphobia shadows
Spectrophobia looking in a mirror
Symmetrophobia symmetry
Toxicophobia poisoning

Imagine what it would like to fear such a simple thing as stairs. Ever noticed how many stairs there are in the world? What happens if your character hears their child scream in terror on the third floor of the house, but they can’t bring themselves to climb the stairs? Or what about Hierophobia? Would could cause such a fear and how would it affect your character?

With these sorts of phobias you can let your imagination run wild and lead you to create some amazing, bizarre and terrifying plots.