How do you build a character?

I happen to think that building realistic characters is one of the hardest things that we do as writers.  People are so complicated.  They never act the way you think that they will but they always have a good reason why they do the things they do.

In the last book I was writing, my main character sprung fully formed from my head, like Athena.  I knew what her name was, what she looked like, and what she sounded like.  I’ll tell you what, that book had voice.  That was an enormous gift from the muse.  Now that I’m moving on to my next manuscript, I’m finding that when a character doesn’t just wander into your writing, it’s a real grind to build them yourself.

So, how do you go about building a character?  My process involves a lot of thinking before I write.  I brainstorm everything from socio-economic status to family dynamics to hobbies and motivations.  I imagine the person I’ve created–say, a sweet, sensitive art student– in a scene that I want in my book–say, slaying a dragon.  I ask myself, is this how my character would react in this situation?  Could I create a character arc that would make this a natural outcome?  If the answer is no, I tinker with the character.

Once the character is pretty solid in my head, I pick a name.  Oh. My. God.  I’m a nut about naming characters.  I form lists.  I have a baby name book…but that’s never enough names so I use the internet sites, too.  In my own defense, it really does give your character a little extra something when you pick the right name.  If I say, “Her name was Rosa Bellini,” do you get some sort of automatic mental image, even without a description?

And then, finally, I fine-tune as I write.  I find she needs to have a skill, I add it in with a short answer to how she got this skill.  Sometimes a characteristic comes out that I hadn’t planned.  When that happens I go with it, because it’s probably much more organic than anything I could have designed.

I’ve heard wonderful advice for how to make a character rounder and I’ve used several techniques.  One great idea that my beta reader gave me was having a written conversation with your character.  If you’re stuck at a point in your book, ask your character what she thinks she should do and let her answer you.  Write the conversation out on paper.  Sometimes it’s surprising the things you come up with when you come at it from that angle.  Another fabulous little exercise I got from agent Mary Kole’s blog is called 100 declarative sentences.  You write 100 declarative sentences about a character that you think is flat or undefined.  You’ll be so over the exercise by number 75 but your character will fill out.  It helps.  Trust me.

So, how do you build a character?  Do you use writing exercises?  Wait for divine inspiration?  Make complicated family histories?  How you figure out what makes your characters tick?

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