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Flesh on Bones—
Creating Characters With Character

2006 Anna Furtado


Anna Furtado

A good character is more than the sum of her eye and hair color. She is more than her personality type. She's evolved into this tender or abrasive, naive or arrogant person because of her personal and family history. So how do you put flesh on the skeleton of a character in your story?

Some people use those "characteristics forms" that start with eye and hair color, then attempt to delve a little deeper by asking specific questions related to the character's inner feelings and desires. Those questions usually beg a short answer. What they're after is a synopsis of the work that the author should have already done to discover everything she can about the character. Without the legwork, the summary answers will only put flabby, drooping flesh on those bones and the character may still walk through the story without much dimension.

Those "characteristics forms" are very useful to keep tract of physical attributes, to be sure. They are a handy quick reference for which character has red hair or blue eyes, but to really flesh out a character, try the following creative processes to dig much deeper before writing your story.

Family Trees
Who are your character's "people"? Go back several generations and learn about the family—even if these family members will never be mentioned in the story. (However, there is a possibility that after going through this process, you find that referencing a great-grandfather's deeds may move the story along or help to understand the character better.)

The following exercise is best done with sticky notes (Post-Its) on a large surface. Use a wall or a cleared tabletop. On one sticky note, write your main character's full name. Write each of her parent's names on separate sheets and stick those above the main character. Add siblings alongside the main character, giving them each their own separate sticky note. (You can arrange them in birth order.) Do the siblings have children? Add them, too. Keep going. Add grandparents, great-grandparents, and all their children, working your way up the tree. Write "born" (and "died," if applicable) under each name. Your tree will start to grow and may look unruly, but keep at it. The sticky notes allow you to move people around to make room for more ancestors. Another sibling may pop into your mind, and you can go back and add him or her to the tree. Remove someone who no longer seems to fit into the family history. Go back generation after generation until you feel you have enough information.

Next spend some time thinking about each ancestor. Start with the family members that are most distant from your character. Ask who was this man or woman? On a separate sticky note, write short phrases about the person's occupation, personality, etc. and attach the note next to his or her name. Was the character's great-grandfather a conservative farmer who made his children work the farm from an early age, never allowing them to be children? Was he a city boy, a slacker and an unfaithful drunkard of a husband? Did an ancestor work in a factory where she painted luminescent dials on watches, dying a mysterious death before it was understood that the radium in the paint caused serious health problems? Was your main character's great-great-grandfather an outlaw in the old west or was he the sheriff? Maybe he was a preacher. Write everything you can think of about each person and stick the note adjacent to the person's name. If it will help to go back further into the ancestry of this person, do so, continuing to develop each person's personality in little snippets of phrases. Did a great-great-grandmother die at an early age and leave three small children? Perhaps her husband married again to have a mother for those children. But what kind of person was his new wife? Loving? Aloof? Did she treat the children as mere servants?

Once you've written these little snapshots, travel up and down the family tree and think about how the information about a person might affect the next generation. What difficulties might the outlaw great-great-grandfather have inflicted on his family and what implications did that have on the family down the tree? If children were subjected to a stepmother who didn't treat them well, how did that affect their own relationships to their children and their mates? Use more sticky notes to jot down thoughts and ideas about these consequences. Did everyone in the family get along? Note who are the black sheep and why they were relegated to that role. Note friction among the relatives and the reasons for the rifts. Also jot down who was especially sweet and loving, or generous, or who gave the ultimate sacrifice during a war.

By the time you've moved back down the tree to your character again, she'll be carrying around a lot of baggage—some of it good, some not so good. All of it will put flesh on bones and make your character the person she truly is. When you've learned all you think you can about that character, move on to the next one, filling in another family history.

Of course, in addition to family, there will be people and events in your character's life that will affect her from outside her family. These are addressed in Character Relationships below.

