08 Sep

A Question of Character

Posted in Character, Craft, DIY MFA, Writing Exercises

Today is our first day of the Craft component of DIY MFA and I’ll begin with a caveat.  Craft is a HUGE topic and there’s no way I’d be able to cover every detail in just four posts.  Think of these Craftivity posts each as an “amuse bouche” to whet your palette, teasers to spark further study.

Today’s topic is character.  One of the things I often have trouble with when developing characters is keeping track of all of their traits and details.  Here are two tricks I’ve come up with to help keep tabs on my characters.

Character Compass

I’m sure most of you have heard the adage: Show, Don’t Tell.  Well according to Writing Fiction (Gotham Writers’ Workshop), there’s not one, not two, but four ways you can show your character’s traits.  These are: Thought, Appearance, Dialogue, Action (or as I like to call it, TADA!).  I don’t know about you, but I have enough trouble juggling one aspect of my character at a time, much less four of them simultaneously.  This is why I devised a tool called the Character Compass.

Here’s how it works.  You draw a circle with two perpendicular axes (see example above).  Label each axis with the TADA techniques.  Now draw a dot on that line to indicate how much of each you used for that character in a given scene (the closer the dot is to the circle’s edge, the more of that technique you used.)  Connect the dots and you get a visual representation of how you showed that character.

Now I can guess what you’ll say next.  Do you really have to use the same amount of all four TADA techniques?  No.  The point of the Character Compass is to highlight what your tendencies are.  For example, using the Character Compass on a WIP, I learned that I rely a lot on dialogue and actions to show characters’ traits but I rarely use appearance and I’m terrified of using thought.  This exercise was a wake-up call for me because it showed me areas of my characters that I had been neglecting.  I realized that in order to be a versatile writer it’s important that I be comfortable in using all of the TADA techniques, not just one or two.

Acrostic “At-A-Glance” Bio

Another trick I picked up is what I call the Acrostic “At-A-Glance” Bio for my characters.  I’m sure many of you can relate when I tell you that I write these long, extensive bios for my characters.  Trouble is, I forget half of the information when I actually sit down to write.  I got frustrated paging through long documents to look up details about my characters so I devised this method of creating “At-A-Glance” Bios.  These character bios are so small, I can write them each on one index card and tuck them in my notebook.  Here’s how it works.  (This technique was inspired by the poetry of one of my favorite authors, Lewis Carroll.)

Step 1: Write the character’s name vertically on the page so that each letter gets one line.
Step 2: For each letter of the character’s name write a trait or important detail about the character.

Example: Cheshire Cat from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

His grin stays behind
Says “we’re all mad here…”
Hides out in Wonderland
Invisible at times
Reappears gradually, sometimes not completely
Exceedingly mad

Croquet with the Queen
Appears and disappears
Talks in riddles

These acrostic bios are tricky but they force you to think of your character in terms of specific, concrete details.  In the end, I haven’t abandoned regular character bios completely, I just use these acrostic bios as a way to keep the most essential traits of my characters on the tip of my mind.

Today’s Task: try your hand at one of today’s techniques.  Or, if you prefer, share another tip or trick you’ve used that relates to developing characters.


Comments on this post

  1. Samantha Vérant says:

    I think I'll have a go at this with one of my fictional characters…


    Nice post.

    1. salarsenッ says:

      I'll need to come back and check this out later. Didn't want you to think I forgot about you. ";-)

      1. Stina Lindenblatt says:

        Great tips. I linking this to my cool links on Friday. 😀

        1. Janice says:

          By this stage the MC in my current WIP has an autobiography written, but can I remember any of it? That would be a big fat no.

          I like the index card method – very cool.

          It'll be interesting to go through my scenes using the character compass method.

          1. kathanink says:

            I love these – I thought I'd heard of all the ways to track characters, but I've never heard of either of these. I especially love the index card method because it's right there, I can take it with me wherever, or hang it on my wall. I also think I am going to try the compass with the short story I am working on.

            1. Catherine A. Winn says:

              I think these are great! I want to thank you for coming over and becoming my 100th follower! I was so excited when I saw it. Thank you!!!!

              1. Bethany Mattingly says:

                Hey! Thanks for stopping by my blog and following! I love the idea of a character compass. I'm definitely trying that out this weekend 🙂

                1. KarenG says:

                  Awesome ideas, Gabi. Or is it iggi? I love tips like these. Very helpful.

                  1. gabi says:

                    Thanks everyone for your great comments! I'm glad you all are finding these tips useful, especially since I'll be teaching them in a class not too long from now. 🙂

                    1. Connie says:

                      Love TADA. It's an easy way for me to keep it all in mind.

                      1. Sonia says:

                        I LOVED acrostic poems as a child! What a great idea to help define your characters! Thanks for posting this (as always) : )

                        1. Michelle says:

                          You just solved a ginormous problem for me! weeee! I love this and now I have a gigantic plan… not the one to rule the world… that one is secret.

                          1. Kristal Shaff says:

                            IGGI is soooo cute! I love them/him/her/it. 🙂

                            1. DLCurran says:

                              Thanks for the follow! I stopped by to check out your blog and am leaving with some work with index cards! Fantastic tips – I'm going to have to link to you on my next post! Thanks again. 🙂

                              1. Najela says:

                                I'm totally stealing this.

                                1. Rachna Chhabria says:

                                  Great Tips. I seldom use appearance to reveal character traits. I use a lot of thoughts, and little dialogue. Thanks for sharing this!


                                  1. toni says:

                                    Yuhhss, these are great tips! I would never have picked the character compass, but that's a really cool way of visualizing what you are and aren't doing while you're writing. I'm going to try and apply it to other things, maybe have an overall compass as well as a character one. Thanks!

                                    1. darksculptures says:

                                      Great ideas. I especially like the index card system, because they are handy and as Kathan said, easy to pin to the wall in front of you.

                                      1. Damyanti says:

                                        These are great tips. Must link you to my posts on characterization!

                                        1. debiwrites says:

                                          Both of these are great ideas.

                                          *off to apply them to WIP now*

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