A schizophrenic approach to character development

A schizophrenic approach to character development

A Lesson by Mike Lamb

How to ration out personality traits so that your characters are complex but easily distinguishable from one another.


When it comes to making  up characters, you are the best prototype. Next come friends, family, and random jerk-offs from the bar. Celebrities and fictional charaters are never off limits, but don't overdo it.


First look at yourself. You know you better than anyone. You're complicated, contradictory, and probably a little weird. Use some of that for your main character. SOME. Not ALL. Because face it, not everything you do or say is compatible with the streamlined story version of yourself. You're good for at least 3 or 4 distinct personalities. Divide them up accordingly, then fill in the blanks. You can mix and match a little, but make sure your characters don't start to blur together. Not everyone has to be an ever-changing kaliedoscope of infinite depth and constant emotional turmoil. Keep the inner monologues in tune with the face value of the character.


Let's say you're a pagan vegan war vet who had a short run on a failed soap opera, masturbates to Sears catalogues, is allegeric to shell fish, a chronic bedwetter, an ex-roadie for The Bangles, writes obscene poetry to members of the Wu-Tang Clan, won the Nobel prize for physics in 1997, was once hospitalized for 3 weeks after swallowing a bottle opener, and sleeps with the toothless lady at KFC for free chicken. We don't need all that, and we definitely don't need it all at once from one person. Pick three and give away the rest. Leave something for the others.


Which brings us to the topic of useless information. Ask yourself what the function of a piece of information is. Is it central to the core of the character's personality? Does it factor into the plot later? Is it a set up for a running joke? Is it an amusing slice-of-life anecdote? If it's none of these things, chances are it's useless.


Imagine meeting a stranger at the bar. "So tell me about yourself." "I'm afraid of porcupines and my uncle molested me when I was four." "Whoa. That's heavy. I'm gonna leave now." That was your first impression. Nice job. Now granted, I'm curious as to why this person is afraid of porcupines, but it's probably something irrational with no interesting memories attached. So unless this is a story about revenge against an evil uncle who lives in the Castle of Porcupine Forest, I don't see it going anywhere.

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Posted 5 Years Ago

Hilariously witty advice!

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Posted 6 Years Ago

I've tried putting myself into my characters/stories... those are the boring stories.... I guess I haven't tapped my true inner self...
Funny thing is, I've had a terrificly varied life. I wouldn't change any of it good or bad. I have tons of "different" stuff to work with, but it just doesn't seem to lend itself... I've tried many times to write about my musician days, and the pieces just set there. I can't capture the moments or the essence of the experiences... I'm sure there's some sick Freudian or crazed Jungian thing going on. I'll just have to keep spitting pieces of it out there until the events reach the core... in the mean time, I make crap up... lol.

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Posted 6 Years Ago

This is how I dealt with some of the major characters in Jack's Inferno. Jack is me at my drunken best, gifted with the Luck of the Gods as I find myself surrounded by the drug crazed lunatics I've befriended over the years, constantly being dragged into the most surreal situations and somehow coasting through unscathed. Karl Memnon is me at my most crass and cynical (mixed with elements of two or three friends). As for Coalburner, well...I live in the south, so I had plenty to work with. The character of Liz is a hybrid of several girls I know. I like characters that are flawed but comfortable with it. Drunks, s***s, the dregs of society...they drink at my table.

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Posted 6 Years Ago

ya know if it wasn't for the Nobel in physics part, I'd say your were psychic and we've never met.....

As for the porcupines, I think I bought that gal a few drinks one night.... she mentioned you, repeatedly. It was strange because my name isn't Mike.

I saw a BBC documentary on Phillip K. Dick today. Wow, did he have a lot to draw from. Just, wow.

This is great advice and one of the many aspects of writing I have lots of trouble with. Thanks for framing it for me.
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Added on September 20, 2010
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Mike Lamb
Mike Lamb

greenville, NC

Artist, writer, and a drunken lunatic prophet. I am the author of Jack's Inferno, a dark comedy bizarro/horror novel about Hell, previously published through Wordplague (now defunct). I am also a pro..