Understanding Character Development

This piece was first published in The Writer magazine in 2005, under the title “Understanding Character Development”.

Character development is arguably the most important aspect of writing commercially successful fiction. When we think about why we love our favorite books, we are really thinking most often of the people we met between the covers. Take a classic like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a modern work such as Memoirs of a Geisha, or–one of my own favorites–The World According To Garp. When discussing each of these novels with other readers, the comments I’ve heard have to do with them falling in love with who is telling the story. Not just the authorial voice, mind you, but the narrator, or the protagonist, or even the secondary characters. I briefly dated a woman who had read my first novel, Eddie’s Bastard, before she knew me very well. After a couple of months, when it became apparent we weren’t compatible, she told me mournfully that it was because she had fallen in love with my narrator, not with me. (Somehow, this didn’t even feel like a rejection.)

How do successful authors do it? What is the secret to creating characters that will stick in readers’ minds, that will resonate deep within them and make them remember your work fondly for years to come? And, just as importantly, what will motivate them to tell their friends about your work, so that they, too, will seek it out and spread the word about what a wonderful storyteller you are? Here are five simple steps you can follow at home to help you get to this point.

1. Think of your characters as real, live human beings.
Your characters are real people. It doesn’t matter that no one else can see them yet. If you want your readers to think of them as real, then you must see them that way, too.

Many of the same rules that apply to your daily relationships with real people apply to your characters. It takes time to get to know them: their complexities, their quirks, their strengths and weaknesses. What this means is that you will probably have to write at least a few drafts of your story before you have a deep understanding of who your characters are. I have just completed my fifth novel, and I’ve finally come to accept the fact that I haven’t yet begun to get to know my characters until I’ve finished the first draft and begun the second. Only then, when I can see the role each character has to play in telling the tale, can I really get to know them and explore their full dramatic potential.

If you’re a parent, you can also think of your characters as being very much like children. Just because you created them doesn’t mean you know everything about them–not by a long shot.

2. Create a character background sheet.
When I’m conducting writing workshops, I often present character background sheets as a valuable aid. They are a lot of fun to play with. This is simply a list of all the significant events in a character’s ‘life’, from birth to the moment they appear in your story. You can create a template document on your computer, with the following categories: Date of Birth, Place of Birth, Socio-Economic Background, Description of Neighborhood, Relationship with Parents, Education, First Love, First Job, Current Job, Marital Status, Favorite Color, Favorite Food, Deepest Fears–anything you can think of that might apply to a real, live person. Just leave plenty of blank space after each category, and then every time you are developing a new character, you can print one out and fill it in. It’s one way to get to know these imaginary people better, and it will help you understand what your characters want, and why they want it.

Filling out these sheets even before starting a first draft can also save a lot of time in subsequent rewrites. Try using a character background sheet for your next short story. Decide ahead of time what kind of character you would like to write about. Pick a general type of person: a woman firefighter, for example. Then, create a background sheet and fill it in. Go wild. This is not the time to censor yourself.

3. Make your characters vulnerable, three-dimensional, and interesting.
One of the qualities that sets truly masterful fiction apart from amateurish scribbling is the avoidance of characters that are pure stereotypes. We are all familiar with stereotypes: the sneering, mustache-twisting villain; the hooker with a heart of gold; the tough-talking, rotgut-swilling private eye; the dumb blonde. These kinds of characters are plucked straight from Central Casting, and they require no thought on the part of the writer–or the reader. Remember, you want people to respond emotionally to your characters’ plight. This means they need to have human weaknesses.

That being said, there is nothing wrong with starting with a type and developing it to the point where it bears your unique, personal stamp. All human beings correspond to one type or another, after all, and so do characters. People have expectations of types, and you need to fulfill them–but it’s always better to do so in a way that comes as a surprise.

Let’s go back to our firefighter. When we hear the word ‘firefighter’, most of us probably still think of a man, so by making her a woman we’ve already altered people’s expectations. Let’s play with them a little further by making her of Korean ancestry (a distinction I’ve just picked out of thin air). We can play with her eye color, too–how about one blue, the other brown? And finally, let’s give her a speech impediment, the result of a cleft palate.

