Character Development in Fiction Writing
There are many books and articles about how to develop your characters with some ‘tricks of trade’ but it all boils down to a few key things to remember to add. They are tried and true – have been the success of many great stories for centuries.
The character has to feel real.
Give him/her personality dimension by supplying a history, nuances, and quirks. Have them do human things. No person is perfect and nor should your character be. The characters need goals and desires which the reader can connect to, in order to make them human in the reader’s mind.
Characters must have some kind of regrets, too. A detective may have a past accident that haunts his personal life – like the character of Jesse Stone in the series by Robert B. Parker. This feeds into the drive and motivation for the character, and makes the reader understand their POV and accept their actions taken. He/she becomes viable, credible, believable.
Let the character deal with struggle.
Even before written words, people told stories about heroes with struggles. The character of Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey deals with struggles to overcome, just like the modern character of Katniss in Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games. They both fight the odds to survive the perils.
The basic draw is reading about the character’s struggles and failures, and then to experience how the character reacts. The reader feeds on the excitement of the struggle, like watching a boxing match, waiting for your Rocky to throw the next punch. The tension needs to build. So put the perils against your protagonist, give them dilemmas, let them fall off cliffs (literally and figuratively). There are lots of great thrillers out there that work this magic like, author Karin Slaughter’s character Will Trent, and D.V. Berkrom’s character Leine Basso.
Readers can identify to a character that has problems just like them as well, as long as there is tension.
Make the character bigger than life.
The reader needs to be interested in the character. Whether we love them or hate them, we need to have a reason to follow their journey. No one wants to read about someone who never interacts, reacts or have things happen to them. Keep the reader’s attention.
We may have an introvert working from home, never leaves until she is thrust into the real world when something happens like the character in – The Net which was written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris. Or a man who has difficulties interacting with people but he’s a master mind – like the character of Adrian Monk, TV series created by Andy Breckman. We may have a boy who is an orphan, forgotten under the stairs, but he is destined for greatness – like Harry Potter from the series written by J.K. Rowling.
All these characters are ordinary people which a reader can relate to – they have human characteristics and quirks, BUT they all become larger than life by how they REACT.
So you say – OK I can do that!
Here’s the kick in the ### Yes, we can all sit down and write out facts about a character, we can push our imagination and dream up all kinds of loveable, evil, strong, valiant, noble, artistic, genius, talented, depressed…characters. BUT the hard part is putting these into the manuscript, a dribble at a time.
In the Harry Potter series, the reader slowly discovers more about Severus Snape throughout the series, until his true motivation is revealed in the end. It’s an aha! moment when we finally understand everything. His character development was genius, built up with many quirks and confusing moments when his actions seem unnerving. The reader wonders about him, hates him, and then slowly he’s unpeeled- like onion layers. In the end his character proves to be one of the most loyal to those he loved.
To sprinkle instead of pour the character into the manuscript.
The same method of subtle clues is used for plot by some of the best mystery writers. Clues are given, small details, and in the end the final puzzle is revealed. You can use this technique to create a well layered character.
You may not struggle with this as a writer, but I unfortunately do. I re-work things to death until I think, “Hey, not so bad.” Once I’m happy with my work I walk away, thinking “I’m a genius,” LOL Only to read my work a week later and wonder “What was I thinking!” It’s the curse of being a writer – we can be our worst critic.
A simple checklist of questions to ask about your characters, to determine if they will make the reader connect:
- Does the protagonist feel real?
- Is there enough conflict?
- Did the problem/conflict create enough tension?
- Is the protagonist’s reaction enough to make them seem larger than life?
- Did the motivation and backstory dribble throughout the plot subtly?
If you have more ideas about how to develop a great character, add your comment. I would like to hear about your techniques that help to write good characters, as well.