Character Development: Get a Life!
January 15, 2024
Successful storytelling involves creating memorable characters doing fascinating things. Think about your favourite stories and you’ll probably agree. Characters who quickly spring to mind are so convincing, such an influential part of the story, they seem to stay with us forever. That’s what we should aim for!
How can fiction writers create and develop their characters, making them really fascinating and memorable? One approach is to base them on real-life people. Many famous writers admit to having done so. However, most writers want to create their own, and many have built up a portfolio of fictional personalities they will include in their stories. Writers are constantly observing daily life and adding to their collection of people types, caricatures, personalities, voices, attitudes and dialogue.
Experienced writers know that a lot of time and effort go into character development. There’s no better way to learn how to do it than reading (and studying) their work. In this blog, I’ll suggest some ideas how to develop your characters before you introduce them into your plot. Point #1 is that they can’t, or shouldn’t, just appear on your blank page. Realistic characters have a life before they begin to play the person you envisage in your story. They have a past. It’s a past that can be very powerful and can add authenticity, tone, atmosphere, drama and direction to your story. They can help you build tension, conflicts, and contribute to plot resolutions.
If you have a scene where you want to create impact, a new arrival can add surprise or shock or any other emotion. They can throw curveballs into the plot, planting the seeds of subsequent plot twists. Authors should know a lot about their key characters, even the minor ones, well in advance of the part they will play in their stories.
Remember the objective. As authors, we intend for our characters to create emotions. We need characters with whom our readers are able to relate and, ideally, identify. In particular, we need our protagonist and antagonist, and key supporting characters, to engage our readers and carry them through a truly gripping story. We want to give our readers the exciting experience of being part of a very special journey.
My first step in developing principal characters follows the rule: Get a life! I try to imagine what they were doing before they arrived at the scene. I want to know their feelings, their mood, their attitudes—and what their agendas are—as they enter the story. I imagine myself in their place because I want to make sure they deliver their actions and dialogue fully in character. They have to contribute immediately, even if that part of the story calls for a neutral or dull scene. In a dramatic scene, their dialogue really has to be sharp and on the ball.
Usually, my stories are set against a historical or factual base. This complicates the process of character development and takes more work. Additional dimensions in this case typically include extended timelines, expanded relationships and the need for synchronization of the plot and characters’ actions with historical events. I draw character maps to keep track of relationships and genealogy charts to make sure that details, such as my characters’ ages and actions, synchronize with the story’s timelines and with historical events.
Extra effort on character development pays off when readers’ reviews of your published stories give you the feedback you want. It’s gratifying when readers tell you that you’ve created authentic characters, a realistic sense of time, and an accurate portrayal of real-life events. It’s even better when they ask for more of your stories involving their favourite characters.
Memorable characters doing fascinating things: it works every time.