The Basics of Character Development

As I work on revising my novel this week, I’m going over my character development. My novel has a wide cast and that’s challenging (but fun) to manage. Currently I’m working out notes on each character to make sure my portrayal of each one is consistent and that they are as fully developed as their roles require. This has, of course, brought me back to my books.

My post for this week will therefore be a breakdown of the nuts and bolts of character development. As always, challenge, question, and comment below, please!

The goal of character development is to create characters  exactly suited to your purpose. In my experience, there are 3 levels of characters. Tertiary characters (background people- the cab driver or cashier, perhaps) should be flat characters that don’t distract your readers. They aren’t interesting and they shouldn’t be interesting. For them, this this is good character development.

Secondary characters are much more complicated, of course, as are primary characters. These two types of characters are what I will generally be referring to throughout this post.

With primary characters, the goal is exactly the opposite of flat and uninteresting. They should be, as Brandi Reissenweber puts it in Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School, “real enough to cast shadows.” Before we look at how to do this, let’s look at why we want this from our characters. In Master Class in Fiction Writing, Adam Sexton says, “If they are well-wrought, stories intrigue, entertain and satisfy us. But it is characters that we love— and love hating. In the short stories and novels we read and reread, it is characters above all that we cherish.” Characters are what make your readers attached to your work. They make your writing memorable. Ebenezer Scrooge, Neville Longbottom, Elizabeth Bennett and Anne Shirley are an enormous part of what makes their novels compelling.

So, how do you make the next Huck Finn, the next Atticus Finch? There is no recipe for characters like that, and a lot of it has to do with talent (both learned and natural talent). However, there are consistent elements involved in developing characters that are complex, memorable, and realistic.

Active protagonists are essential. With few exceptions, a story with a passive protagonist will eventually wither and die. Protagonists set the story in motion; they drive the action. If they aren’t active, neither is the story. An active protagonist is one who wants something. This is key to a good protagonist. Again, Reissenweber says, “Desire beats in the heart of every dimensional character. A character should want something. Desire is a driving force of human nature and, applied to characters, it creates a steam of momentum to drive a story forward.” How badly the character wants  whatever they want tells the readers how hard to root for them to succeed– if Atticus only sort of wants to win the trial, readers will only sort of care.

This desire must be something internal and external. Characters have to desire something tangible that is core to their identity. For example, a teenager put into foster care as an infant may desire to know his birth-mother. This may be borne of an internal desire to find his identity- who he is and why. The tangible, plot-propelling expression of that is the hunt for his mother. Note that because this desire is key to who he is, he will, guaranteed, want it badly. Linda Seger, in her book, Making a Good Writer Great, notes says that “Yearnings push and pull at us…Sometimes they’re so strange that we wonder what anyone would think about us if they really knew what we yearned for, or how much we yearned for it… Too many characters lack guts and vibrancy because they only have a wee bit of want, rather than raging desires.” An internal desire to be loved, to be accepted, and to take control of one’s life (and many more desires like these) are realistic internal desires that a character could have, and the tangible, concrete counterpart desires he may have are endless. Your character must have them, however.

One more important note is that this abstract, internal desire is often a big part of what connects us to a character. For instance, most of us know and empathize with the need to be loved, and we will connect with a character who wants that badly.

Besides a strong internal desire mirrored by a strong external desire, there are 4 more main traits of solid characters. The second trait is complexity. No human can be reduced to a stereotype, and characters shouldn’t be, either. Characters may start with a type- the farmer, the feminist, the rural preacher, the hipster, the gold digger– but they must, absolutely must, transcend type. They must be different from anyone else of that stereotype. The farmer might secretly study foreign politics. The feminist may love gardening with a passion. The preacher might be a compulsive liar. The reasons why they do these things that separate them from their stereotypes make them real people. These differences should include flaws and virtues, as well. The sinless hero and the completely evil villain are stereotypes themselves.

The third element is contrasting traits. All people, as you peel back the layers, have conflicting characteristics. Personally, I am a social person– to a point. I am social, and I am also not. One of my characters in my novel does not want a husband- but she does want children. Ebenezer Scrooge is a hard-hearted miser, but deep down (deep, deep down), there is a part of him that is still a little boy. These contrasting traits happen because of all the baggage we carry around with us. All the things that influence who we are help create these contrasting layers. My husband still surprises me with the things he does, and not because I don’t know him well or because he’s an inconsistent person (he isn’t). It’s because people are complex beings with multiple reasons for why we do what we do. Sometimes one reason wins out, and sometimes another does. This creates those layers, those contrasting traits, and the characters in our fiction should have them too. A character without them won’t be convincing.

