Thursday, March 17, 2011

Developing Characters, Part 3: Personality

"Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny." ~ Unknown 

It's a little difficult for me to approach the subject of character personalities.  I typed all of this up and the more I tried to figure out how to define character personalities, the harder it seemed.  So I will do my best to give my thoughts and if anyone has anything to add on how your characters' personalities develop, please feel free to share!

Every single person has a unique personality.  Yes, there are personality types.  Like when you take one of those questionnaire personality sheets and find out you're INTJ or whatever.  (I cannot remember what any of those letters stands for except the I for Introvert.  Introvert Nerd Tenacious Jolly?  *goes to Google*  Oh, here we go - Introverted Intuitive Thinking Judging.)   (*still likes nerd*  *IS a nerd*)

Anyway, there are of course basic personality types, but each person is still unique and so much can shape the way their personality develops.  There are various influences on their lives—people, where they live, what someone says/does to them, happy childhood, miserable childhood, etc.  I'm sure there a lot of other factors I didn't list.  We could go all over the place with talking about how personalities develop, but it all boils down to one thing: each character is different even if they have similar personality types.  Everyone has a different way of reacting.  This can create great conflict for your story, or really interesting character interaction. 

I've had a chance in the novel I'm currently writing to explore one specific point in three characters' lives.  These three characters came from different families, have very different personalities, and they all went through one event that was absolutely horrific.  One of these three characters had it worse than the other two, but when they came out of the awful event, all three of them had completely different ways of handling the situation. 

--Character 1 ran away, blocked out most of the memories of the event, and spent years building up a million emotional walls to keep everyone out.

--Character 2 became determined to help anyone that needed it and sought to bring as much growth and beauty into life as possible.

--Character 3 shut down emotionally and became very ruthless.

There are so many things you can tell about a character by the way they interact with others, by the way they talk, by the choices they make.  Your readers should be able to know by their personalities what is in character for them and what is not in character for them.  This, too, can add to the impact of your stories.  It can be an awesome thing if Character A does something that makes the readers gasp and go, "Wait, he wouldn't do that!  That's not like him at all!"

At least, it can be an awesome thing if you have a logical reason behind this out-of-characterness.  (Shh, characterness is a word.  *writes it into dictionary*)  Maybe someone Character A loves was kidnapped by pirates and he's desperate and he's in the middle of following instructions from the crazy pirate captain.  Maybe another character will recognize that what he's doing is not like him at all, and will investigate the matter and find out that there was a kidnapping.  Maybe that one bit of deliberate out-of-characterness will save the day.

It's not so awesome if there's no reason for your character to be acting weird and out of character.

And remember a cardinal rule of writing (which can be so hard to follow): have your characters do whenever possible, instead of narrating everything.  Words and conversation are great (I love characters having conversations) but you can show a lot through actions and implications.

When you sit down to write your characters, how do you find their personalities develop for you?  Do you start writing knowing who they are, or do you find out along the way?  Do you start writing thinking they'll have one personality and then come to find they're completely different than what you first imagined?


  1. Where are my helpful stick figures? ;)

    I love how "process" you are. I'm all "Um...*throws something at the page and sees what sticks*.

    (Clearly, I do not write for character...)

  2. I always used to plan and build characters, but they always came out different.

    Now I see writing about characters as getting to know them from scratch.

    It gets interesting.


    Just came by to say thanks for the follow. Your blog looks lovely.

  3. @Kate - they took a hiatus. ;) LOL, I'm trying to look back at any process I have and determine what makes my characters real and tangible to me. I feel that I'm very *throw something at the page and see what sticks* in a lot of things. (Like PLOT. O_O) I'm just totally a character author. The plot will conform to whatever their stories need to be. Usually. ;)

    @Misha - It's always fun getting to know the characters. Sometimes surprising and sometimes "what? I didn't know that about you!" It does get interesting! (And thank you!)


Thanks for sharing your thoughts!