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Creating Great Characters: Focus on Formative Memories

Last month I discussed how important it is to develop ALL of your characters, and this month I'd like to talk about how you can do this. Specifically, I'm going to focus on how you can maximize the impact of each character development exercise, transforming your characters into real people with the smallest amount of effort possible.

Now, that doesn't mean this is going to be easy. Creating characters that feel like real people is tough. Even Tolkien didn't always pull it off. To accomplish greatness, you must put in the work.

But there is always a way to do things more efficiently. For character development, I've found the most efficient process starts with understanding their formative memories.

What do I mean by formative memories?

Formative memories are events that shape the trajectory of a person's life, both consciously and subconsciously. Often they're childhood memories, and they may not even be fully remembered by the character. Other times they're monumental events that happened during adolescence or adulthood.

Why focus on formative memories?

You can get an incredible amount of information about a character from a formative memory, especially if you look at the deeper implications of that memory.

Focusing on formative memories is even more powerful if you're writing a story on another world or an alternate version of our own. Cultural rituals and milestones, such as when you become an adult and what happens when you do, will be quite different in these worlds. By exploring these formative milestones through your character you'll also be able to develop your world at the same time. Now that's what I call efficient!

Exercise: Best and worst childhood memories

I like to walk my main characters through several formative memories before I start a book, but there are two I write for every character: the best and worst childhood memories. These are often directly connected in my stories, so I do them as one exercise, but you can separate this into two exercises if you need to.

I always do these exercises on paper, but feel free to do them in your favorite writing software.

STEP ONE: Choose a character and grab a timer.

STEP TWO: Set a timer for ten minutes and ask the character to tell you about their best childhood memory. I usually try to make this a third person scene, but if your character wants to ramble in a journalistic style, let them. The point is to make the exercise authentic to your character, not to force the words out in a specific way.

STEP THREE: Set a timer for three minutes. Ask your character how they feel this memory has affected the rest of their life, and free write the answer. This time you want to have a more journalistic writing style.

STEP FOUR: Take a two minute break. Walk away from your computer. Stay focused on the character, but clear your head of the previous scene.

STEP FIVE: Set a timer for ten minutes. Ask your character what their worst childhood memory is, and free write until the buzzer goes off. Fill in as much detail as possible. Once again, choose the narration style that fits your character. First, third, even second person is totally fine for this exercise.

STEP SIX: Set a timer for three minutes and ask your character to talk about how this memory has affected the rest of their life.

BONUS STEP: Set your timer for another three minutes and write down all the ways you think these memories affect your character, both leading up to and during your story. Many people aren't aware of how deeply formative memories affect their current situation, and your characters may not be either. As their creator, you're more aware of the characters' inner workings, so your answer may be very different.

Dianna Gunn is author of YA fantasy novella Keeper of the Dawn and columnist at Writer's Corner, writing both Professional Interaction for Authors and Creating Great Characters. She also blogs about creativity, life and books at The Dabbler.


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