A schizophrenic approach to character developmentA 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.
Added on September 20, 2010
Last Updated on October 22, 2010
AboutArtist, 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..