Back in November, I wrote a post about my perspective on character development as a plot-first writer—in short, that the best way to improve a weak area (like characterization) is to accept that I have that weak area and then use my strengths (like plotting) to address those issues. I also mentioned a few of the techniques I used to implement that realization, like worldbuilding so my plot-first brain had enough context or creating family trees and timelines in MS Excel. However, I didn’t spend a lot of time addressing the specifics of my new (and still developing) characterization techniques. That’s what I want to tackle in today’s post. But, I want to address character development less in the context of “plot vs. character” and more as a focused look at the core of what needs to be considered when developing a character as well techniques to use.
The Core of Character Development – Nature and Nurture:
The old “nature vs. nurture” debate irks me namely because it’s more like “nature and nurture” than “nature or nurture.” Take a brief look at the field of genetics and you’ll see how that plays out, particularly in the field of epigenetics (in non-sciency terms: how environmental influences switch genes “off” or “on”). I mention this because I think “nature and nurture” is a good way not just to describe how I address character development but to distinguish key aspects that all writers should address.
Nature is rather obvious. In character development terms, this is a character’s:
- Innate personality (likes and dislikes, fears, desires, hopes, hobbies, spirituality, values, etc.)
- Physiology (physical appearance—height, build, hair texture and color, eye color, skin tone—bar changes or modifications, genetic strengths and vulnerabilities, predispositions to illnesses, etc.).
The tricky part is that some of these—like hobbies, spirituality, values, illnesses, even parts of physical appearance—will clearly be changed by and informed by their environment. The goal when addressing a character’s nature is to try to strip them of as many environmental, cultural elements as possible and see them for how they would be in that state. You want to see the base level of how their brain works or how their body will function.
Knowledge of the nature of your character is not only important in and of itself but is the prerequisite to successfully applying nurture. Nurture, in this case, covers a lot of aspects, but I usually address four at first:
- The world in which they live (for help determining their world, check out my worldbuilding post for a list of setting categories to consider)
- The specific settings they frequent or will frequent (school, work, home, friend’s houses, movie theaters, church, their favorite coffee shop, the car they take on road trips every summer)
- Their friend/peer/work group (in a less strict sense, this can also include those who have power over them, like teachers or managers)
- Their family
The broader world in which a character lives is going to supply culture, belief systems, politics, economics, ecological systems, weather, and seasons, expectations, career opportunities, education systems, standards of beauty or fashion, health care and health problems (like illnesses or injuries)—the list goes on and on. Their specific frequented settings act as a miniature, concentrated version of the broader world and help establish things like a daily or weekly schedule, whether basic needs like food, housing, and clothing are met, opportunities for hobbies or education, specific practices of spiritual or religious beliefs, and entertainment or leisure time. The broader group of friends, peers, and/or coworkers adds in a relational element, potentially raises conflict, gives opportunity for positive or negative influences on their innate personality, and is a place to show off the nuances of the broad setting in terms of expectations, health, safety, politics, belief systems, or the economy.
Finally, and I would almost argue most importantly, is the family. I say it’s most important because a good home environment or lack thereof is critical in childhood development, and those who fail to meet certain milestones or have specific needs met go into later life (like teens and adulthood) with mental, emotional, spiritual, and sometimes physical difficulties. Determining the whole of the family environment a character is born into, what traumas they experienced growing up, how their parents or parental figures handled it, how their siblings (or lack of siblings) affected them, etc. sets your character up for the rest of their life and, by extension, the whole of your story.
Returning to the broader picture, another way of thinking about “nature vs. nurture” is that nature is your character’s inner or introverted world while nurture is your character’s outer or extraverted world. In truth, however, the two work together: no person is purely the sum of their innate nature or purely a result of how they grew up. The areas where the two overlap are where the most interesting characterization and nuance emerge. And while I separate the two in this post, I don’t separate them when I’m actually working on a character. I tend to switch between them seamlessly, testing hypothetical scenarios and seeing how a character reacts, until either I settle upon new information or the character finally “clicks” in my head and I understand them. The point is less about having “nature” and “nurture” laid out specifically and more about viewing your characters as whole persons, addressing their development from the time they were young, and fully understanding why they are the way they are when they show up in your story. In my experience, addressing their inner and outer world together is the only way to consistently accomplish strong characterization.
My Favorite Character Development Tools/Techniques:
Hands down, my favorite resources for character development are personality inventories. I use MBTI because its deals with cognition and motivation, but I don’t like the MBTI method based upon letters—it’s too stereotypical and easy to misinterpret—so a while ago I did my research into cognitive functions and use those when analyzing my characters. While this is the systems that help me the most, that doesn’t mean it’ll work best for you. The point with personality inventories is to find tools that work and that are easy for you to grasp so you can better understand your characters.
[Note: this section was edited as of 2021 in order to update my stance on personality inventories by removing Enneagram content. I no longer use or condone the system.]
Another character development method I’ve picked up recently is writing poetry from the point of view of my characters. I’ve written short stories for characters before but had never considered poetry until a friend of mine introduced the concept to me last year—and since then, I’ve hardly stopped. The format (and sometimes lack of format) of poetry lends itself to the exploration of abstract thoughts and feelings that are often hard to capture during prose and they can be short while still feeling complete.
Other than actual worldbuilding to figure out the broader context and specific contexts in which characters live, my favorite way to develop the “nurture” side of things is making family trees/family descriptions. Even if you aren’t writing a family saga and even if the family never shows up in the story, a little knowledge of a character’s family structure, who raised them, how they were parented, their family dynamic, and if they got their needs met (or not) can immediately deepen all aspects of a character, from personality to desires to weaknesses to hobbies to their spiritual or philosophical beliefs. Personally, I like creating an actual family tree using a spreadsheet, but I’ve also just written basic descriptions of a character’s family (names, appearance, age, etc.) and it works just as well.
Finally, I almost always create a Pinterest boards for my characters. One, it gives you a sense of both a character’s nature and nurture; two, it breaks away from the usual “write something down about them” methods and engages other types of creativity (photography, color, aesthetics) that can be a welcomed break to a tired brain and can prove to be fun while being beneficial; and three, you end up with a great reference to use when you describe what they wear, how they look, or where they go when you’re actually writing. Of course, it has to be done in moderation—you can end up spending hours pinning pictures long after it’s actually helping you—but I don’t think that diminishes the potential advantages of using the platform.
While this is my current character development strategy, I have a feeling it will continue to grow and change as I discover new resources or streamline the ones I have. That being said, I’d love to hear how you approach character development and what types of resources you use! Drop a comment below and let me know.