Character Development

Posted at Oct 17, 2013 2:53 pm

Character development is an interesting topic for readers and writers alike. Well-developed characters are essential elements of good stories. Flat, boring, stereotypical shells take the reader to the shelf where unfinished books with pristine covers are forgotten. Character development is not as simple as plugging in characters that fit. I cannot speak for others, but for me, there is no “plugging things in” as needed. I don’t know everything about my characters when I begin a story. Character development is on-going process. My characters evolve and reveal themselves as the story unfolds.

For a story’s main characters I write a character profile. This is a separate document and not a component of my manuscript. I write a bit in the manuscript and then create a character profile and add to it as I continue the story. My character profiles include the usual physical description of the primary characters, their history, interests, friends and family. That is quite a bit of information but it only scratches the surface. The physical description and other facts help with consistency. A handy reference is useful but that is not the most valuable purpose of a character profile.

Being able to address subjective issues about a character that would not appear in a police report is where a character profile becomes worth the effort to create and maintain it. Describing the character’s values, motivations, hopes, fears and dreams are a start. I also address what a character is inclined to do or not do. I plug in significant events that shaped some of those intangible aspects of their character, personality or nature. I write how a character feels about other characters in the story. With this information I am better informed when I go back to the manuscript. I understand the character and the relationships they are in. That information helps me bring them to life in the manuscript.

Dwight V. Swain wrote Creating Characters, How to Build Story People. I recommend it. By the way, I don’t know Mr. Swain but I appreciate his book.

According to Swain, the most important thing is for a character to care about something. Understanding what that is helps me pound the keys. Know what your character is trying to change, seek or prevent in order to be happy. Give the character direction, an aim in life and infuse them with emotion in each scene. Maintaining character profiles helps me do that.

Understanding your characters values enables you to use them. I try to develop situations in the story where the character’s own values conflict with each other or are tested by a worthy antagonist. The straight-laced son who kills for his family and is forced to flee the country in The Godfather is a good example of this. The son’s values of right vs. wrong conflict with family being most important and he kills someone over this. That drives the story forward, making him an enduring character that cares about something.

Writing character profiles also makes it easy to write backstory for them. Sometimes I include part of the backstory in my manuscript but frequently it does not fit. A little goes a long way. The backstory can easily become it’s own storyline. This is great if you write a series.

I like to write for a few days, review and add to the character profile, take a break for a day or two and then revise my previous work. The characters really come to life while I am revising and that is where I think I get the most benefit from my character profiles. The gold in the mine comes from the insight gained from maintaining the character profile between drafts. Yes, it’s a lot of work so most writers will skip it. We all have choices. I am not saying it is the way. I am an advocate of doing what works for you. I am saying that I find character profiles to be worth the effort and it is a way and worth considering.

I have been asked how I decide which characters I need in a story. I generally begin with the main character and others take shape as I outline the conflict and plot. I have a protagonist worth caring about but conflict revolves around an antagonist’s actions. I begin with those and flesh them out along the way. Don’t skimp on your antagonist’s character profile. It makes them weak and boring.

Until recently I did not think about my relationship with my characters. Other writers have different experiences but I don’t believe I have a relationship with my characters. I focus on the characters relationships with each other. I am concerned with what the reader thinks of the characters, their emotions and the relationships within the story. If you have a relationship with your characters, have a seat and tell me about it. I promise to be a good listener. I feel it is only fair to warn you that a thinly disguised version of your disclosure may find its way into my next story.

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