A story without a good character is nothing. It is nigh-unreadable. It is uninteresting and it will not leave an impression on its audience. A lot of the other rules of fiction writing are negotiable (especially in flash or micro fiction, but that’s another thing entirely), but without people that we want to see either succeed or suffer, a story isn’t worth reading.
One of the tools that I have found to be the most helpful when it comes to character work is actually tabletop role playing. It’s a mix of character writing, combat tactics, creative problem solving, and improv acting. My Novel in Six group recently did a one shot game with original characters in the system Don’t Rest Your Head, in order to challenge ourselves to get in a character’s headspace.
There is something about being forced to think like this character in real time that creates a kind of intimacy with them that doesn’t exist when writing and re-writing. The spontaneity breaks down walls of reservation and over-thinking; it forces you to make a gut check and just go with your instinct. And now you’ve reacted, you’ve said something, and you’re committed to an organic, evolving character.
I’ve been playing in a weekly Dungeons and Dragons game since mid-April 2017 with the same character, meaning I’ve spent well over 200 hours living inside of her head. That’s no small feat! Recently, another player retired his character (my elf’s best friend in-game) and introduced a new one. Between games, I took a week to reflect on how this would affect my elf, a loner who’d only recently opened her heart up to new companions Since then, I’ve sent her into a rather self-destructive spiral of poor life choices.
A popular D&D stream recently had a beloved character die, and I think it shook the fan community up pretty badly. For me, though, I think it set me free; I’ve decided to push my elf to a breaking point, where she can go out in a blaze of glory, protecting her friends. I’ve even got a back up character fairly well planned out and discussed with my Dungeon Master. I think I’m ready to finish up her character arc in the near future. It’s been great to spend time with her, but it’s about time to move on.