Assembling a Cast or Creating Characters?

I have two sons, born three years apart—raised in the same household by the same parents, attending the same schools, going on the same family vacations, and sharing many of the same life experiences. And yet, in spite of all they have in common, my sons couldn’t be more different. Let me quickly say, they are great friends, and they are both delightful, intelligent, interesting, and talented human beings, but their looks, their personalities, their interests in life, and their gifts are so different, so unique, they might have been born on different continents—even, I sometimes think, in different centuries.

It’s the differences between people that make life interesting. And challenging.

The same is true of the characters we create as authors. Years ago when I’d “finished” my first novel, a mentor who was helping me with dialogue said, “Your characters all sound like you.” Not surprising since I’d created them, but I had to learn how to give each character, even the relatively minor ones, unique speech patterns as well as individual personalities, histories, and emotional lives. In the world of fiction, this is called developing “fully realized characters.”

Recently I came across a helpful article in Dramatics, an online theater magazine (Lindsay Kujawa “Creating Characters: Developing Fully Realized Performances,” September 8, 2020). The secret to a fully realized performance, Kujawa said, is found in character development:

Character development often seems elusive. It’s so personal and has endless paths. But all these paths filter into two categories: Inside-Out and Outside-In.

  • Inside-Out is the process of determining the inner world of the character and using that information to inform how your character walks, talks, and interacts with others.
  • Outside-In is the process of exploring how your character walks, talks, and interacts with others and using that information to create your character’s inner world.

To develop a fully realized character, you must know your character inside and out. You must understand every action they take, from both a physical and mental standpoint. Without connecting the two, you end up with a one-dimensional character.

If you just develop your character on the outside, you’re simply emoting ― displaying emotions without intention or action. If you only develop your character internally, the audience will never see the intricate inner world you’ve created. You need to know which questions to ask so you can identify the important given circumstances and stakes.

The same thing is true of creating fully realized fictional characters. Populating the world of your novel isn’t so much a matter of assembling a cast (protagonist, antagonist, confidante, love interest, sidekick) as it is creating characters with individual needs, desires, life goals, histories, strengths, flaws, vulnerabilities, emotional triggers, and secrets.

Stories are more than plots. Stories are about unique and interesting people facing unusual circumstances in a changing environment. Just like life.

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