Building Character(s)

Around every New Year’s Day, The Washington Post publishes “The List” of what is in and what is out (Hyperbole is out, Pragmatism is in).  There is also a common planing tool called a SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. You create a matrix of four quadrants and list aspects that fall under each category. I woke up the other morning with a thought rattling around in my head like chestnut in a tin can. My idea was to use some compare-and-contrast techniques to better develop a deeper understanding or provide some additional depth in the characters of my stories. I came up with three basic sections:

1. Loves/Likes vs Hates/Dislikes
2. Strengths vs Weaknesses
3. Wants vs Needs

I will bare my own soul to illustrate what I am talking about:

loves/likes • hates/dislikes

I love my family • I hate my neighbor

I love our cat • I hate cat vomit

I love to eat • I hate to exercise

I like to walk • I hate to run

I love humor • I hate bigotry

I love writing • I hate marketing

Strengths • Weaknesses

I’m a creative • I’m a procrastinator

I start out strong • The second half often eludes me

I’m compassionate • I’m not good with confrontation

I’m open minded • I can hold a grudge

I like doing anything creative • I like doing anything creative

Wants • Needs

I want to retire • I have to work

I want seclusion • I need access

I want quick results • I need more patience

I want stuff I don’t need • I need stuff I don’t want

I want sleep • I need sleep

I want to sell books • I need to write books

In about 150 words you have a sense of where I come from and what makes me tick. Some of the points are a little tongue in cheek but I’m a tongue in cheek kinda guy (tongue in my own cheek, not someone else’s) but I think if you apply this idea to a main character, you can quickly create a fairly detailed sketch of him or her.  Going through the process will force you to focus on some of the more internal aspects of your protagonist rather than focusing on physical traits and relationships. The above example is only a brief stab, but the more you put into it the more you will get out of it. I am not promoting this as a tried and true technique, but I think it is an experiment worthy of exploration.

Question: What tricks of the trade do you use to develop your characters?


7 comments on “Building Character(s)

  1. Goodness gracious, I detect quite a bit of similarity between us… Except I think sleep is highly overrated. Sadly, I still need it, though!

  2. Love this Andy!

    Especially this one: “I like doing anything creative • I like doing anything creative.”

    I’m want to blog on this. I need to blog on this.

    • Having so many directions to turn in is a joy and a curse. I am reminded of a scene from a 1970s animated short by Harry Nilsson called “The Point.” The main character is a boy (and his dog) who are banned to the Pointless Forest and one of the characters he meets is the Pointed Man. He has arrows and hands pointing all over the place. When asked what he is doing in the Pointless Forest he replies, “A point in every direction is the same as no point at all.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nwBspnCkpI
      When I try to do everything I often end up getting nothing done…

  3. […] I want stuff I don’t need • I need stuff I don’t want (borrowed from Andy) […]

  4. hmmm–interesting…I’ll have to think about that.

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