These underhanded character development techniques are designed to relax your “thinky” brain and to draw instead on your curiosity, intuition and slightly devious sense of play in order to help your characters reveal their own inner workings.
Characters are tricky. Even when you’ve given them a story arc you love and mapped every thrilling moment of their harrowing-but-transformative journey—even when you feel you know everything about these people (gender, occupation, favorite movie, worst fear)—they can still remain disturbingly flat on the page.
What then? The direct approach of trying to think up the most interesting character ever puts a terrible pressure on your imagination and chokes off the inspired ideas you’re after. Better, I’ve found, to be a bit tricky yourself.
The following 10 underhanded character development techniques are designed to relax your “thinky” brain and to draw instead on your curiosity, intuition and slightly devious sense of play. Why grapple with the onerous task of coming up with deep revelations about your character, when you can just trick her into giving herself away?
A word of warning: You will be tempted to read the following prompts—which invite you to write, quickly and with wild abandon, for a set period of time—and just think up answers instead of putting pen to paper. Don’t do it! These techniques work best on the page (preferably pen and paper, which have no delete key), precisely because such rapid scrawling gets you somewhere you won’t get while consciously crafting the “perfect” response. There are no right answers here—so go ahead and get it really wrong.
10 Sly Character Development Techniques
A great way to know your characters more intimately is to see how they behave when they think no one is watching. The easiest way to do that is simply to spy on them. Illegal if you do it to your ex, totally cool if you do it to your characters.
Watch your protagonist through a window or plant a hidden camera—whatever works for you. You’ll see his private moments as he goes unsuspectingly about his business at home. You’ll discover what she does as she drives to work, picks up the kids from school, goes out to dinner. Set a timer and spend three to six minutes on each of the following questions. Don’t try to think up something interesting first—just find your character in a private moment and write everything you see as fast as you can.
- What are her morning and bedtime rituals?
- What are his secret snacking habits? Late night?
In the car?
- What does she try to get away with when no one
- What websites lure him away from his workday?
2. Zooming In
Like a writerly James Bond, you’ve been given some amazing high-tech gear. You now have the ability to zoom in on anything you want a clearer look at, even if it’s behind, beneath or inside something else!
Set your timer for six minutes, then follow your character anywhere he goes—cafés, parks, the office, the gym—and fire up your X-ray. What just arrested her attention, repulsed her, alarmed her, made her smile? What is she fiddling with in her purse? Pills? Pepper spray? What’s engraved on the ring she’s twisting? Zoom in on everything. It’s fine if what you see doesn’t feel deep and revelatory. Sometimes what you write won’t even seem to make sense. Go ahead and get lost, because that’s when you’re mostly likely to stumble upon something new.
3. Breaking and Entering
Why stop at spying when you can escalate to home invasion without the slightest chance of getting caught? Rifle through your protagonist’s stuff like a rogue private eye looking for clues. Don’t strive for a stunning discovery. Right now you’re just mining—you’ll pick out the gold nuggets later.
Choose a place to search, set the timer for six minutes, keep your pen moving all the way to the end, and turn your curiosity loose. What is your character hiding? What is she keeping handy? What seems too tidy? Appallingly messy? Is she a secret hoarder? Look for skeletons in the closets and beyond:
- the trunk of your character’s car
- desk drawers
- medicine cabinet
- purse, wallet or backpack
- pockets of coats that haven’t been worn in a while
- pockets of pants she wore yesterday
- storage unit
- top closet shelf
- back of the underwear drawer.
4. Following the money
You can tell a lot about a person from his choice of products. Are his cleaners additive-free, organic and compostable, or rubber-glove and gas-mask-requiring germ-annihilators? Does he buy only the brand that’s on sale, regardless of whether it’s what he really wants? Does he own 14 kinds of cologne, or one signature scent?
Set the timer for four minutes and list everything that might fill your character’s shopping bags on a day set aside for stocking up. Don’t stop at the supermarket—consider the farmers market, the big-box store, the drug store, the garden center, the boutique around the corner, even the items he checks out at the library.
When you’re done, read through your list and underline five products your character uses every day. Choose one and observe your character using it. Set the timer for six minutes and write what you see.
Talking about loved ones behind their backs is not recommended in real life, but in the fictional realm, it can be a character-development bonanza. Catch your character’s friends, co-workers and family at a party, in the break room, or at a reunion and get them talking. You might develop entirely new perspectives on your character’s relationships, choices, issues and untapped potential—including things your character doesn’t even know herself.
Who can she trust? Who happily trash talks her at the drop of a hat? Choose one of the prompts below and write as quickly as you can for six minutes. Again, resist the urge to stop and reread or to self-edit. Just keep your pen moving.
