Character Development- How much detail do you go into?

Since I started writing my own novel recently, I created a method for developing my characters. It came about over time as I plotted how the story would go.  Knowing about them and who they were helped me to expand my ideas beyond the basic outline, which had already been formed.

Initially, it was simple.  As each person came to mind, they received a data sheet with the basics- name, age, appearance, role, personality, etc.  Even the insignificant ones were included in this step, but certain ones got more.  The main character currently has pages written about her background and it expands whenever something new gets added.  Many details may never even make it into the story, but just needs to be known by me as they still effect her.

I have also done this for some of the side characters.  A chosen few others have gotten detailed histories with major events highlighted, including past hardships, triumphs, and family background.  You could consider these as mini-stories, for that is what they basically are.  Ones that only I will ever see because otherwise it would give away parts of the plot and that person’s motivations.  Things I definitely want to keep secret until they are revealed in the novel.  Yet without knowing all these facets of their lives, the story wouldn’t be nearly as deep and the character’s personalities wouldn’t be nearly as fleshed out.

Considering all this, it made me curious what others do.  How far do you go to understand the people you have created for your novels?  Is it something similar to my method or entirely different?  I am curious to hear your answers.


*I also want everyone to know that Angela Wallace, who posts the Adventures of Teagan series every week, will be unable to continue for awhile.  She has other obligations at the moment that have taken up her time, but she hopes to return soon with more Teagan tales to entertain us.  I have been fortunate to have her as a guest blogger and will look forward to her coming back.  You can still find her on her own blog over at Writerly Musings.

In the meantime, if anyone has a short story they would like to showcase here, send me an email and I will consider it for posting.

~ by Suzie on October 3, 2011.

21 Responses to “Character Development- How much detail do you go into?”

  1. I started out with this approach. I have a notebook where I jotted down key facts for each of my main characters. I also sketched out things like their zodiac signs and what sort of personality types that might make them. But as I began writing they started to take on personalities of their own and doing their own thing, so I gave up trying to create them as an artificial entity and now just jot down key facts as they come out in the stories for the sake of continuity. Hammer refuses to behave himself no matter what I do. I start to write and he takes over. All I can do is select how much detail I go into and how much I need to tone down the way I report it.

    Hmmm, I may have some underlying psychological problems 😉

  2. I can only endorse what Janet said. They take on a life of their own. If you force it, the result is artificial and unnatural. I let my characters tell me what they need to do. I have no notes on them at all. if they have a back story they will tell me, if they think it’s relevant!

    It sounds crazy, but if you have just a basic idea for your story and then let your characters take you where they want, you will get the best results.

  3. I can understand why you both handle your characters the way you do. In my case, though, a lot of the mysteries of the characters are based on their past. I allude to those things here and there as the story unfolds. If I didn’t know their past, I couldn’t do that. Also, this novel is set up to be a series so some pieces of the puzzle won’t even get revealed until later books. Yet the mysteries drive my character’s motivations and part of the plot.

    Having said that, I didn’t know a lot of their back stories until I began writing. Those things came to me as the plot began to fully develop. Also, there is still room for some changes if certain things don’t work quite right. Yet some of the best series I have read were ones where the author had solid back stories but didn’t reveal everything until the final book, only giving hints. It was mind blowing when the end came and all the pieces finally connected together.

    This method is common in Urban Fantasy, which is what I’m writing, but may not be appropriate for other genres. Karen Marie Moning’s Fever Series is an excellent example of what I’m talking about. I saw hundreds of reviews on each of her books where people speculated about who her characters really were and what their motivations may have been. My goal would be to produce some of that same type of ferver, though she certainly has more experience doing it than I.

  4. My co-author, David McKoy, has a gift that he can make up a character in his head…in a few minutes has a back story for them. Of course, I get some input on which direction the characters will take as the story progresses. This works for us. He writes by hand as ideas come to him. He tells me all the time that he can’t outline because things just keep pouring out of his brain so fast and furious. I have to agree that they do…good thing I have experience with Doctor’s handwriting and short hand notes. 🙂

    • I can’t outline either, Lynn. For the life of me, I’ve tried but most of it comes out as I go along. I just write out notes on certain scenes I want to have for sure.

      • Making notes works. I’m not the greatest at making an outline either…but had to do it for many a school assignment.

        My main job has been more of researcher and keeping notes on things he wants put in somewhere along the line. Then as we get things more gelled I fill in the gaps and make the words flow together. I think you’d agree that it seems to work overall.

  5. I agree with Mark. I think that only another writer will understand this. My character’s talk to each other. It is very distracting, and to anyone else, I may seem schizophrenic 🙂
    Without this process, my characters would never seem real to me. They take on their own personality in my mind, and I come to love them, as if they were my own children. If they can’t develop in my mind, in this manner, then my stories never develop,
    I’m always amazed by writers who are able to roll out a new story every couple of months. I’m much slower than that.
    As far as keeping up with physical characteristics, I keep notes. However, once they exist as their own person in my mind, I am unable to forget them.

    • “I’m always amazed by writers who are able to roll out a new story every couple of months. I’m much slower than that.”

      I had seven novels finished before I published the first one, and I’m releasing them gradually, but each one took me months and months to write. It my be that other authors are doing the same. IMO you would have to be beyond prolific and into the realms of dangerous writing addiction about to go into the clinic for rehab to repeatedly churn out a full length novel every two months. Either that or you don’t have a life 🙂

      I’ve heard some famous writers, like James Patterson – allegedly, I don’t want to get into any libel suits – also come up with plot ideas and have ghost writers who actually do the donkey work.

