In episode 8, Jeni and Melissa talk to Angela Ackerman about character development.
You can listen to the audio podcast here: EPISODE 8 - Character Development
Welcome to the Indie Chicks show! I’m Melissa Koberlein, an author and professor of publishing and she’s Jeni Chappelle, a freelance novel editor.
Indie Chicks celebrates and supports independent women in publishing. We’re a place for writers at all stages of the publishing process. So, whether you’re on the traditional route to publication or self-publishing, you’ve come to the right place for advice.
On this episode:
We’re talking about character development.
End with an author tip of the week
This week we’re joined by Angela Ackerman. Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, (now an expanded second edition) and its many sequels. Her books are available in seven languages, are sourced by universities, recommended by agents and editors, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an innovative creativity portal packed with tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Here's the Q&A
What makes a memorable fictional character?
Someone with layers. A character who has real depth - a past full of ups and downs that rings true to readers, a person who has fears and worries and masks these as we all do, a person who struggles to navigate life just like the rest of us. They should be unique, their own person. Qualities, talents or interests that give them roundness, knowledge that comes from their experiences. These things will make them feel real to readers, like a real person. They should also have a line in the sand--morals or beliefs or values that steer their choices and actions. And they should also be wounded, damaged, imperfect. Whatever past hurt is still present in their life that they haven’t worked through causes them to doubt themselves in a very significant way. It left the character with a misbelief that holds them back; an untruth about themselves and the world that colors their worldview that hobbles them in some way. This misbelief is a big source of their struggles and what’s keeping them from succeeding in life, and finding that fulfillment and completeness we all seek as people.
Could you talk about your new character development tool?
Where to start! Well, the big thing we need to remember as writers is that characters should be just like real people, meaning they have some complexity. Readers want to read about someone who feel authentic, with similar struggles and worries and needs. So taking the time to get to know a character is really one of the most important elements of storytelling. The more we understand about a character the easier it will be to write their actions, choices, decisions, and behaviors in the story in a way that feels true to the character. The problem is that it takes time to get to know someone. We don’t just meet someone in real life and jump to the “I do and happily ever after.” So we need to dig for the details that will really matter to the story. Brainstorming deeper details can seem like a daunting task, especially when you start thinking about how all the past life experiences we have all had make us who we are. Now luckily Becca and I have spent the past 10 years or so brainstorming thesauruses that look at deep aspects of a character: emotions and behavior, emotional wounds, character motivation, personality, skills, secrets, and a lot more. So what we did was built a hyper-intelligent Character Builder that can draw information from all of these databases and prompt the writer as they plan a character. Basically the writer starts wherever they like, and at every step, the CB helps them brainstorm more detail. One decision leads to the next. They want to give their character a wound? We have a massive database of real-world wounds to choose from and the psychological responses for each. Or they can make their own. Once they pick one, we prompt them with different things tied to that choice: the possible fears they may have as a result of that wound. The lie they believe. The character flaws that they have adopted as part of their emotional shielding so they can keep from being hurt again. It’s as easy as scrolling through options and checking a box, because we’re doing all the heavy lifting through research. Basically any writer if any level can become a character building expert. The character builder looks at the whole character and what will happen to them in the story. Their unmet needs, what is making them feel unhappy and incomplete. Their behavior, their emotional sensitivities, their daily life, relationships, physical features, personality, motivation in the story, everything. It sounds like a lot, but people can choose how much or how little to plan. The best part of this tool is that it is smart enough to take key pieces of information that the writer chooses and see how it will all come together in a character arc. The tool will build a character arc blueprint that shows the character's path in the story - their path of growth and change or their path of failure, whatever the writer chooses. This blueprint is the single most valuable thing we can give writers because it gives them a roadmap to the character's inner story, which is the hardest thing to figure out.
What are some common mistakes you see in regards to character development? How can they be avoided? I would say the biggest mistake is to not get to know the character well enough. Brainstorming seems like a lot of work, but the better you know someone, the better you KNOW what they will logically do in every situation. You know their triggers, their desires, their needs, their fears. You can tempt them, derail them, challenge them, and always know how they will behave. That is pure gold because it shows readers they can trust you to give them a good experience. The character's behavior is how readers navigate the story, understanding what is important and what they should care about. Another problem I see is a struggle to show a character’s vulnerable side. This is a hard one, because our characters are damaged goods and they have a lot of shields raised because life has hurt them. But for readers to connect, they have to get glimpses of who the character is and how they feel with their shields lowered. So we have to figure out how to build moments into the story that make the characters feel vulnerable, because those are the most human moments, and readers connect to them.
What advice do you have for new writers in regards to character development?
I would say it’s the same for all writers--to not be in a rush to drop the character into the story and instead take the time to get to know them first. The more you know them, the easier it is to write their actions. Use whatever method works for you--character interviews, worksheets, or something like the character builder. And some writers pants, and that’s okay too--they get to know the character through a discovery draft. In that case, as epiphanies hit, write them down. In fact the Character Builder can be used for this as well, and you just fill-in information as you learn it. Then when the discovery draft is done, the blueprint will show you if you nailed the character arc or if you need to make adjustments. Either way, it makes the second draft a million times easier because you’ll have a solid set of characters at the end of the discovery draft.
Tip of the week: A great tool to get to know your characters better is called a voice journal. The idea came from James Scott Bell, and basically, you just write a short piece that’s all about getting into your character’s head so you can figure out who they are outside the story. And that will help you know how they will act and react inside your story.
On our next podcast, Melissa and Jeni are talking Amara Royce about writing strong heroines in historical romance. We will also have another Tip of the Week.
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Indie Chicks out.