Character development 101

One of the better characters in fiction

One of the biggest challenges you’ll face as a writer is to create characters that are believable and with whom yourreaders can relate. To my mind Stephen King is a master of character development. His villains are pure evil but they’re also undeniably human; you can recognise people you know and possibly even recognise shades of yourself, which why they are so effective. His heroes are never purely good; they’re flawed but you can relate to them as they try to make the best of bad situations.

Sadly, the book world is full of poorly developed characters, some from incredibly famous and successful authors. Take James Patterson, for instance. Alex Cross is too perfect for the average person to relate to. Even his flaws seem too carefully crafted to be believable. Wilbur Smith never had a hero who wasn’t chiselled and ineffably, ruggedly handsome; his heroines are always exquisitely beautiful, poised and possessed of iron-like inner strength.

It is possible to get away with 2-dimensional characters, but if you’re serious about your craft you shouldn’t settle for characters that will do when you can create characters that leap off the page.

So, how do you create full-bodied characters?

It starts with an idea; an idea of a villain or a hero or a sidekick. Once the idea has formed you can start working on details.

It sounds obvious, but you need to decide if your character is going to be male or female. Gender plays an important role in how characters behave and how readers expect them to behave. You can then determine how characters are going to break the mould.

Age is also an important factor; teenagers react differently to people in their 30s, who react differently to people in their 70s. Priorities change with age, insights and perceptions change and you need to take all of this into consideration when developing characters. There’s nothing wrong with a sprightly 78 year old who still plays tennis, but it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to compete with Roger Federer. Recognise the limits of age and respect them.

What is your character’s back story? Did they have a happy childhood? Were they sporty and popular or quiet and bookish? Were they bullied or were they the bullies? How did this affect them? Maybe your bully is reformed and the victim turned vigilante to address a lifetime of perceived wrongs. Do they have university degrees or did they drop out of high school?

What is the current status quo?  Is he or she unhappily married, happily divorced, gay or lesbian, determinedly single? Where do they work? Why that profession?

What motivates your character? Is he driven by the need to succeed, does she want to create the perfect family, is he running from his past, is she fighting for her life?

What does he or she look like? Does she wear glasses, is he short? What colour are her eyes, is he starting to develop middle-age spread?

You don’t have to provide all these details to your readers, but the clearer your characters are to you and the more familiar you are with where they come from the better you’ll know where they’re going and how they’ll get there.

Balance is everything, or is it?

Everyone has issues, quirks and eccentricities; some more so than others. To what degree will your characters’ quirks influence them?

Bridget Jones is a quintessential quirky woman; she has weight issues and her foot is wedged almost permanently in her mouth, but she’s not unbalanced. Her eccentricities don’t define her.

Hannibal Lecter is a complete monster, a psychopath to the nth degree but outwardly he is perfectly controlled; the essence of refinement.

Characters don’t have to be perfectly balanced, but they do need to be consistent. If, after an argument, Bridget Jones suddenly whipped out a knife and plunged it into Mark Darcy’s heart that would be inconsistent. It’s more likely she’d get ridiculously drunk in a karaoke bar, end up in bed with Daniel Cleaver and wake up with a universe full of remorse.

A rose by any other name

Naming your characters can be important in character development, or not. It depends on your naming approach. Some writers try to match names to types of characters; bad guys have bad guy sounding names (Klayton), pretty girls have dainty names (Lily). Others use names to contrast character types. They might give a jock name (Brad) to a nerdy character or call a slightly thick brick-layer a posh name like Eustice.

And some authors just latch onto names because they feel right.

It’s important to keep the names of all your characters as distinct as possible. Try not to have too many characters with names that start with the same letter or sound the same phonetically.

Challenge characters

To develop your characters throughout the story you need to challenge them. People grow when they overcome challenges, solve problems and learn lessons. Use the same principle to help your character grow from the start to the finish. The way in which your characters overcome challenges is also an important indication of how they develop, whether it is for better or worse. Some characters do change for the worse, especially if your story is an exercise in regression or madness.

It’s extremely unlikely that a character will spring into your mind fully formed. Characters develop with your story, but it’s very important that you have a good idea of who they are before you dive in.