Character Relationships
Before starting a story, try drawing a diagram of the relationships among all the important characters. This can consist of no more than names spread all over a piece of paper. Use solid and dotted lines to indicate major and minor relationships connecting the characters. Include both major and minor characters, but don't include walk-ons, those characters that don't really move the story along, but are more like props (the bus driver or the mail person). The relationship diagram creates a visual map. From the information that was gleaned during the family tree process and the relationship map, it is now possible to get the characters to tell you their secrets.

Telling Secrets
We all have aspirations and fears that we only talk about with those closest to us. We choose people that are supportive of us and with whom we share a deep trust. You have that relationship with your characters, both the heroines and the villains. Using the relationship diagram, go through each of the important characters and allow them tell you their fears and aspirations in the first person. Imagine sitting in a nice restaurant, a tearoom, or a bar. Allow the character to ramble—on paper, of course—about what is most important to her or him. You'll find that the character reveals a great deal. Don't be surprised if there isn't a little gossip about other characters along the way. That, too, can be very informative. If you start with the main character, she will tell you who is important to her in the story. Parallel this with what another character may say about the same person or what the person says about herself in her interview.

In addition to the "rambling talk with a friend" approach, another effective method of getting information from characters is to get the characters to talk about events just prior to the beginning of story. Are your characters going on a journey together as the story opens? Ask them how they came to the decision to make the journey in the first place. You may find that each has a very different perspective on that decision and on the journey itself. Write the conversation out. It can help to understand both the characters and the story much better.

Character Environment
Although not directly related to fleshing out your characters, this next process can be helpful. Characters need to move around in specific spaces. Along with family trees, character relationship maps, and allowing characters to tell you their secrets, it is sometimes helpful to scribble out the stage settings for important scenes. If the location is real, get maps and pictures. If it's local, go there and create your own maps and take photos, getting a feel for the spot. If it's not local, maps and pictures obtained from travel magazines or the Internet may be the next best thing. In that case, you may have to do a little reading to get a real flavor of the countryside or the city. Imagine your characters, with everything you already know about them, walking in and interacting with that milieu.

If the "stage" is a fictional place, make your own maps and diagrams. You don't need to be an artist. A box for a single-story house, a larger box for a commercial building, two parallel lines for a road—make them squiggled for a river—a shaded box across the wavy lines can represent a bridge, scribble a chaotic circular doodle and you've got a tree. You get the idea. How about the plans for a house? A building diagram can prevent your character from running into the garage from the bedroom. Rooms are just a bunch of boxes joined together. Don't worry about scale or architectural correctness. The purpose of the diagram is just to remind you what is to the north, south, east, and west of the bedroom or the kitchen. Put a "D" in the wall for a door location and a "W" where there's a window. By doing this, you could save your character from staring at a blank wall when she's supposed to be looking out a window! Boxes and circles can also serve as furniture if that level of detail will be helpful. You may only need this for key rooms. (An added benefit of doing this is that it can help you write your descriptions when you actually begin the story.)

Once you've finished, put the diagram in front of you and ask your main character about the setting. Write down her thoughts. Does she like this park? Why does she go there? If it was once one of her favorite spots, why doesn't she like it now? Did she buy this house, or did a childless aunt leave it to her? (Check your family tree and imagine the possibilities.) Try another character in the same setting and see what she reveals about it and her.

To work out family trees, diagram character relationships, write out conversations with characters allowing them to tell you their secret longings and uncertainties, map out stage settings, and get into conversations with characters about those settings takes time and effort. However, in the process, you'll come to know your characters so well that the story itself will flow much easier. Knowing more than hair color, eye color, and that quirky mannerism that your character often displays will reward you. You'll know why she has that tick, which is far more important. You'll also know how your character thinks of herself and others in the story and what she wants most out of life. You'll know what she is most concerned about and what she finds most threatening. Investing in your characters to put flesh on bones is well worth it, so give it a try. You will not be disappointed.
2006 Anna Furtado — Author of The Heart's Desire
Book One of The Briarcrest Chronicles

Finalist—Golden Crown Literary Society "Goldie" Awards 2005
Distributed by: Starcrossed Productions
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