Characters are more than just the sum of their actions. In the previous weeks, I discussed character archetypes and negative/positive personality traits, but all of these really just boil down to actions. So what more do you need to create a living, breathing, well-rounded character?
To give your characters the breath of life, you need to give them a past full of good and bad experiences, even though their full back story will never be revealed to the reader. Susie May Warren does a fantastic job of explaining how she does this in her book The Story Equation (SEQ), and I highly recommend getting it. For the meantime, here is the basic process derived from her SEQ.
Developing Character History
Your character is who they are when they walk on the page due to their histories. As an author, it would be impossible create a comprehensive life story for your character from birth to the time they walk on the page. Many of those details are not important.
The important details of our lives are those life-altering parts. Those moments in time that end up wounding you, burying a lie deep into your heart, and creating fears. Susie May Warren calls these Dark Moment Stories.
Dark Moment Stories
These dark moment stories aren’t as vague as “my parents divorced.” As bad as divorce is, moments within the divorce will be what really shaped the experience of your character. They are the stories that can be retold in detail to another character.
For example, take a story of a four-year-old boy whose father walked out on him. That memory is so painful, so poignant it becomes immortalized in the mind, twisting and growing roots down to the soul.
He can remember his Dad loading up the car, ignoring the son as he followed behind asking questions.
“Daddy, where are you going?”
“Can I go, Daddy?”
“Why is Mommy crying?”
“Can I help?”
Then it happened. Dad closed the door, separating the boy from him forever. The boy runs to the window and watches as the car putters off into the distance without one backward glance from the driver.
Imagine the wound developed by that. What fears would develop from that experience? The fear of abandonment. The fear of being unworthy. The fear of being out of control.
Lies will develop from this experience. I’ll never be good enough. I am unlovable. I can’t trust people. People I love will always end up leaving.
These lies and fears developed from the wound determine the actions of our characters and make them believable. The wounding story is what makes us sympathize the character and even connect with the character. You don’t have to have your father abandon you to understand the feeling of abandonment.
Bringing your characters to life means giving them experiences that readers can connect to and identify with. Give them experiences that define who they are at the beginning, but are overcome and redefined at the end.
Exercise Your Brain
This week, come up with your own dark moment story for a character (or use a real experience, we’ll never know!). Then tell us the possible lies and fears developed from that dark moment story. Come back and encourage one another and comment on the different stories.
Developing a well-rounded character takes time and purpose. I tend to be a panster (a writer who writes by the seat of their pants), but I have learned to develop my characters thoroughly before beginning to write.
Many authors do a character interview to help get to know their characters. I am slowly learning to do that using Susan May Warren’s SEQ technique (check out her book about it here), but I have also added my own twist to discovering the inner workings of my characters.
So what are those key components to take into consideration when developing a character?
In addition to SEQ, I like to explore my characters archetypes, positive personality traits, negative personality traits, and character backstory. Today I just want to focus on archetypes.
What are Archetypes?
Archetypes are just universal patterns of behavior that have positive and negative aspects.
Caroline Myss, “a pioneer in the field of energy medicine and consciousness”, suggests each person has a combination of about 12 archetypes that make up their psyche, each having varying degrees of presence in your life depending on your situation. I don’t get into all that “new age” feel stuff, but her collection of 72 Archetypes Cards are very useful in developing fictional characters.
Some examples of her archetypes are:
- Child – Orphan
- Child – Wounded
Developing Character Archetypes
For my characters, I choose between four and six archetypes that define who they are during my story. In fact, the list above is the archetypes I chose for my hero and heroine in my WIP.
Each archetype has positive and negative traits. Because the prostitute archetype might be a little concerning to you, I will share that one as my example.
“The Prostitute archetype engages lessons in the sale or negotiation of one’s integrity or spirit due to fears of physical survival or for financial gain. We prostitute ourselves when we sell our bodies or minds for money, or when we compromise our morals and ethics for financial gain… The core learning of the Prostitute is that self-esteem and self-respect make you impervious to selling out.”
