Character development is one of my favorite things to do when I’m cooking up a new story.
With the development of character, it’s like I’m meeting a new friend who trusts me enough to send me on an adventure. I need my character badly for, without him or her, I don’t have a voice for my story. But my character needs me too. I have the necessities to make them come alive.
These are the nine things my main character needs from me.
This is obvious, and you can spend a lot of time looking at name meanings and overthink it to the point of ridicule, or you can call your main character Binky and be done with it. If you’re going to give a character a name, make sure that it has a distinct look and sound from the other character names (this is where I make the obligatory grumble to J.R.R. Tolkien for his choices with Sauron/Sauramon.) You also want to make sure that your name is appropriate to the setting. Make sure that it doesn’t have such a freaky spelling that your readers stumble over it. You want to make sure that there aren’t any cultural connotations with it, for example, the name Hillary.
A general physical appearance, but not a laundry list.
Maybe I’m just lazy and impatient, but I usually skim over an author’s detailed account of their main character. I don’t care about how wide apart their eyes are, their aquiline nose, the ruddiness of their cheeks or that their hair is the red like copper, but not red like the sauce on my taco. I’m of the belief (and it’s because I’m so guilty of this) that the reader creates a mental image of the character in his own way regardless of what the author says. So unless your main character is a hobbit, and it better not be, keep your detailed description to yourself.
“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”
― Ernest Hemingway,
Before you get all huffy about how archetypes are really just three steps away from a cliche’, let me explain: an archetype is a predictable and recognizable role that your character will play in the story. Example are the mentor, the waif, the professor, the crusader, the swashbuckler, the free spirit, the nurturer. And if you use these archetypes as a foundation for the purpose of your characters, then you’ll better understand what they do in the story and how they relate to the plot as well as the other characters. They will only slip into cliche’ if you choose not to fill them with an interesting backstory, quirks, secrets, fears and mutually exclusive desires.
A family — even if they are all dead.
Even if you rarely mention them. Your character has to have come from somewhere. You will need to understand their family history well, especially if they have tragedy and dysfunction. And really, what’s the point of having a story at all if you can’t give them tragedy and dysfunction? Take the time to sketch out your characters parents, siblings and any other important family members. They have certainly shaped him or her. You need to understand that well. Consider how parents’ afflictions affect their children. Don’t forget birth order. Throw in some poverty for fun.
A skill set.
Everybody can do something. In fact, if your character is really good at one thing, they will be respected by your reader, at least in this area. The only exception to this rule could be children who haven’t grown into them. Before you figure it all out for your character, think about what life skills they rock at. Think about professional skills. What about languages they speak? Their animal whispering, their ability to make the perfect omelet? Think about oddities, like they can pop their shoulder out of its socket. Or maybe they can read minds. Your author’s skill set will distinguish him, so choose well.
“Never annoy an inspirational author or you will become the poison in her pen and the villain in every one of her books.”
― Shannon L. Alder
A quirk is something particularly unusual and not necessarily a skill. It could be a dairy allergy or an obsession with border collies. A quirk could be an eccentricity or a lack of eyebrows. By adding a quirk to your characters, you make them more three-dimensional but choose carefully. You don’t want the quirkiness of the quirk to overpower everything else in the story. The quirk, as fun as it is, isn’t enough to make a full character. Choose one that plays nicely with the other characteristics of your character and may even add to the plot.
This lie is not something necessarily that they KNOW is a lie. It’s something that they believe that turns out to be false. In the best books it’s the discovery of this lie, about halfway in, that changes the trajectory of the story for our hero. I think the best lies are those that have set the character out on the original quest. He’s seeking his objectives under a solid assumption, then the floor falls out from under him and he discovers he was deceived all along. Oh, if you do this well, your readers will EAT THIS UP!
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Now bear with me on this. You don’t want something benign, like a fear of butterflies, you want something that’s really identifiable, like a fear of abandonment, a fear of humiliation, a fear of losing control, a fear of rejection. It’s this fear that’s going to cause your main character to make some serious mistakes, like alienating people or forgetting their big purpose. Everybody has these kinds of fears, even if they don’t realize it. A character’s deepest fear can be the motivation that’s driving them to make the choices that they do. As you’re working on your plot, consider what would happen if their deepest fear was actually realized!
A way to process information.
This is really important. Is your character someone who takes everything literally and for face value? Or is your character someone who can read between the lines, who picks up nuance? Does your character have empathy for others who may or may not get this information? Or does your character hoard information for himself and refuse to share? Is your main character scatterbrained? Impulsive? Indecisive? Inflexible? It’s this type of distinction that can really make your character become real to your readers. Take your time on this one — and consider making your character as different from you as possible!
If you give your character all of these nine things, and you sculpt this out with care and thoughtfulness, you’ll have created someone interesting and worth reading about.
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Katharine Grubb is a homeschooling mother of five, a novelist, a baker of bread, a comedian wannabe, a former running coward and the author of Write A Novel In 10 Minutes A Day. Besides pursuing her own fiction and nonfiction writing dreams, she also leads 10 Minute Novelists on Facebook, an international group for time-crunched writers that focuses on tips, encouragement, and community.