Building Characters Layer by Layer

by James Scott Bell

About a month ago Mrs. B noticed a nest starting to form under the eaves outside our front door. We began to keep an eye on things and saw a couple of doves flitting about. We started calling them Mr. and Mrs. Dove, and were happy they’d decided to build a home attached to ours. We thought it a perfect spot, too, out of the reach of our neighbor’s cats.

Then a couple of weeks ago we noticed Mrs. Dove sitting in the nest each time we went out our door. Just sitting there, day after day. Obviously, a happy event (or two or three) is about to hatch.

There was also a stretch of days when we didn’t see Mr. Dove at all. I told Cindy, “I hope he’s not out having a worm with the boys.” I imagined a Far Side-style cartoon of a couple of male doves, with fedoras pushed back on their heads, holding martini glasses with worms in them. I imagined them in a bar called The Wiggle Room.

But I digress (I wish I could draw!)

Then one day I was sitting in my courtyard which offers a view of the pitched roof above the place where the nest is. And I saw Mr. Dove walk across it, one end to the other. He continued to higher ground, the jut of our garage roof, where he could survey all of the territory around the house.

He was protecting his wife and kids. So I took this picture:

Mr. Dove on the lookout

My admiration for Mr. Dove went up a mile. Good man! Good bird!

My view of Mr. Dove changed not by what he felt, but by what he did.

Which is how readers respond to characters. Not by what they feel, but by what they do. When we see a character acting with strength of will in pursuit of a worthy goal, we begin to care, and only then does emotional response deepen the experience.

As the great writing teacher Dwight V. Swain put it in his book Creating Characters, all “traits are abstract and general. Behavior is concrete and specific. ‘What does he or she do?’ that demonstrates any given point is what’s important.”

Over the years, as the teaching of the writing craft became mainstream, two approaches emerged that occupy the same relationship as plotters and pantsers. For our purposes I’ll refer to them as the Dossier Doers and the Discovery Kids.

With a dossier, the writer constructs a thorough background of the character before the actual writing begins. Marcel Proust was this kind of writer. He developed an extensive questionnaire for his characters, with such queries as:

  • What is your idea of perfect happiness?
  • Who is the greatest love of your life?
  • What is your greatest fear?
  • What is your greatest regret?
  • What is your motto?

You can find Proust’s questions, and other character-building questionnaires online. I have nothing against this method if it works for you. The caution I have is that when you do it this way, you pretty much lock in that character to the profile you create. As your story unfolds, the slings and arrows of the plot might operate to an extent that you wish your character had a different background altogether.

With the discovery method, you begin with a certain degree of knowledge, but then let the character react in the various scenes and watch them grow along with the story. Some authors prefer to do a first draft and then, upon rewrite, add layers to the character. “You simply can’t foresee all the facets of a story’s development,” says Swain, “and trying to out-guess every turn and twist may hang you up for longer than you think.”

Personally, I get bored quickly if I have to fill out a long questionnaire, or write a comprehensive biography. I’d rather add things as I go along, in keeping with the needs of the plot.

Which is not to say I start with a blank slate. I do need a few things in place before I get going. At a minimum they are:

A Visual. When I see the face of my character, it automatically starts the cauldron bubbling with possible characteristics. So I immediately figure out my character’s age and then go looking on the internet for a headshot that reaches out and says, “I’m your character.” I want the image to surprise me a bit, too.

A Voice. I begin a voice journal, which is a free-form document of the character talking to me. I may prod them with questions, but I mainly want to keep typing until a distinctive sound begins to appear. As a bonus, what the character tells me about their background may prove useful in the book.

A Want. What is the thing this character, at this point in time (as the story begins), want more than anything in the world? To become a great lawyer? Nun? Piano player?

A Mirror. As TKZ regulars know, I am big into the “mirror moment.” So I begin to brainstorm this early. It’s subject to change, but I’m finding more and more that it operates as my North Star, shining its light on the whole book. Knowing it up front is a tremendous help.

A Secret. I’ve found this to be a useful item to have in your back pocket. What is one thing character knows that he doesn’t want any of the other characters to know?

After my Lead is given this treatment, I move to my other major characters and go through this process again, paying special attention to casting for contrast. I want there to be the possibility of conflict among all the cast members.

Along the way I’ve constructed my signpost scenes, so pretty much have the plot trajectory down.

Now I write, and as I do I allow the characters to help me flesh out the scenes which, in turn, adds layers to characters.

For instance, let’s say I know I’ll have a scene early where my lawyer, a woman, is told by one of her senior partners to quickly settle a case. She doesn’t want to. She thinks it’s a winner. At the end of the scene, the partner has issued her a mild threat—play ball, or your future here is limited.

In my mind, this scene would leave my lawyer angry and maybe a bit afraid. This is supposed to be her dream job. So she goes back to her office and writes an angry email to the partner. Then deletes it.

