🦊 Crafting Characters
#80 — Behind every great story is a compelling character.
Stories live and die by their characters.
When they’re well crafted, we’re totally invested. Their arc is compelling yet natural, their present respects their past, and their actions make sense. We hang on their every word, follow them through fame and fortune. They keep us hungry for more, turning pages late into the night, repeatedly telling Netflix Yes, yes, I’m still watching!
Poorly crafted characters, on the other hand, discard their past, defy all logic and devolve into a walking contradiction. They yank us out of a story and toss us into rumination. Why? we scream to the writers who will never hear us. Why?!
As writers, we can learn from these frustrations. To tell great stories, we know we need to craft characters with strong foundations. We need to consider how their upbringing and past affects their motivation and outlook, and incorporate that into how they navigate the world.
Character development is no easy task. When we write stories with characters of our own, we quickly appreciate how difficult it is. But like any skill, we can improve with practice. The more consideration and care we put into our characters, the more rewarding and satisfying our stories can become.
In an effort to elevate my own skills in character development, I took a course called Psychology for Writers, led by Dr. Stephanie Carty. The course has ten lessons in total. Each one is a brief video explanation of a key concept from psychology. You learn about how attachment theory, core beliefs, and defense mechanisms can fuel the motivation and inform the arc of a character’s growth. Each lesson comes with an exercise to apply it into writing practice.
The ideas shared in the course are insightful without being overly technical. They offer just enough science to enable you to complete the exercises, which challenge you to apply the basic principles onto the character you chose for the course. In the final lesson, you take all of these different learnings about your character and pull them together to form a clear understanding of your character’s motivations, struggles, and growth.
I used the course as an opportunity to work on the overarching story in my book of fables. I’ve wrestled with the tale for quite a while—given its placement as an overarching story, the stakes are a little high and it’s important to get it right. I’m happy to report that after completing the course, I have clarity on how to move forward. I’m not done with revisions on it, but I know the direction I want to take it, and that’s a big win. I’d definitely recommend this course to anyone who is interested in going deeper into character development. The next cohort starts in September.
Stephanie also has a book, Inside Fictional Minds, which serves as a handy reference for the ideas in the course. I actually bought this book last year, but I wasn’t able to motivate myself to apply the ideas until I took the course. The course is structured into a 3-week cohort in which you can get feedback from Stephanie. That motivated me to power through it in a couple of weeks, whereas otherwise it probably would have joined the sad shelf of self-paced courses I’ve bought but never completed.
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Before I started writing characters, I was drawing them. Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of hours drawing random animal characters for fun. I started doing this thanks to a brilliant suggestion from my friend Dave Gorum.
Early in my drawing journey, I was bored and frustrated with my journey of learning human figure and gesture drawing. Dave noted that because we have such a strong sense of what humans look like, it’s difficult to draw them without being too critical of our drawings. He suggested I just make up animal characters. (It’s impossible to draw a character incorrectly if you made it up.)
Dave was spot on. His suggestion was a major unlock for me. It gave me permission to play. I started drawing a slew of new characters, including our friendly neighborhood Quick Brown Fox:
A year later, as I began writing my book of fables, those animal drawings skills helped me sketch my first illustrations of fable characters:
Character design is a fun and fascinating art form that I’m excited to dive deeper into. I like the idea of being a character creator. I love drawing animal characters in particular, so I was really excited to get the book The Art of Animal Character Design by David Colman. I've only just begun reading it, but one of the tips early in the book really stood out: Every person has an animal archetype.
Colman describes a twist on the traditional process of field sketching. Instead of drawing people you see, you try to imagine an animal that might resemble that person, and draw that instead. Here’s a page from the book where he shared a few examples of sketches with this theme:
I love this idea! Not only is it great practice for character design skills, but it also sounds like a ton of fun. I'm excited to try it out in the wild on my next coffee shop session.
There’s much more I want to share about character design, and I hope to return to it in a future post. I’ll leave you with a prompt:
If you were an animal character, which animal would you be?