  6. I wake up at three in the morning with two of my characters arguing in my head. They’re worse than my children – at least with them I can stop their allowance.

  7. I think some of you are completely misunderstanding my character development method. I get my character’s back stories because I spend so much time visualizing them. How they think, how they act, it all comes to me. I see the types of scenes they want to happen. Who they want to be and where they want to go. It is them telling me this. I just pop on some music, get away from distractions, and let them show me. It is how I know so much about what will occur in the follow-on books. They develop in my mind further as the story progresses and I learn more about them along the way. If you all choose not to write down your character’s info, except what comes out in the pages of your novel, that is your decision. I just prefer to have it all in one neat bio about them.

    Also, I found having a list of the character names helps me keep track of them all. The goal being I don’t want too many people whose name starts with “A” or ones that wil rhyme in a way that stands out. You all impress me that you don’t need this to remember all the details, but for me I do.

    There is no right or wrong way to create a novel. I have read where many successful authors worked at the details of their characters ahead of time and their books were amazing. Others did like you all spoke of and didn’t feel the need to keep written profiles, yet they still produced a great story. To say one way will result in a lesser story is wrong. Each writer is different and has to do things the way that works for them.

    My first attempt at a novel last year was far less thought out and there was very little backstory and no outline. I did eventually create character lists and short data sheets so as to keep track of the growing cast. Yet the complete lack of organization didn’t work for me. I did finish the story at over 71,000 words, but the whole thing would need a huge overhaul to become a decent read. I only attempted to fully revise it once. At least it taught me a lot about what methods worked and didn’t work for me. In that sense it was good practice.

    • Susan, I do keep track of the character names on a separate sheet…just don’t do the character descriptions and such. I can always refer back to the previous book if need be. The closest we got to a character sheet was the Summary Profile used in the Prologue. That reminds me…did you get the update from Amazon past our revisions going through?

      Charity, you are too funny. You have to be somewhat organized…you wouldn’t be able to do your day job otherwise.

  8. If I were more organized, then I would probably be more successful. 🙂
    As it is, I’m lucky if both my shoes match when I go to work in the morning

    • You mean we are supposed to wear matching shoes? The military made me do that, but I thought they were just being restrictive to creativity.


  9. My method is similar, except more simplistic. I need to have a visual of the character sketched out to help me describe them. I can see them in my head, but seeing their picture on paper can do wonders when I first describe them. I keep a huge folder dedicated to back stories and profiles of each character. Often times, I sit down and have a heart-to-heart session with a character which will entail me to write every little thing about them on paper. There usually isn’t a sudden aha moment in the middle of my novel pertaining to character that way, but sometimes it happens with my main characters. I remember I even took like two weeks off to do research on a minor character that shows up in a couple of chapters to ensure that he’s just right.

    • Sheenah, when I made that book trailer for my WIP it helped a lot with visualization. Seeing the characters and the landscape of the setting in a video helped the story come to life even more for me. It is definitely nice to have a clear picture. I can understand why you do the sketches!

  10. I write down my character profiles too. Figuring out backstory is definitely important to understand current motivations and personality traits. I don’t find it restrictive at all, more like a foundation. People are complex. They have a tendency to do something under normal circumstances, but could act completely different in another. I think a character profile gives you a sense of the character “under normal circumstances.” Obviously, the point of a story is to introduce conflict, and the character’s actions may very well take a different turn. I also enjoy stories where characters undergo personal growth.

    When I do my profiles, I like to figure out what hobbies my characters have, likes and dislikes. It may not necessarily come up in the story, but it gives me an idea of a well-rounded person. I also started figuring out what they’re typical reactions are under various emotions: happiness, anger, embarrassment, etc. One of my friends goes so far as to write out scenes for each emotion to discover how the character reacts, but I just imagine it and take notes. Again, these are tendencies. I like to remember (from cop shows) that often times murderers are normal people pressured under just the right circumstances. No one knows how they will react until they’re in it.

  11. I discover my characters as I write them, but I then spend about ten years getting to truly know them, rereading and tweaking twice a year. I just wrote a forum post and added it to my Goodreads blog, on the importance of dialog in developing and conveying character identity and individuality. The current recommendation is books be 65-70% dialog. That’s a whole lot of character development in their ‘spoken words.’ I know the technique you’re using works well for many authors and they do finish books faster than I do, but I’m still going to remind all to read the dialog aloud to be sure it’s the character’s voice, not the author’s, which is ‘heard.’

  12. First … let me say I will miss the Teagan stories, but I understand.

    Now … re character creation … Like everything else about writing – ask 10 authors how they do something and you’ll likely get 10 more-or-less different answers. It’s all very individual and personal.

    I’m very much a “pantser” (as in writing by the seat of my …) in everything I do. That includes character development. Most of my characters come into my mind fairly fully fleshed.

    That’s especially true of Kat Morales and Tevis McLeod, the human and elven police detectives (respectively) that are the main protagonists in my Portals fantasy/detective books. From the very beginning I knew the basics: who they were, what they look like – what they sound like. I hear them speaking their dialog, I watch them …

    Writing for me is a matter of watching the scenes that play out in my head, then translating what I see into words on the computer screen.

    So my characters tend to grow organically. I know only as much about them as they’re willing to share with me at the time.

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