Then I’ll ask, what if she does something else? What if she quits? Maybe this is just what she needs to do at this point in her life! I could then construct a bit of backstory about how she was afraid to do something as a little girl, how a boy taunted her for that, how she’s never taken a risk. And now she finally does.

Or what if she leaves work and goes to a bar and gets hammered? Hey, maybe she has a drinking problem.

You get the idea. The layers get added. And upon rewrite, they can be deepened and secured.

My wife and I are anxiously awaiting the birth of the little doves. I wonder of Mr. Dove will be puffing out his chest a little bit more when it happens. Hmm, maybe when he was a young dove he had an encounter with a cat, and…

So what is your preferred method for building characters?

31 thoughts on “Building Characters Layer by Layer

  1. RE ““You simply can’t foresee all the facets of a story’s development,” says Swain, “and trying to out-guess every turn and twist may hang you up for longer than you think.”

    I’m finding out this is understatement the more I write. There’s a particular novel series I’m brainstorming that is doing its best to hang me up—because I’m trying to foresee every little facet of the story’s development. And you just can’t do that before it’s written. (At least not me).

    The key in this post for me is layers. I’ve taken up drawing recently and while part of me wants drawing, as well as writing, to be ‘one and done’ the truth is its about layers in every respect. I have to learn patience—layering both my writing and my drawings, which also means learning when you have to push through and not get stuck in order to let those revelations develop. .

    I like some of those Proust questions because to me they seem out of the ordinary. I get quickly bored with the typical list of mundane character questions.

    BTW, currently reading “The Emotional Craft of Fiction” to help with that. (Enjoyed Maass’ plug of your “Write Your Novel from the Middle” as well.)

    • Glad you mentioned Don’s book, BK. It’s an excellent text for layering the emotional element. I find this works best the second time through the MS.

  2. All very good advice! I’m writing an urban fantasy with a superhero bent right now, and digging into the characters has been great. Hero 1 wants to be a crime fighter. Hero 2 wants to be a teacher, despite having better powers and knowledge than hero 1. Ah, but hero 2 has a secret and is running scared from his past. It’s so fun!

    • It is fun, isn’t it? You’re obviously casting for contrast, which is one of the keys to laying the foundation for a novel. Keep up the fun!

  3. Jim, as always thanks for sharing your vast knowledge.

    Your Voice Journal really works. I use it all the time and have recommended the technique (and your book Voice) to writer friends struggling with characterization. Listening to a character talk allows distinctive qualities to reveal themselves.

    In the International Thriller Writers webinar, you dramatized voice really well when you played the parts of two contrasting characters who start with the same name but reveal completely different personalities. “Thomas” is erudite and stuffy; “Tommy” is wise-cracking and street-smart. Your acting background brought their unique voices to life and really hammered the lesson home for me.

    Secret is also a wonderful technique. When the secret is revealed or found out, it totally changes the dynamic between the character who’s been keeping it and the one who learns it. It can serve as a bridge of trust (for instance, in a budding love relationship) or a catastrophic shift in the balance of power between protagonist and antagonist.

    BTW, for years, a pair of robins nested on a shelf on our front porch. Fun to watch the transformation from quiet blue eggs to noisy, demanding critters that quickly overflowed the nest. Finally Mom and Dad could no longer stand them and kicked them out…like human teenagers.

    • Thanks for the good word on the Voice Journal, Debbie. (And yes, once an actor, always an actor).

      The “secret” idea I picked up from Phyllis Whitney, who wrote a good craft book back in the 80s, I think it was. She did great things with secrets.

  4. Thanks for another great teaching moment.

    Isn’t it interesting that outliners aren’t necessarily Dossier Doers.

    Your list of character attributes (before you start) is very helpful. The mirror moment is one of those that I’m sold on. I know you don’t use it much in your discussion of short stories (instead discussing the shattering moment), but it has definitely helped me in crafting successful short stories.

    The “want” – I like to think of it as “wants/needs.” Sorry to mention another author on your blog. I believe Alan Watt (the “90 days” books) discusses the difference between wants vs need. And this may be part of the mirror moment.

    And as for your new family moving into your front porch, I believe turtle doves stay with the same mate for life, so I hope your new dove character is a real family man.

  5. Perfect timing. Love when someone puts structure and language to what I’m doing. Easier to do for others, than it is to figure it out as I’m enmeshed in a rewrite. Halfway through just that and happy to hear about that ‘mirror moment’ as well as your simplified approach to character development. Just what I needed.

    Another fun way of finding out more about my characters (other than what they tell and show me themselves) is to cast their astrological charts. Whether or not you believe in its practical applications, astrology does enable you to construct a character using what you know from their birth/natal charts. When I’m feeling stuck and/or want to go deeper with a character, I study a character’s chart for a bit and find some fun ways to build from that.

    • Good tip, Catherine. I know some writers who like to profile their characters via Meyers-Briggs. I’m not one of them, but it might be a way for someone to get ideas.

