Many stories involve a protagonist who is abruptly taken out of their comfort zone and thrust into an unfamiliar situation. Which, of course, must lead to an adventure!
Hold up. Who are your characters when they’re not on this adventure? What’s their life like when they’re not slaying/marrying dragons, returning from exile, or foiling a bad guy?
My favorite definition of worldbuilding states that you need to know 100% of the background even if you are only sharing 1-3% with the reader. This kind of knowledge creeps in subtly. It gives you a more natural feel for your characters and their world. So today’s homework is to think about who your character is when they’re NOT on their adventure. Get to know them like you never have before.
Caitlyn, my SWORN mentee, did this beautifully; we were trying to figure out who one of her MC’s really was, so we designed three different exercises.
1 – Write a scene where your MC is just hanging out, being themselves on a normal day. (NOT DURING YOUR PLOT!)
- Example: We couldn’t quite get an emotional scene with Caitlyn’s character right, so she wrote about him relaxing in bed with his mate/wife and reflecting back on it after months had gone by. Wanna know what came out of that? Pure freaking poetry. Read SWORN, and you’ll see what I mean.
2 – Interview your character
- Example: Why don’t you want to commit?
- [Laughs.] Because guys my age are stupid and I’m not really into significantly older men. My parents are so happy together, and so is my oldest brother Spencer and his wife, Marissa. I watch them. They fight, but they know how to work things out. Spencer doesn’t peel out in his car and drive around sulking or whatever. I think he used to, when they first got married, but he doesn’t anymore. I don’t want to deal with the drama. I’d rather get married a little older and find a guy who has his crap worked out. I’m kind of an independent person, and I don’t want someone who will feel insecure about that. Because when I finally do commit, that’s it. I’m in forever. I’m not expecting fairy tale true love; like I said, I watch my parents and brother, I expect work, and I’m not ready for it yet. That’s why I don’t want to commit.
3 – Match your character against someone from a different world or book/movie.
- Example: Caitlyn and I matched our FMCs’s against each other (in a stream-of-consciousness grudge match) to draw out more of her FMC’s (Kai) fighting spirit.
- “Dear, I have to say, you are so brave.” Lena’s smile is sickly sweet. “I cannot imagine going into something as daunting as marriage AND watching a kingdom be ruled with a stranger. If I didn’t have all of our memories . . .” She looks at Andon and strokes his hair. “Goodness, I don’t know what I’d do.”
Kai matches Lena’s smile. “It’s hard to call someone a complete stranger when you have access to their thoughts.” Kai puts an arm through Rhys’s and leans her head on him. “It is pretty nice knowing that he actually loves me. I never have to wonder if he’s thinking of someone else.”
- Kai gives her a toothy smile. “Peasants only mirror the behavior they first observe in the nobility.”
Lena grins back. “Monkey see . . . monkey do.”
Yeah, those two would NOT be friends. But we got 4.5 hilarious pages out of watching our FMC’s try to outwit each other, and in the process, discovered a hidden side of Kai that I loved. All of this contributed to a much deeper understanding of Caitlyn’s characters and helped us both to suggest things for the revision process.
So pick a method or invent your own, and go discover something new about your characters! And anything in your MS that doesn’t contribute to their development? BURN IT WITH FIRE!