I just mentioned consistency, and that is the forth element of round characters. Consistency is  the effect of readers being able to see why the contrasting traits exist. So as your characters live out their lives in  your plot, make sure there are solid, consistent reasons behind why they do what they do. They may do surprising things (and they should) as long as we can see why that choice was made. Elizabeth Bennett said she’d never marry Mr. Darcy, but she did, and we believe it because we can see why she did. She changed her mind, but the reason she did is still consistent with who she is.

Of course, Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy both changed as characters over the course of the novel, and ability to change is the fifth characteristic of sound characters. The possibility for characters to change keeps us reading and keeps the characters from being predictable. We want to know if Scrooge becomes a better, happier soul; if Neville Longbottom rises out of his shy, bumbling childhood; if Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy can change enough to value each other as they ought to. They might, they might not– we read to find out. Here too we find ourselves rooting for this kind of character, and if he or she has a strong internal and external desire, we’re doubly captivated.

Those 5 things -desire, complexity, contrasting traits, consistency, and ability to change- are the main elements of compelling, realistic characters. Now, say you’ve got that all worked out. More than that, you’ve got pages filled with who this character is beyond these 5 traits. You know his his backstory, his favorite kind of peanut butter, his nervous habits, and what makes him happy, sad, and angry. How do you make all this complexity come across in your writing? How do you characterize him within your story?

There are 4 main methods of characterization. The first is what the character does. This is the closest thing we have to objective information about who a character truly is– what she does. Adam Sexton also points out that, “if readers have observed an aspect of character in a scene, they will more likely remember it.” So, instead of telling us what she did, have her do it in a scene. It gives us strong evidence about who she truly is, and we’re likely to remember it since we saw it.

The second method of showing character is through what the character says (or thinks, if we have access to that through the point-of-view.) This is, of course, more biased and subjective than actions. Kind words, judgmental statements, or pithy thoughts let us in on how characters think and who they are. Complaints, wise advice, thoughtful responses… these things are great opportunities for readers to see who your characters are.

The third method is through what other characters say or think about that character. This method is especially useful because it characterizes both the speaker and the character about whom she is speaking. If I say harsh words about a friend of mine, it may tell the reader something about my friend, but it will likely also tell the reader something about me. It may tell a great deal, in fact.

The final main method of showing characterization is through what the narrator tells us. Except for cases of unreliable narrators, the narrator is honest and unbiased. We don’t have to filter what he tells us. Make use of this reliable perspective for elements of your character that you absolutely don’t want doubted, and then support those traits with the other methods.

In all these things, subtlety is the goal. If these things are done heavy-handedly, readers will feel forced or manipulated. Being too obvious is just as bad as being confusing, if not worse, so this is where practice and good feedback is important in character development. Learning to see where you are overwriting and where you are being too subtle is important to having truly realistic characters, characters who keep readers coming back and are real enough to cast shadows.

Of course, there is much more that can be said about each of these areas, and I have glossed over and abbreviated many things. The three books I reference in this post have excellent sections on character development and I highly recommend turning to them for additional examples and explanation. Thank you for reading!

9 thoughts on “The Basics of Character Development

  1. While not an author per se, i am developing a character for use in Role-Playing. Much the same process must be followed in character development. Although, most of what is in the profile will never be revealed, the fact that it is there adds color and substance to the created character.

    I recommend as a starting place two separate things. You touched on one. For beginners, attempting to make your character overly complex can be so daunting a task as to force the retirement of the entire project. So, complexity bulds much as we grow as humans, interacting with others in our environment, modifying our thoughts and ourselves in the process. As a suggestion, start with one major virtue and one major vice. Add to them secondary virtues and vices that become more evident as you get to know the character. For example, my character is pious (the virtue), however, he is also brutal (the vice). These are supported by a worldly curiosity (sub-level virtue) and being quick to anger (sub-level vice). As the character interacts with others, more and more sub-level virtues and vices will become a part of his profile.

    I have found that making a list of the adjectives that can be used to describe the character from both an internal and external viewpoint, allows me to see what he thinks of himself as well as how others see him. The list may be long or short and it will change over time as his story unfolds. He is a dynamic device rather than a static uni-dimensional one.

    Sorry for the long wall of text. My next goal in writing is brevity or conservancy of words. Happy writing.

    Hemingway was said to have called a blank sheet of paper, the white bull. I see it as more of a porcupine with all of the points erect.

  2. Dig your suggestions!

    Recently started creating long bios on each of my characters before starting on my novels. Sounded like a silly procrastination idea, but it appears to enable characters to feel more real and lovable as my stories progress.

    • Thanks Rene! I have been doing the same with my characters. In fact, that’s what I’m doing right now. The forced concentration on one character that profiles demand makes them so much more whole. I checked out your blog and read the first chapter of your book- it’s compelling!

  3. Love it! Character development is consistently the critique that I get in feedback. Thanks for posting! (Congrats on the novel, by the way. So exciting!)

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