I'm sure most of you have heard the adage: Show, Don't Tell. Well according to Writing Fiction (Gotham Writers' Workshop), there's not one, not two, but four ways you can show your character's traits. These are: Thought, Appearance, Dialogue, Action (or as I like to call it, TADA!). I don't know about you, but I have enough trouble juggling one aspect of my character at a time, much less four of them simultaneously. This is why I devised a tool called the Character Compass.
Here's how it works. You draw a circle with two perpendicular axes (see example above). Label each axis with the TADA techniques. Now draw a dot on that line to indicate how much of each you used for that character in a given scene (the closer the dot is to the circle's edge, the more of that technique you used.) Connect the dots and you get a visual representation of how you showed that character.
Now I can guess what you'll say next. Do you really have to use the same amount of all four TADA techniques? No. The point of the Character Compass is to highlight what your tendencies are. For example, using the Character Compass on a WIP, I learned that I rely a lot on dialogue and actions to show characters' traits but I rarely use appearance and I'm terrified of using thought. This exercise was a wake-up call for me because it showed me areas of my characters that I had been neglecting. I realized that in order to be a versatile writer it's important that I be comfortable in using all of the TADA techniques, not just one or two.
Acrostic "At-A-Glance" Bio
Another trick I picked up is what I call the Acrostic "At-A-Glance" Bio for my characters. I'm sure many of you can relate when I tell you that I write these long, extensive bios for my characters. Trouble is, I forget half of the information when I actually sit down to write. I got frustrated paging through long documents to look up details about my characters so I devised this method of creating "At-A-Glance" Bios. These character bios are so small, I can write them each on one index card and tuck them in my notebook. Here's how it works. (This technique was inspired by the poetry of one of my favorite authors, Lewis Carroll.)
Step 1: Write the character's name vertically on the page so that each letter gets one line.
Step 2: For each letter of the character's name write a trait or important detail about the character.
Example: Cheshire Cat from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
His grin stays behind
Says "we're all mad here..."
Hides out in Wonderland
Invisible at times
Reappears gradually, sometimes not completely
Croquet with the Queen
Appears and disappears
Talks in riddles
These acrostic bios are tricky but they force you to think of your character in terms of specific, concrete details. In the end, I haven't abandoned regular character bios completely, I just use these acrostic bios as a way to keep the most essential traits of my characters on the tip of my mind.
Today's Task: try your hand at one of today's techniques. Or, if you prefer, share another tip or trick you've used that relates to developing characters.