So I’m teaching a creative writing class this semester, and one of my students, who is only twenty and already a talented writer, asked me two very astute questions about character development. I recorded them here as well as my answers.
Question #1: I have an idea for a character, but he’s based on someone I actually know. What should I do?
Answer: Two things. One, write a brief character sketch that focuses on the physical attributes of the character. I find it is easiest to get to know a character from the outside in, not the other way around. Feel free to make up some details about this person; just remember to change the name to protect the unsuspecting. Here is a sample character sketch that I wrote for my student:
Coach David Lash was a short, stocky black man in his mid-seventies. Crowned the first ever African-American North Carolina State Tennis Champion in 1962, he wore a burgundy track suit, a black fishermen’s cap and black horn-rimmed glasses every day of his life. His lower lip stuck out constantly, whether he was angry, which was rare, or happy, which was often. During our tennis practices, he used to walk (actually, he hobbled as if one leg were slightly shorter than the other) onto the court in the middle of a point to give instruction, sometimes tennis instruction but more often it was life instruction. When he did this, his wife, a woman with iron-gray hair and perfect dentures, would yell at him to stop fussing, but he would stick his lip out farther and grab my racket and show me, for the one-hundredth time, the correct form for a crosscourt backhand. As he repeated the proper backhand technique, racket back, shoulder turn, swing low to high, finish behind the ear, he would explain that if one refused to strive for perfection and grace on the tennis court, one would surely turn to drugs, meaningless sex, and petty crime. Up close, I could see Coach Lash’s mottled skin and dark bloodshot eyes. Up close, I could smell him: a mixture of Vasoline and stale coffee and some other scent I couldn’t place at the time, what with me being an upper-middle-class white teenager with my very own bedroom, car and ample allowance. But later, after my acne faded and my voice changed and the world kicked me in the gut a few too many times, I came to realize that Coach David Lash, whose grandparents were freed slaves from Kentucky, had the smell of experience on him, experience and lessons harshly but wisely learned.
Two, answer all the questions in a character questionnaire. This will allow you to get to know the character’s quirks, habits, tastes, and, most importantly, his motivations. Here’s a questionnaire that looks pretty good: http://www.writingclasses.com/InformationPages/index.php/PageID/106
Question #2: When writing a novel, should you load the opening chapter with the protagonist’s back story, or dole it out little by little throughout the narrative?
Answer: Dole it out little by little. Try to reveal character back story through bits of dialogue, or very brief flashbacks. Avoid long flashbacks and long monologues as these clog up the narrative, slow down the pace, and pull the reader out the story. But hey, don’t take my word for it: read what the late-great Elmore Leonard had to say about prologues and back story here: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html