Developing Characters Without the Hassle

Updated: Jan 26


Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, there are a lot of elements at play when developing a character. Be they the protagonist, antagonist, or minor characters, there’s much to consider before a plot comes into full view. The first and most obvious are the character’s goal and motivation, and the resulting conflict. Seems easy enough. But sometimes it’s difficult to nail down a character’s personality to determine what he wants and why he wants it. (I say “he” because I happen to be working on a male protag, and he’s being quite elusive.)


An author can go to the internet for help with this. There are dozens of Character Questionnaires or Character Interviews that can be downloaded and filled out. Many writers enjoy using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or the Enneagram Personality Test, for determining the character’s disposition. I’ve never found any of these particularly helpful. As I said in my previous post on Cutting the Extra from Your Manuscript, I’m of the less is more category. That, and I’m a consummate daydreamer. I do so much of my plotting in my head; I spend a lot of time with my characters, putting them in various scenarios and gaging their reactions. However, there are some features of poetry and/or creative writing I like to use to coax out some of the details.


One of the easiest examples is a cinquain poem. There are several formats out there for this poem. It’s like a haiku or tanka, but I prefer the following format.


Cinquain Pattern

Line1: A noun

Line2: Two adjectives

Line 3: Three -ing words

Line 4: A phrase

Line 5: Another word for the noun


Here’s an example of one about spaghetti.


Spaghetti

Messy, spicy

Slurping, sliding, falling

Between my plate and mouth

Delicious


Simple enough. If you want to get to know spaghetti. But how can this easy poem structure be used in developing a character? Let’s try one you know and see the exercise in action.


Wolf

Big, bad

Growling, huffing, puffing

Always at the door

Villain


It’s easy enough to tell who this character is. We can see his temperament and modus operandi. It also gives us insight into what role the Big, Bad Wolf will play in the tale of The Three Little Pigs. But watch what happens when I change a single word.


Wolf

Big, bad

Growling, huffing, puffing

Always at the door

Husband

This cinquain just took on a whole new meaning. I could use this to develop a protagonist or an antagonist. If my main character is a female and I’m looking for her motivation for leaving town in a hurry, I may have just stumbled upon it. Let’s see what happens if I write a cinquain for her.


Woman

Submissive, inferior

Shaking, hiding, praying

Never herself

Wife


With these two simple poems—only 20 words total between them—some things come into focus about the characters and a possible storyline. I didn’t have to fill out a 100-question form, do a character interview, or take a personality test. So, if those processes aren’t working for you, give a cinquain a try. Maybe choose a character from a story you already know, as with the Big, Bad Wolf. You likely already have one that inspires you. Play around with writing a cinquain and see if something interesting emerges. We’ll take a look at some more fun writing techniques for developing characters in future posts.

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