Three Exercises for Character Development from James Frey

I recently ran into a road block on my work-in-progress. While my critique group enjoyed scenes involving my main character, they didn't feel invested in a second story arc involving another second character named Tristam.

Peta suggested I didn't know Tristam well enough and recommended that I flesh him out.  At the time, I was reading How to Write an Damn Good Novel by James Frey (Which I won in a drawing on Jordan McCollum's blog.  Thanks Jordan!), so I decided to try his methods.  They were fun and helpful.  I'll share them with you here.

1.  The Autobiography - Not just the facts of a character's life, but a character's autobiography in his own voice, complete with ramblings, tangents, pontifications, and commentary.  Frey suggests that for a main character, this could be 10-50 pages long!

2.  Psychoanalysis - Pretend to be your character's therapist, sit them on the couch, and start asking them questions.  You can have fun with this.  How do they feel about their mother?  Will they be offended when you ask?  Taking the roll of psychoanlalyst helped me get under the surface to the issues that were important to Tristam.

3.  Ruling passion - What is your character's one driving passion, the "sum total of all the forces and drives within him?"  Power?  Career?  Self worth? Love?  Figure it out and write it down.

Epilogue -- I tried all three exercises (plus an additional one, see below*) and then revised the scenes in question.  The critique group all thought they were much improved.

What is your favorite way to get to know your characters?

*I rewrote the scenes in first person, present tense even though the manuscript is in 3rd person, past tense.  I was able to use phrases and details generated from first person version to add immediacy to the final versions

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  1. Great ideas - I've heard many good suggestions from Frey's book. These are all good - you'd certainly know your characters well after completing those exercises. I'll keep those in mind. Thanks :)

    I get to know my characters mostly in my head. I tend to watch them interact, and feel what they feel. I'm very emotional, so I tend to get to know them from that perspective first. It works so far :)

  2. Thanks, good lady! I'll keep this in mind as I start my novel this month.

  3. What's your novel about, Simon?

  4. I like the psychoanalyst idea... not that they have psychoanalysts in the world I've created, but it would still be fun. I'm mostly editing at the moment, though...

  5. I think I'll be trying these out on my own characters! It'll be interesting to see what a psychoanalyst would make of my cavalier ghost protagonist.

  6. i definitely do the character therapy thing on my own characters. it's an occupational hazard.

    The Character Therapist

  7. I get to know my characters as I outline since it’s then that they start whispering things in my ear and telling me what they want and how they plan to get it. Scenes play out in my head while I’m on the road, in the shower and lying in bed. Although I know much about them when I first sit down to pen those first words, it is during the first draft that I flesh them out the most. Everything clicks from there, and if it doesn’t, well, then I hop in the car for a ride, it always works! :-)