During the Denver StarFest this April, I got to attend a panel put on by Timothy Zahn called 101 Ideas. It was an interesting panel where he went through the character and story line creation processes.
There was not much to it, really, it was just asking a series of questions and following the line of questions to develop the character or story further.
Developing a Character Profile
The questions to ask about a character started out simple: The character’s sex, age, ethnicity, education, etc. Then, it went a little deeper: Where was the character born? What is his or her favorite foods? What is a need or a want in their life of which they may not even be aware? It is always good to develop more of the character than what will be put into the story, because you never know how that information will be used later.
Another panel on writing had us do a similar exercise, but not quite as in depth, addressing different angles. We had to come up with just a few facts about a couple of characters, and then we had to give each character a secret, something that almost nobody would know about that character. We then had to have the characters interact, and it is amazing the different personalities that came out while holding those few facts in mind.
At the very least, this information will give you an idea of what the character’s personality is like. Beyond that, the detailed information allows you to start dropping subtle hints at the beginning of your story for something bigger that will happen later.
Our family history is important to us. How we were raised shapes more about us than almost any other single factor. Does the character have both parents or only one parent? Does the character have a good relationship with each parent, or a strained relationship? What about how the parents react to each other?
Filling out this information about your character’s family can go way beyond shaping the personality and history of your character. It can also give you another character to bring into the story later, when you might not have thought about it. If you get stuck in the middle of the story, and your character needs a push in the right direction to get the story going again, you can always bring in a parent. Maybe the father, a taxi-cab driver, knows something, or just provides words of wisdom that the character needs to hear to get him going in a new direction.
Perhaps repairing the strained relationship between father and son lifts guilt from the character’s life that he did not realize he had, allowing him to see the path he needs to be on now. This type of character interaction makes everyone in your story seem a lot more real and believable.
Also, if you do need to bring a new character in later, and you have all this planning done, then you can bring the character in right away, without having to take a break from your writing to figure out the details of the new character’s life. It is already done.
Follow the Trail of Consequences
One thing that can help to develop your story, your characters, and the histories of the cultures of your world, is to follow the trail of consequences.
I believe it was Timothy Zahn who said that he likes to mix two different ideas and see where it leads. When coming up with the history of a village, bring up something that happened in the past, such as a boy being killed by a dog. What would the results of this be 100 years later? 1,000 years later? Does the culture fear dogs now? Is there a curfew for kids? Is it a legend that is used to scare kids into obeying?
Or what if the hero lost a friend in a car accident when he was younger, how would this affect him?
If you want to create a quick village or character with a little bit of a personality, then pick two things, mix them together, and follow the trail of consequences.
How Much is Too Much?
There does come a point where there is just too much information. So, you have the full life history mapped out for your main character, and his parents, but what about their parents? Or siblings, aunts, uncles, friends, friends’ parents… Creating this level of detail can be a black hole, sucking in whatever time you give it.
J. R. R. Tolkien created a vast history, mythology, languages, and pretty much every other detail imaginable for his stories. These were later used to write more books just about the history and mythology.
On the other hand, some authors just like to wing it, which is fine if you have a mind that can work that way.
One panel I attended was on world building, and I asked him this question: “How much is too much?” His answer was to only create as much as you need for the story, and then just a little extra. You want more than what is in the story, but you do not need an entire world history, unless that is something that brings you joy, then go for it.
What do you do when creating backgrounds for your characters, cities, and worlds? Where do you draw the line for how much information to give?