Finding the Character Within… — Derek Barton

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Those words literally scream with a story, a background of tormented history.  This person’s agony and pain are their whole world.  It motivates their actions, taints their decisions and monopolizes their every thought.  It makes you ask why?  What happened?  And when you are working up your story or novel, you have to have that level of intimacy and deep understanding of what drives him or her.  You want to know the why behind it all.  As the writer, you need to know the truth and the source.

This all of course ties into what I was talking about in my last blog, Where Your Path May Lead… As with world-building, knowing each facet of your characters is crucial to making the story come alive in the reader’s mind.  Overall, every novelist or writer wants to carry their readers away and keep them immersed in their land or story.  It’s the whole reason we live to write!

An unforgivable mistake and the fastest way to breaking a reader’s immersion is having your hero and/or villain act out of character.   When they do something that is abnormal or perhaps even far-fetched, questions immediately jump at the reader and they are going to want to know why.  When the reader is stepping out of the story to ask themselves questions or to wonder about the hero’s actions, how can they continue in your world?  How are they focused any longer on your story?

They are many great ways to build and to delve into your characters on the internet.  I have found a couple that I use and I have added my own questions that help me explore the character’s fears, goals, dreams or even hatreds.

You start off with the basics:  name, age, height & weight, hair & eye color, race.  Then you go into the background:  What do they do for a living?  Where do they live?  Who is close to them in their life?   Now go deeper:  What is their current goals or motivation?  How do they deal with conflict?  What was their childhood like?  Do they have anything in their past they are proud or ashamed of?

Another great resource I found, came from the writer Michael A. Stackpole who has written several Battle Tech novels and eight Star Wars novels himself — he crafted and presented in a writer’s workshop, Twenty-One Days to a Novel.  It is a fantastic series of exercises to learn and develop your characters. Here are the first four “days” to show you what he is talking about:

Day One:  Write a single sentence about a character in five areas of his life.  Subjects ranging from Romance, Jobs, Financial Situation, Education, Religion, Health or even Hobbies.

Day Two:   Write two more sentences on each of the above areas to create a paragraph.  These sentences should explain and support what has gone before.

Day Three:  Write a single sentence concerning each of the above areas that is in opposition to the previous paragraph, exposing the dark side of things, or the silver lining.

Day Four:  Add two more sentences the above single line expanding and explaining in a paragraph.

As you can see they are simple and focused directives, but they have a lot of potential in helping you learn about your protagonist or villain.  He adds examples and further details on how this will give you material to work with and give you the necessary motives for your characters.  Highly recommend his work and recommend you get it on his official website:

You won’t have to do this with every character in your novel, of course, but the main ones or the ones with critical elements in your story, you will want to spend the extra time and effort with.  Learn not only their private history, but their troubled future.

Take a magnifying glass to the character and learn who they are — it will make your characters more believable, their actions seem authentic and ultimately your work that much more richer!

If you  have other resources you use to build up your character backgrounds I would love to hear about it.  What other questions do you ask or use?



3 thoughts on “Finding the Character Within… — Derek Barton

  1. Firstly, I again agree with how you look at music and enjoy reading your thoughts on how it influences your writing and your ability to draw from it. Also, I like reading about what you focus on when character building. Sort of calls back to D and D days which I suppose isn’t all too different since essentially it too is story telling.


  2. Correct! And if you only have a couple layers to the character’s personality and mindset then that character will get old really quick. If he/she is your main character and they are flat, your story has really no where to go.


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