  6. Excellent post. One of the questions I ask about my main character is the characters central motivation in life. Are they motivated by money, power, etc. I also think about the stage of life they are in. Young and starry-eyed or experienced and jaded. I stay away from genuinely ‘crazy’ people, because they are ill. I want my antagonists to be in control of their own evil.
    Thanks again for the post. I alway learn from your posts and books.

    • Great point about villains, Brian. Craziness is not scary. Much scarier are villains in total control of their faculties who think they are justified.

  7. I always enjoy your articles, and I’m already rooting for Mr. Dove. Now, about that female lawyer who is told by her partner to settle the case or else. What if she’s not someone who can be pushed around?

    Mr. Managing Partner: You need to settle this case.

    Ms. Associate: I can’t do that.

    Mr. Managing Partner: I’m the senior partner at a firm that is paying you $250,000.00 a year, and I’m asking you to do it.

    Ms. Associate: Asking usually includes words like please.

    Mr. Managing Partner: This is not a request. Do I make myself clear?

    Ms. Associate: I’d rather stick needles in my eyes. Or yours.

    • And to take this little example further, how about if we add some subtext. Suppose she saw the partner in a bar with a woman (who was not his wife) draped around him. We could change the last line to:

      Ms. Associate: I’d rather stick needles in my eyes. Or yours.. I’ve got depositions to review. Say hello to lovely wife for me.

      Dreaming up scenarios is so much fun.

      • Ack. That line should read:

        Ms. Associate: I’d rather stick needles in my eyes. Or yours. I’ve got depositions to review. Say hello to your lovely wife for me.

    • Good ‘storming there, Joanne. You reminded me of a trick some writers use. They’ll put off naming a character till later, using a placeholder like Mr. Associate or Mr. Jerk or whatever fits.

  8. I prefer the fleshing out method, too. My American character lives in Germany but is a snob about American beer. My critique group read this as a quirk, but a reformed alcoholic editor said, “This guy is headed for trouble. The snobbiness is a smoke screen.” And suddenly I saw it, too. I went back and made the markers stronger and now draft 4 has a much stronger internal demon.

  9. I’ve tried many times to analyze the way I write. I do think I have to start with a character (or two for my romantic suspenses), but as far as what I know about them from the beginning? Very little beyond a basic GMC. Siblings? Not until I need them. Likewise family, pets, where/if he went to school, his astrological sign.

    I love your “what if?” because I think that question, along with “why?” are the engines behind my writing.

    If I know too much in advance, I either rush things to get there, or I get bored and it becomes “work” finding the right words. That’s something I prefer to address in editing.

    My story structure starts out as “Here’s this guy/gal trying to live a productive life.”
    “Bad Stuff Happens.” “He/She/They have to fix it.” For the romantic suspense books, I have to add in “they meet, they fall in love, they agree to try to have a relationship.” (I’ve never been one for endings with the white picket fence, 2.3 kids and a dog.)

  10. I had been hammered by every writing teacher I ever had about building my characters by filling out forms and worksheets.

    Except, I started out my series with a cute, little next-door-girl who became a military MP, now called home to help search for her now-missing godson who disappeared after his mother was murdered and his father apparently battered to death.

    She found herself aboard a flight home with just-showered U.S. Marines dressed in fresh camos. She herself was not stench-free; her teeth were unbrushed, and she hadn’t had a manicure or seen hair dresser in four years. And we’ve discovered that she looks a lot like the retired American figure skater who now plays the title role in the stage and television production of Peter Pan.

    I’m not certain how forms and sheets would have helped me discover any of that.

  11. On the most basic level:
    My sister and I have to agree on what characters look like or we can’t function as co-authors. We would often resort to celebrity defaults. (“You know, he sort of looks like Mike Ditka only taller.”) This led us to sifting through magazines for pictures (also an excellent time-suck if you’re stalled on the real writing). We cut out the pix and pasted them on a poster so now we have a 10-year’s rogue’s gallery of characters.

    But we vowed never to write: “He looked like Mike Ditka.” I think that’s sorta lazy (ie: she looked like a young Gene Tierney…ack ack!) and doesn’t always work, especially if you’re not a Bears fan or watch a lot of TCM. So we just would stare at Mike’s picture on the poster board until the descriptive words came. We still use this technique. I would think it would work for soloists as well.

    • Ah yes, the days of buying People magazine or Entertainment Weekly and clipping actual photos. I had a box filled with those at one time.

      You’re right, Kris, about saying a character looks like a certain actor or celebrity. That will date the book in a few years. Also, what if the celebrity becomes notorious for some reason?

      He was as big and strong as OJ Simpson. Oops.

  12. Writing a book for the first time, I *accidentally* included a mirror moment! As I was rereading that scene, I thought, “Oh, professionals would say to get rid of this because it doesn’t further the plot,” but to me, it does because it gave her a moment of crucial reflection that determines what she will do next.

    It seems I have good instincts! Or at least, good company.

    • You are so right, Red. In fact, the mirror moment is the very heart of the plot! So … you want a plot with no heart? Then listen to those “experts.”

      Thanks for the comment.

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