One of the ways to make sure your characters don’t suck—both in quality and execution—is to know them better than you know yourself.
If I remember correctly I have a sixty something point character profile. You know, like a background dossier: Age, Place of Birth, Identifying Marks, Biases/Prejudices, Fears, Goals… etc.
Truth is, I don’t use my character profiles as much as I should. For me (and I suspect most writers) my writing brain is always on—right next to my eating brain. I’m constantly finding inspiration and enriching my characters in my head. I fall back on a character dossier in my brain, rather than my digital one.
Eventually, I transfer these thoughts to paper, but usually they land in the margins of some random page on the project. Don’t do that. Be more organized.
Fleshing out a sixty something point character profile takes time—a lot of time—well to do it properly. Anybody can fill in 60 questions in a couple of minutes, but to do it in a meaningful way that includes information relevant enough to carry a character through an entire comic series, screenplay, or novel… that takes time kid.
Ok, so here’s the point of this article.
If you have a character you don’t know 100% OR just want to get more intimate with a character you do. Here’s a really great technique which is actually FUN—no seriously.
Take your character and write a short scene with him, completely unrelated to your current story.
Not only should it be unrelated and here’s the fun part, but it can be completely out of genre, out of time, in a different world or story universe–and feel free to infringe on someone else’s IP (your favorite comic, movie, book, cartoon).
For example, in my samurai story, I could have taken my samurai protagonist Kazuo and wrote a scene with him walking into the coffee shop in the town where I live. Or Kazuo trying to get a seat on a crowded NYC train during rush hour, or Kazuo being beamed aboard the Enterprise in the Star Trek universe.
Granted this takes some time, that’s why I said “short”. Truth is once you start, you’re going to find the exercise so entertaining, you’ll have to restrain yourself from writing too much. Anywhere from 1-5 pages should give you plenty of insight.
Don’t stress over your form, format, word choices. Let yourself go creatively. This is just for you. It’s “more constructed” notes, nothing more.
And for God’s sake don’t forget the most important part.
Read through it after you’re done.
Analyze it. Dig deep to see the real personality and traits of your character. If your character collapses in laughter during your scene, maybe he’s a happy-go-lucky guy… or maybe he’s actually psychotic. That’s what you use these scenes to figure out.
You’re going to learn a lot about your characters doing this.
It’s a cheat to getting that character profile filled out. Rather than simply sitting at your desk brainstorming who your character is, you’re putting him in situations and seeing who your character is.
A powerful side benefit of writing these little scenes, is that they not only give you insight into your character but they give you insight into writing itself as well.
One of the things you’ll quickly notice is that you’ll learn more about your character if you inject conflict, tension and jeopardy into your scene. If Kazuo the samurai gets in line, orders his coffee and leaves… I can learn about his manners to others, how he physically carries himself, how he reacts to his environment and what thoughts occupy his mind under mundane circumstances—all good stuff.
But what if that snot nose barista winds up getting Kazuo’s order wrong and tells him to “bugger off”, or what if he dumps the coffee all over him, or what if the coffee shop gets robbed while Kazuo is sipping his latte? Now we get to see Kazuo under pressure, potentially with stakes involved… People show their true colors under pressure.
A little direction and tweaking when writing and you can tap into any mechanical device, element of story, or writing technique. A couple scenes like this and you’ll know your character so well, writing him will be second nature. And as I’ve said before, story is all about characters and theme.
Try it and let me know how it works out for you. ▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.
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