(Image from wikimedia commons)

One of the biggest challenges you’ll face as a writer is to create characters that are believable and with whom your readers can relate. To my mind Stephen King is a master of character development. His villains are pure evil but they’re also undeniably human; you can recognise people you know and possibly even recognise shades of yourself, which why they are so effective. His heroes are never purely good; they’re flawed but you can relate to them as they try to make the best of bad situations.

Sadly, the book world is full of poorly developed characters, some from incredibly famous and successful authors. Take James Patterson, for instance. Alex Cross is too perfect for the average person to relate to. Even his flaws seem too carefully crafted to be believable. Wilbur Smith never had a hero who wasn’t chiselled and ineffably, ruggedly handsome; his heroines are always exquisitely beautiful, poised and possessed of iron-like inner strength.

It is possible to get away with 2-dimensional characters, but if you’re serious about your craft you shouldn’t settle for characters that will do when you can create characters that leap off the page.

So, how do you create full-bodied characters?

It starts with an idea; an idea of a villain or a hero or a sidekick. Once the idea has formed you can start working on details.

It sounds obvious, but you need to decide if your character is going to be male or female. Gender plays an important role in how characters behave and how readers expect them to behave. You can then determine how characters are going to break the mould.

Age is also an important factor; teenagers react differently to people in their 30s, who react differently to people in their 70s. Priorities change with age, insights and perceptions change and you need to take all of this into consideration when developing characters. There’s nothing wrong with a sprightly 78 year old who still plays tennis, but it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to compete with Roger Federer. Recognise the limits of age and respect them.

What is your character’s back story? Did they have a happy childhood? Were they sporty and popular or quiet and bookish? Were they bullied or were they the bullies? How did this affect them? Maybe your bully is reformed and the victim turned vigilante to address a lifetime of perceived wrongs. Do they have university degrees or did they drop out of high school?

What is the current status quo? Is he or she unhappily married, happily divorced, gay or lesbian, determinedly single? Where do they work? Why that profession?

What motivates your character? Is he driven by the need to succeed, does she want to create the perfect family, is he running from his past, is she fighting for her life?

What does he or she look like? Does she wear glasses, is he short? What colour are her eyes, is he starting to develop middle-age spread?

You don’t have to provide all these details to your readers, but the clearer your characters are to you and the more familiar you are with where they come from the better you’ll know where they’re going and how they’ll get there.

Balance is everything, or is it?

Everyone has issues, quirks and eccentricities; some more so than others. To what degree will your characters’ quirks influence them?

Bridget Jones is a quintessential quirky woman; she has weight issues and her foot is wedged almost permanently in her mouth, but she’s not unbalanced. Her eccentricities don’t define her.

Hannibal Lecter is a complete monster, a psychopath to the nth degree but outwardly he is perfectly controlled; the essence of refinement.

Characters don’t have to be perfectly balanced, but they do need to be consistent. If, after an argument, Bridget Jones suddenly whipped out a knife and plunged it into Mark Darcy’s heart that would be inconsistent. It’s more likely she’d get ridiculously drunk in a karaoke bar, end up in bed with Daniel Cleaver and wake up with a universe full of remorse.

A rose by any other name

Naming your characters can be important in character development, or not. It depends on your naming approach. Some writers try to match names to types of characters; bad guys have bad guy sounding names (Klayton), pretty girls have dainty names (Lily). Others use names to contrast character types. They might give a jock name (Brad) to a nerdy character or call a slightly thick brick-layer a posh name like Eustice.

And some authors just latch onto names because they feel right.

It’s important to keep the names of all your characters as distinct as possible. Try not to have too many characters with names that start with the same letter or sound the same phonetically.

Challenge characters

To develop your characters throughout the story you need to challenge them. People grow when they overcome challenges, solve problems and learn lessons. Use the same principle to help your character grow from the start to the finish. The way in which your characters overcome challenges is also an important indication of how they develop, whether it is for better or worse. Some characters do change for the worse, especially if your story is an exercise in regression or madness.

It’s extremely unlikely that a character will spring into your mind fully formed. Characters develop with your story, but it’s very important that you have a good idea of who they are before you dive in.

Leave a Reply