Creating a character with real heart is hard.
It isn’t like slapping a wristwatch into a Tin Man and telling him he suddenly has one.
Writing a character who possesses true heart requires the same amount of dedication, the same kind of connection and patience, that a relationship with someone else who actually HAS a heart takes. It requires time, and honesty, and sometimes conversations you don’t think you can bear to get through. It demands understanding, and knowing, and letting yourself fall a little in love. (Even if you aren’t, you know, romantic about them in That Way.)
Figuring out how to do this—how to write a character whose heart is real—is one of the most important things to me when it comes to writing. But it’s also one of the most complex. How do you do it? How do you really get in to someone in such an intimate way? How do you become more than Victor Frankenstein—not merely assembling the body parts and bringing the lighting, but also make something live?
When I step back to think about it, I —as I’m sure you do, too— get really, really intimidated.
So instead of getting overwhelmed by the Big Picture, I try to recall my poetry background and focus on the details.
Because, while we are all much more than the sum of our parts, those small parts—what we listen to, where we go, the things we care about day to day—can give others (and ourselves, really) a better idea of Who We Are.
So I start very, very basic. Asking the kinds of questions of my characters that I would ask anyone else I’m first getting to know. What is your favorite color? A movie that moves you? What you like to eat when you’re sad? It may seem silly (especially when you’re only trying to develop the stepmom who only appears three times in a story), but sometimes the best devil really is in these details.
To get you started with these questions, here’s a worksheet I give my students when we’re in the early stages of developing character, and ultimately story. You may not have answers to every single question, and some of them might seem irrelevant, but I find, for me, that asking what my character carries with him or her every day really can shine a light on bigger matters of heart.
But another thing I think a lot about when it comes to character, and heart, is relationships. Who are the most important people to my character? Best friend? Parent? Romantic love? Boss? Coach? Who is on their radar but to a lesser degree? A friend’s mom? A teacher? A sibling who now lives far away? Thinking about the important relationships in your character’s life will help determine their actions during the course of their story. For whom are they willing to fight? Who inspires them to hatred that leads to mistakes? The great Harry Potter, after all, may not have been moved to do what he did if it weren’t for his friends, his teachers, his parents, too. Dobby.
So here’s a map I draw for myself, connecting my main character (in the center) to the
Most Important People, and then the Second Most, while also connecting those Most Important People to each other. Because your mom certainly has an opinion of your girlfriend. Your best friend has thoughts about your evil boss. And those connections might influence your decisions when it comes to all of them.
Of course I understand these two exercises may not be enough to fully animate a corpse. To do that takes a lot more time and practice than I can address in one lesson, but I do find that these detail exercises at least get the muscles twitching. Get my characters acting and speaking in more complete ways so that I can see better who they really are. How they move. What they love. It at least gets the two of us out the door on our first date together, where, I hope, with more questions and more conversations, we’ll both ultimately see each other’s real hearts. And fall in love.
- Developing character relationships to better understand motivation.
- Learning specific details about character in order to make them more complete and real.
- Understanding that building character is the hardest and most complicated aspect of writing, but is worth the time.
Terra Elan McVoy is the author of six acclaimed YA novels and two middle grade, most recently This Is All Your Fault, Cassie Parker from Katherine Tegen Books. She is also an independent bookseller and creative writing instructor, and lives in Atlanta GA with her husband and a lot of shoes. To learn more about Terra and her books visit terraelan.com.
You can also find her on Facebook by clicking HERE. Or find her on Twitter = @TerraMcVoy, or Instagram = terraelanmcvoy
If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Terra’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.
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