Developing a fictional character is just like getting to know a person in real life. All of us rely on our intuition at one time or another when we interact with people. Sometimes we instantly like someone, just because. And sometimes we get a bad feeling about someone, right off the bat. To dig down deep into your characters you’re going to apply that same intuitive edge to find the “tell” that any given character might display to you.
A tell is a physical sign that slips out (usually when someone is nervous) that betrays something that was hidden up until that point. Serious poker players always look for the tell of their competitors. Maybe someone has a facial tick that starts working when they get anxious, or they become instantly still and silent when they get a really good hand. Those types of mannerisms tell on them because they betray their true situation or attitude.
A physical tell is the gold ring that sparkles at you, catching your attention. When you pick it up, you find it’s tied to a string that leads into the character’s personality. Using your intuition means you spot the ring and then follow the string. You can practice this method on real people too, to get the hang of it. It’s a bit tricky at first but to hone your intuition you have to practice gathering information. When you see that gold ring sparkling on the ground, pick it up and follow the string.
For instance, a man and woman walk into a restaurant and you start observing them. The man keeps pulling at his beard and looking around. He looks anxious. Every time he makes eye contact with the woman she narrows her eyes at him. When they’re shown to their table she grabs the menus from the waiter and hands one to the man. Then she peppers him with questions about what he’s going to order. As she does, the down-turned lines around her mouth etch in even deeper. They both look unhappy.
The above is a series of mostly concrete observations about physical reality: the pulling on the beard, the narrowing of the eyes, the grabbing of the menus. If each one of these things is a gold ring attached to a string, and we follow the strings we get:
- The man is anxious, unsure of himself, cowed, possibly defeated by life
- The woman is domineering, angry, and has been unhappy for many years
- These two probably have a relationship laced with dependence and resentment
Now, in your writing, you’re going to do the very same thing. Instead of making up things for your characters to do before you sit down to write, you’re going to sit down with only the intention of watching them. Just like with the couple in the restaurant, you’re going to be the fly on the wall. If that couple we just outlined actually were two of your characters, you could keep following the strings to gather more and more information about them.
-- The man is anxious, unsure of himself, cowed, possibly defeated by life
He possibly had a weird relationship with his mother, who kept him an emotional prisoner. Maybe his only consolation was the invention he worked on constantly in the garage.
-- The woman is domineering, angry, and has been unhappy for many years
It could be that when she met this man, he told her how he had invented a machine that could travel through time. She was caught up in his enthusiasm, and also incidentally happened to be a gold digger, and so she married him for the promise of the money that would be his once he went public with his magic machine.
-- These two probably have a relationship laced with dependence and resentment
Maybe after a little time passed, the woman came to believe that this man never invented anything of substance. She broods about how she’s stuck with such a loser and has no money. She takes out a life insurance policy and plots to kill him. But at the end, in a surprise twist, the man kills her and then flies back in time to cover up the crime. He really did invent a working time machine after all.
In this case we started with watching for the physical tells we picked up from the characters—the beard pulling, the narrowed eyes, etc., and we actually ended up with an entire rough summary for a story. We started with conscious observation, shifted into intuition, and ended up in the land of imagination.
Stepping stones that go like this:
Watching your characters, writing down their physical mannerisms
Drawing conclusions about personality and motives based on the observations
Pushing your conclusions as far as they will go
Observation and intuition is easy once you get into the swing. It’s that last step to imagination that you really have to practice. A good way to push your intuition into pure imagination is to ask a lot of what-if and why...
- Why would someone be anxious enough to pull on their beard constantly?
- What if that woman is so unhappy she would actually kill someone to get what she wants?
- What if these two people are going to do the exact opposite of what you think?
- What would the situation be like then?
When you’re using this method of intuitive character development, don’t expect your results to come in nice and neat little packages. You’ll probably spend at least a few pages just brainstorming on the possibilities that arise in your mind. The goal with this exercise is to get used to seeing your characters running around inside your head as if you were watching them on a movie screen, and then trusting your intuition to fill in the blanks. It’s okay to draw erroneous conclusions, and it’s okay to use up a bunch of paper just observing them.
The more you practice, the better you’ll get at creating characters who are alive, complex, and already enmeshed in a compelling story you want to write.
And if you’re interested in learning more about intuitive writers and how we work check out my book.