Basics of character development

16 July, 2012

I posted this in a forum, and thought I’d put it here as well….

As someone currently attempting to complete my first novel (after numerous previous attempts), I think I’m more aware than most of the mechanics involved. Yes, I said mechanics. Characters don’t always spring into existence fully formed, especially if you are dealing with a lot of them. This is where method and technique matter just as much as inspiration.

The first thing to remember is character=story. Plugging characters into a story that has no personal meaning for them usually makes for an unsatisfactory story. Ideally, the main character’s personality will relate directly to the themes of the story and goals of the plot.

Second is character depth. The more detail a characterisation has, the more real they seem. Think about their little likes and dislikes, their happy and sad memories, their individual ways of dealing with the world. Don’t be afraid to make heroes terribly flawed – but remember to give them some underlying kindness and desire for love, or else they won’t be sympathetic.

Third is character detail. Although some scorn them, character charts can be invaluable, not only for keeping a record of your main character’s, um, characteristics, but also for ensuring your secondary characters aren’t just cardboard cutouts. Here’s one I prepared earlier:

Summary: (Age: , Sex: )
Appearance:
Personality:
Likes:
Dislikes:
Greatest desire:
Surprising fact:
Traumatic moment:
As a child:

When you fill one of these out, you’ll often notice characteristics bounce off each other and produce more character information (which can in turn help develop the plot).

If you relate a character’s personality to the plot, a lot of character detail should emerge automatically through the narrative and action, but keep an eye out for important characteristics that don’t come out that way. In this case, you should (generally) show (not tell) this characteristic. E.g. if you decide that your character has a short fuse, it’s necessary to show this play out, which requires planning: what is going to anger the character? How exactly will they react? Ideally you’ll make this scene a part of the plot, or at least part of an ongoing process of character development. The same thing applies to character relationships. If, for example, you want two characters to fall in love, you’ll need scenes that specifically show (or imply) the characters transitioning from not-love to in-love – things like finding each other attractive, realising they have the same attitudes, the same life-goals, finding that they miss each other.

I hope someone finds this useful!

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