Character Development: When Back-Story Isn’t Enough

As writers, most of us already know that solid character development is key to a solid story. There’s a lot of advice out there about how to go about making robust characters: observe the people around you, create character charts, make sure you know your character’s back-story, etc.

It’s all great advice. For instance, I love filling out character sheets because they prompt me to think up things like nervous habits and identifying marks that I might not have given my character otherwise, but that make them that much more real.

And, of course, you have to know their back-story. If Sally is a runaway in chapter one who’s been homeless since she was ten, you can’t have her talking about the wonderful new bedroom decorations her mother gave her at age eleven.

But what do you do when that’s just not giving you what you need? When all of that planning doesn’t yield a direction for your character? I have two methods I use, and I adore them both.

First, and my favorite, is to imagine what happens to them after the story ends. This is especially helpful when I’m trying to choose from a couple of story endings, but that’s not the only time I use it. It’s an easy past-time: don’t write anything down, just pick a scene in your head and follow it to its logical conclusion. Maybe it’s a love story and two of your characters end up together. What happens when they have their first child? Or your entire star-ship crew just got back from an epic space-battle; how does that impact their view of the world ten years down the road?

My second trick takes a little more time, but can still be just as fun. I write a short story (actually writing this time, not just daydreaming) that places my stubborn character in an alternate universe. I ask myself “what if Conner were born in modern America, instead of ancient Greece, and was the son of the devil?”. All of the basic character traits stay the same, but he has to interact with a whole new set of people and world rules.

Those are just two ways I help give characters more depth – and figure out how they might react in my current story when I’m stuck for ideas. What methods do you use for character development and to make stubborn characters speak to you?