How to develop characters for your novel
Getting to know the voices in your head
As a budding writer you might feel pressured into plotting or world building, but it will eventually come down to the characters. Character development can be a challenging aspect of fiction writing, but it can also be a rewarding experience. For one, characters can write the story for you – in a way.
In this post we’ll talk about what makes a good character and explore ways in which you can develop your own. Even if you are in the midst of writing your novel, it can be useful to reexamine your characters and give them a greater degree of depth.
Why are characters important?
Characters are the story. You should write this down somewhere.
While plotting and world building are important – depending on the kind of writer you are – the moment-to-moment occurrences come down to your characters.
There may be a certain quirk of personality that can generate conflict at a critical juncture in the plot. The character may have some disadvantage that can drive up the stakes during the climax. Your character could inspire the affection or loathing of your readers.
Characters are the story. Write that down somewhere.
The point is: characters are important. Characters can generate interest and – significantly – emotion. It doesn’t matter if you are plot-driven or character-driven, a plotter or a pantser – you need to develop your characters properly to ensure that your readers have something to hang on to.
So, what makes a good character?
Relatability vs. Memorability
According to Donald Maass, in Writing 21st Century Fiction (2012), characters in modern writing don’t need to be relatable in ways that traditional writing advice might suggest. “A protagonist with our job, our house, and our headaches isn’t an automatic grabber” (Maass, 2012:75). He cautions against straying too far into the painfully familiar.
This does not mean that your character should be flawless. The “superman character” also tends to be too alienating to the audience. Besides, who would care about a character that is “suffering” from sexiness or too much money. Even the playboy Bruce Wayne has his weaknesses (possibly why Batman is more successful on the big screen than his Kryptonian counterpart).
This also does not mean that the character should be too far removed from the everyday. It is a tough balance to maintain, I know.
What is important is making your characters distinctive. This means that you should give your character some quirk or feature that will make them jump out at the reader. This can be a simple as making the character funny.
For example, in Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, (my favourite novel of all time) the protagonist, Alex, has a unique command of English. Not only are his descriptions humorous, they bring a unique view of the world with them.
Alex is distinctive. I will always remember him, his way of speaking, and his way of seeing the world.
Exercise: think of your favourite novel – who is the character that stood out the most? Why? What made her/him distinctive? How can you use this knowledge in your own writing?
Beyond a character being memorable, there is another aspect that I feel is important. Let’s take Alex as an example. Sure, he is funny and he has a funny way of speaking, but that’s not enough to sustain you through the whole book. There’s something else:
We care about him.
We have empathy for Alex. (Read this book, trust me).
Who cares about empathy?
How is this different from making your characters relatable?
For me, familiarity is less important than empathy. Readers might not be able to match their life experiences with those of your telekinetic orphan with a speech impediment, but if you can make them care about her – that makes all the difference.
Maass suggests that you should think of people in your own private life that you admire. To strangers these people might seem ordinary and uninteresting, but to you there is something special about them. Over the years, these people (may they be family, friends or a significant other) have shown you the best of themselves or overcame adversity in some way.
Exercise: Think of people in your life you admire. Think of how this inspires your awe, love, and empathy. How can you use this in your fiction?
Try to apply this to your character by placing them in a situation where they can take the same actions your person would have taken.
One important difference is time. “In your fiction you don’t have the luxury of years to spend while your reader gets to know your main character” (Maass 2012:76). You somehow need to make your readers care in the space of a few pages or less.
Sounds impossible doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, there is no one right way to do this. The way I do it is by questioning myself. This means delving into my emotions and asking myself why I care about the things I do. (Perhaps this is a form of mindfulness). What makes me care about this person? How did this character make me feel?
You might arrive at an answer that is personal to you. Whatever it is – use it! Chances are that you’ll get readers to feel the same way.
Psychology by small degrees
Few writers begin with a list of character traits and a stack of pages detailing character background. Your novel probably began with a sliver of a scene, a conversation between characters, or a world that sounds cool in your head. This is the way for most writers (for me it started with a song – more on that later).
By now you’ve written your first draft (right?), so you should have a better idea of what your story is about and what your characters are up to. (Remember that writing is rewriting, so things should always be changed and improved). Even at this “late” stage you should be working on the psychology of your character. How do they thing? What do they think? Why do they think that way?
You should get to a stage where you can place your character in any situation and know how they will act and react. What would your alien prince do when confronted with a choice of flavour at the ice cream parlor? (If you can’t answer that, go deeper into their backgrounds – maybe even mess them up a little).
You may wish to fill in spreadsheets wherein you detail everything from star-sign to favourite colour. This is perfectly valid, only you should not stop at a list of facts. Remember, a novel is a narrative, not an accountant’s exercise book. More importantly than knowing what your character’s favourite colour is, is knowing with it is her/his favourite colour. Does it have some childhood significance? Does it remind her/him of her/his first love or a safe place?
This means delving into the psychology of your character(s). Favourite colour is merely an obvious example, but the point is that every aspect of character should point to something in their past or tell you who they are.
If your pirate has a hook for a hand, you should know how they lost their real one. You should know even if your novel doesn’t reveal it. Why should you know this? Because this detail could inform how this character reacts to a ticking crocodile, for example.
More importantly than knowing what your character’s favourite colour is, is knowing why it is her/his favourite colour.
You are never going to list off all the facts of your character to the reader. Instead, you will reveal a character little by little through the course of the story. How do you do this? You place her/him in situations that show off parts of her/his personality. Lucky for you, this is what your whole novel should do anyway: each scene either shows a part of your character, advances the plot, or (even better) does both.
Character is story, you see? In some sense characters are all you need. If they are fleshed out enough they can’t help but make story around themselves. In time you will know what I mean.
Suggestion over revelation
Remember when I said that you should know all the details, even those that aren’t revealed in the novel? Well, this brings us to another important point: suggest more than you reveal.
Readers get bored with info-dumps – regardless of it being world building or character background. They want to get where the action, secrets, and character interactions are at. Audiences don’t want to be confronted by everything at once. Doing this will lessen the impact and (worse) make it harder for audiences to care.
Remember that you should reveal your character by placing them in situations that show how the deal with things. (More on showing and telling later). Each of these situations (scenes) should give a little snippet of personality/psychology – certainly not all of it. By making the reader ask the right questions: why doesn’t he like blueberry ice cream? why would he react like that to a flavour?
The need to answer these questions will keep them reading. Don’t disappoint them. Eventually, gradually, give them the answer. Readers don’t like to be talked down to, though, so make sure it isn’t something obvious. Don’t underestimate your audience’s intelligence: give them a chance to figure things out from the clues (suggestions) you’ve given them.
And, in the end…
Characters can make or break a novel. They can breathe life into any work of fiction. All it takes is a little work (and a lot of thought and hair-pulling), but in the end it is more than worth it. To me, characters are part of the joy of writing. They can become great friends or frightening villains. Whichever the case, characters can make writing an art-form worth suffering for.
Hope this helped you improve your writing!
List of sources
Maass, D. 2012. Writing 21st Century Fiction: High impact techniques for exceptional storytelling. Writer’s Digest Books: Canada.
Truby, J. 2007. The Anatomy of Story. Faber & Faber: New York.
Famous Last Words
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