– “Prostitute”, Caroline Myss Archetype Cards Booklet
Caroline Myss adds more, but as you can see from this description that “Prostitute” is not exactly what you first think. No, my heroine is NOT sexually immoral or active. What she does do is compromise her morals due to her fears of physical survival.
Have you ever compromised your morals due to self-preservation? It doesn’t have to be big and earth-shaking. It could be the one time you blamed your toddler sibling for eating all the cookies before dinner, even though you believe lying is wrong. See how the archetype can be used for everyday situations?
Picking out four to six archetype cards really helps to round out your characters and make them multi-dimensional. The general strengths and weaknesses are outlined for you to expand upon and fine-tune for the uses of your own story. Characters can even have overlapping archetypes, yet be completely their own person, just like the human race in real life.
Because archetypes are universal in nature, readers will connect to your characters because they see aspects of themselves within the story.
When developing your own characters, I highly recommend taking into consideration their archetypes. If you struggle with archetypes, I suggest picking up Caroline Myss’ Archetype Cards.
What other archetypes are you familiar with? Still confused? Leave a question below. I promise to get back to it as soon as I can.
Do you have any resources you use to help develop your own characters?
Have you struggled with flat characters? Difficult to plot stories? A lack of knowledge on how to correct these issues?
Oh my! I must admit I fall very solidly in this category. After the ACFW Conference, I realized just how much of a beginner I am. It feels like I have scrapped my story for the umpteenth time, but this time I have a solid plan.
One of the many benefits of attending the conference was connecting with Susan May Warren, a wonderful author and teacher. She has created this wonderful online community that is lesson based. It does require a membership, but the investment has been definitely worth the cost so far.
Due to the fact I do pay a membership, I have been hesitant to share what I have learned. I would not wish to break any copyright laws nor infringe on what Susie has spent so much time creating.
But lucky for you, one of the most helpful sets of lessons has recently been transcribed into a book that, even with access to the courses, I have added to my library of resources.
The Story Equation: How to Plot & Write a Brilliant Story From One Powerful Question by Susan May Warren
Susie’s wonderful method is based on developing your POV characters from the inside out. I will not steal her thunder, for the information is not mine to share, but I will say this has become my new favorite method to work my story.
It is organic and naturally encourages great depth. The plot, theme, and premise developed around my characters with surprising results. My story already feels stronger with the use of the Story Equation (SEQ).
I will not lie. As a beginner, I have spent many hours doing the courses, redoing them, and reading the book over and over again, working my characters as I did so. My characters are finally (mostly) solid and I am working on developing my major plot points.
The Kindle Edition of the book costs only $6.99. Let me tell you, this is an AMAZING price for an invaluable book. It is a quick and easy read, and easy to apply. If you can afford a monthly membership to her community, The Novel Academy, I would HIGHLY recommend that as well.
Below is the book blurb from Amazon. If you have any questions or experiences with the SEQ or Novel Academy, please comment below. I am so excited to share this resource with you!
“Discover The Story Equation!
One question can unlock your entire story! Are you struggling to build a riveting plot? Layered characters? How about fortify that saggy middle? Create that powerful ending?
You can build an entire book by asking one powerful question, and then plugging it into an “equation” that makes your plot and characters come to life. You’ll learn how to build the external and internal journey of your characters, create a theme, build story and scene tension, create the character change journey and even pitch and market your story. All with one amazing question.
- The amazing trick to creating unforgettable, compelling characters that epic movies use!
- How to create riveting tension to keep the story driving from chapter to chapter
- The easy solution to plotting the middle of your novel
- The one element every story needs to keep a reader up all night
- How to craft an ending that makes your reader say to their friends, “Oh, you have to read this book!”
Using the powerful technique that has created over fifty RITA, Christy and Carol award-winning, best-selling novels, Susan May Warren will show novelists how to utilize The Story Equation to create the best story they’ve ever written.”
– Blurb from Amazon