Ask what your character:
- is like when he’s mad
- was like when she was younger
- is good at
- is bad at
- needs to do to fix his life
- takes too seriously
- doesn’t take seriously enough
- has going for her
- has working against him.
Ask if your character:
- has any blind spots
- is making good choices
- is reaching her potential.
In the 10-week workshop I teach, participating writers spend a full week practicing eavesdropping in the real world to gather dialogue. Overheard chats can be rich with mischief, hidden motive, power status plays, sexual tension and subdued pain, and can teach the observant writer a ton about how people actually speak.
Give this technique a twist and eavesdrop on your own characters. This is especially helpful in my own writing when I find I’ve gone rigid with tension trying to come up with something nuanced yet revealing, lyrical yet natural for my character to say.
When we’re at a loss for putting words in our characters’ mouths, that’s often when it’s time to stop thinking and start listening. Don’t try to control it. Just write what you hear and then read it over to see what you can discover. Does his manner of speech change when he talks to his kids? What is he holding back? Why did he use that word?
Try the following locations for six-minute eavesdropping missions:
- the booth behind your character as she takes her mom to lunch at her favorite diner
- the adjacent barstool as he tries to get a date with
an attractive stranger
- the bathroom stall as she and a friend freshen their makeup in front of the mirror
- the next cubicle as his boss gives him a second warning.
7. Wire Tapping
If your character does her heavy communicating in a private space, you’ll just have to put a bug under the kitchen table or behind the therapist’s fish tank. Now you can get into that privileged territory of secret plans, sordid pasts and private pain. Instead of thinking up a backstory for your character, listen in as she divulges her childhood trauma to her psychologist. Or write what you hear as she whispers her most fragile longings to her secret lover, or unloads her guilt onto a priest. Set the timer for six minutes and write like the wind.
While there may be many hidden treasures in any given journal, most are filled with the mind-numbing minutiae of life. You don’t have the time or patience for reading all your characters’ daily musings. In this exercise I bestow upon you the magic power to turn to the exact page you want—the one disclosing the juicy stuff. Set the timer for six minutes and transcribe the entry you just found.
If the page in your mind is blank, here are some suggestions of entries you might open to:
- The secret bucket list: Admissions of tender private hopes and wild dreams that would come true if money were no object, there were no real-life responsibilities, and there existed a quick cure for fear. Oh, look, he’s titled it: “Things I Would Do in a Second, Given Half a Chance.”
- The big fight: Here she processes, analyzes and picks apart the blowup with a loved one, co-worker or even a stranger—the things that hurt, the good licks she got in, the words she wishes she’d spoken.
- The big scare: We’ve all had them.
- The horrifying embarrassment: Cringe away.
9. Lie Detecting
We lie about the things we want to protect—and we aim to protect what’s valuable or vulnerable. Uncovering those things can break your character wide open. Hook your character up to a lie detector, ask some pointed questions and watch the polygraph needle leap and wiggle to see which ones cause him to lie. Or go old school and track his expression and body language: Does he deflect, demure, change the subject, go on the attack? Do his eyes slide left? Does he become very, very involved in de-linting his coat sleeve? Set the timer for six minutes, start your questioning, write down what he says and does and keep an eye on that polygraph needle.
Here are some sample questions for provoking your character to lie:
- Did you marry the right person?
- Do you enjoy your work?
- Do you believe in God?
- Did you want kids?
- Do you enjoy sex?
10. Mind Reading
Finally, ask the one magic question that can take your story to the next level: What is absolutely and completely taboo for your character?
Often the most revealing thing about a character is not what she says or does, but what she’d never say or never do. This is where you’ll find all the richness of subtext that gives a story both tension and depth. There’s an old rule that if your characters are “saying what they’re saying,” then you have a problem. Real people leave important things unsaid, drop hints, talk around what they really mean. All you have to do to find these unspoken treasures is use the most time-honored sly technique of them all, and one you’re certainly already an expert in: getting inside your character’s head. Simply drop one of the following prompts into your character’s unsuspecting subconscious, and write for six minutes as she ruminates furiously.
- I would never …
- I can’t bring myself to talk about …
- I never should have …
What good is being a writer if you can’t play the part of an invasive, inappropriate scofflaw? The reward for all that wonderfully reprehensible behavior is a healthy, messy overflowing stack of pages chock full of goodies. Feels pretty good, right?
As you read over the results of these prompts, avoid the trap of looking for “good writing.” Look instead for the words and phrases that have energy. Seek out the details, quirks, secrets, imagery, habits, skills, preferences and well-hidden flaws—one or all of which might be just the fresh surprise that will bring your characters to vibrant, singular, three-dimensional life.