Friday, June 10, 2011

Developing Characters

I've been asked lately how I develop my characters, and how I keep them consistent and give them each their own "voice".  I've answered briefly, but I thought it might be nice to go further in depth.  Bear in mind, I am no expert, and honestly, my characters sort of come naturally to me.  But I do like to think that each character I write has its own sense of self, its sense of individuality.

My two main characters in The Door to Canellin were actually fairly easy to write.  One of them is modeled after me, and one is modeled after my son.  My son and I have lived alone together for almost seventeen years. I know him very well, and I think I can reliably predict how he'll react in certain situations.  And I like to think I know myself very well, and while my reactions may not be entirely accurate, Ryan's reactions are how I want to react.

But what about my other characters?  Luther, Gideon, Elarie, Jiane, Diaticus, Pomander, Anton, and even all my ancillary characters like Joachim, Lysander, Lucas, and others?

Each character I write, I try to have a solid backstory for.  Every one of them, I have worked out at least a basic history and personality for.  Some of them are only in my head, of course... Lysander, for instance, is unlikely to ever be in another book I write, although similar characters might.  But there is no reason to have a written character bio.  But for others, the bio is fairly detailed.  Let me give you an example of a character bio.

Elarie is a thief. She is sixteen years old, but could pass for twelve.  She is less than five feet tall, and weighs less than a hundred pounds.  Her size has dictated a great deal of her personality.  
Elarie is a very good thief, nearly as good as she thinks she is.  She is agile and athletic, and extremely acrobatic.  She’s also an expert with locks, climbing gear, traps, and getting into places she shouldn’t be.
Elarie was born to poor but happy parents in Karsenon.  Unfortunately, both of her parents were killed in the night when Elarie was barely a toddler.  She was taken in by an orphanage run by the governer of Karsenon, who used the orphanage as a workhouse for his merchant business.  At the age of five, she was put to work in the work house, but thanks to her size and a certain flair for sneakiness, she was able to run away.  She fell in with a group of street urchins who were part of a gang that was loosely controlled by the leader of the so-called “thieves guild” of Karsenon.  The thieves guild was in name only.  There is some organization among the thieves, pickpockets, cutthroats and murderers in Karsenon, but it is by no means a true guild, and there is no one in charge over all.  But her association with the underbelly of Karsenon allowed her to learn from a great many masters of the thieving arts, and by the age of ten she was often hired for jobs that required someone small, agile, and intelligent.  Her reputation grew from there, and she is now well-known amongst the seedier elements of Karsenon as a master thief.
Elarie is brazen, brave, and arrogant.  She is absolutely certain that she is the best she is at what she does, and she is very nearly correct.  She lives fairly comfortably, despite technically being homeless.  She squats in various warrens and hideouts throughout the great city.  Over her short career, she has amassed a great deal of wealth for herself, and someday dreams of leaving the city and living a life of leisure.  Despite her seemingly callous ways, Elarie is truly a sensitive, introspective person, and an excellent judge of character.  While she doesn’t feel any remorse for her actions as a thief, she lives by a strict code.  She would never kill anyone except in defense of her own life.  She never steals everything a person has. She primarily robs from the rich, the decadent, and the undeserving, although affluent travelers are fair game as well.  A good deal of her money she spreads around among the urchins of Karsenon, a coin here and a meal there.  She manages to hide her kind heart fairly well, though.
Elarie is also a Catalyst, having the ability to use a Catalyst Stone to channel great amounts of magical energy into a magic user.  She does not know this.  After she helps defeat the Great Dragon, Elarie travels to the Collegium to return the Catalyst Stone to Diaticus and give him Wes’ papers, but she doesn’t immediately stay.  She instead travels around Canellin for a year, having adventures and building her wealth.  When she eventually returns to the Collegium, Diaticus convinces her it would be best to stay and learn to use her Catalyst abilities to aid him in restoring magecraft to greatness.

Notice the blacked out areas in Elarie's bio.  These are future elements, and contain spoilers about events in the book.  If you've already read it, feel free to highlight the blacked out areas, although you can probably figure out what they say.

But that's the basic bio.  It's not super-detailed, but it's enough.  It gives me a solid idea of who she is.  

Each of my important characters has an equally detailed bio. 

But how do I keep them straight when I'm writing?  How do I keep them reacting the way they should, and keep their dialog properly in their own voice?  In the beginning, I do it by referring to the bio, and my story outline.  Each character has a role in the book, and the outline keeps me on track as to what that role is.  But eventually, I get to know them.  I get to know how they talk, or think, or feel.

I guess what it boils down to is simply getting to know them.  Making them real to yourself.  If these people are real to you, then keeping them consistent shouldn't that difficult a chore.  And from a writer's perspective, that is a goal unto itself!  I want my readers to feel that my characters are real people, with a past and a future, and that they're getting a glimpse into their lives.  Do I succeed with that?  I don't know.  They're real to me, but they're mine.  I hope they're as real to you!


  1. Great blog post. I liked seing Elarie's bio. She was my favorite character in the Door to Canellin with Wes and Ryan close behind. Naturally, Gideon comes in behind them.

    You are very talented with your characters, if I do say so myself. They truly impressed me.

  2. Ryne, thanks for the compliments! I hope my posts on writing are entertaining. You never know what bit of information might spark something in someone's imagination!

  3. It was very interesting. I enjoy reading your posts.

    In fact, I wished I had read this one before I started my book. It would have helped me keep the characters completely in-character. I'm doing some touch ups to fix that now.

    Anyways, if you're looking for something else to blog about, I'd be interested in hearing about how you handle chapters.

    Different authors handle them differently. Many have different rules on scene breaks and word count. It's always interesting to hear. For me, at least.

  4. Check back Tuesday, Ryne, I'll make that my next blog topic!

  5. Awesome. I'm looking forward to it.

    I knew there was a reason you were one of my favorite authors. ;-)