In a few short strokes, we’ve created a character that is quite possibly unlike any your readers will ever have seen before, and who is definitely unforgettable. She has a distinctive appearance, and is unique in her profession–she sticks out. When she talks, she will have a distinctive way of pronouncing her words, because of her cleft palate. And here we have a character who we are beginning to understand, who will spring to life on the page as surely as if she had just walked into the room.

Now, the next task at hand is to determine what makes her tick.

4. Give your characters clear-cut, simple goals.
If you’re writing a short story, make your character’s motivation something clear, tangible, and specific. In the case of our firefighter, perhaps she wants her eyes to look like everyone else’s, and she’s saving up to buy tinted contact lenses. If you’re writing a novel, you can certainly keep that motivation, but you can also add more backstory: let’s say, for example, that she lost her mother in a house fire years ago. Now, suddenly, we know a great deal more about her. We can see that she has undergone great emotional suffering, something most of us can empathize with (whether we’ve lost our mothers or not); and we can also understand something about why she chose to become a firefighter–presumably, she was so traumatized by the events surrounding her mother’s death that it affected the course of her life.

Put simply, motivation determines behavior. Your characters need to want something specific and then go after it. (Whether or not they succeed is a different issue, one that belongs more properly in a discussion of plot.) Meandering stories in which there is no clear progression for at least one or two of the characters are unsatisfying to read. We need to see people yearn for something, to expend themselves in pursuing it, to suffer in that pursuit to the point where they are no longer the same person at the end of the story–because they have changed, either for the better or the worse. Unmotivated behavior may not be as clear to the eye as a misspelled word, but it is no less jarring, and it’s one of the most common reasons I often give up on reading a novel before I’m halfway through. Don’t send your narrator to the circus simply because you’ve always wanted to write a circus story. He needs to end up there because a pickpocket stole his wallet, and he chased him into the main tent. Or, maybe he inherited a failing circus from his great-uncle, and he has to figure out how to run it profitably. Or… you get the idea.

It’s always possible for a writer to explain a character’s unclear motivations to his readers in a workshop or other feedback-oriented setting–but my motto is, if a piece of writing requires explanation, it’s a failure. People should not be confused by your work. They should feel that each of your characters is engaging, lifelike, and entertaining–even if they are intended to be unlikable.

5. Make your characters sound like real people, not like characters.
The final major aspect of character development is dialogue. People love reading well-written dialogue, and they hate struggling through lines that seem unrealistic or wooden. Dialogue can make or break your story.
There are actually several components of dialogue, including dialect, accent, rhythm, and word choice. In fact, there is enough to say about dialogue to warrant a whole series of articles. For now, however, we’ll focus on making sure that your characters sound like individuals, because one of the most common problems writers have is also one of the least discussed: churning out characters who all think and talk alike.

While you should always strive to make each of your characters sound distinct from one another, be careful not to overdo this. Dialect, especially, can be tiring to read if it is not done with dead-on accuracy. If you don’t know a dialect very well, such as Cajun French or Boston Brahmin, don’t try to duplicate it on the page. Instead, focus on other things, such as word choice.

Word choice depends heavily on a character’s origins and level of education, and it’s a nice, subtle way to set your characters apart. If I want to depict a conversation between my firefighter and an Englishman, for example, instead of trying to write their lines phonetically, I can focus on word choice. The firefighter will say ‘Hand me the wrench,’ while the Englishman will say, ‘What? You mean the spanner?’ No difficult dialect, no quirky spellings–and yet you know immediately who said what.

Each word a character utters must follow one of two rules: it either must serve to advance the storyline, or it must somehow reinforce or further develop the character in the mind of the reader. If you’re writing a book about people who are obsessed with looking for a lost gold mine in the Sonoran Desert, it is not likely that their conversations will veer into the subject of how Paris Hilton’s cell phone got hacked. And if your antagonist is a foul-mouthed, ignorant slob in Chapter Two, don’t show him quoting Virgil from the original Latin in Chapter Four.

Let’s go back to our female Korean firefighter once again. What will she sound like when she talks? That all depends greatly on her background. If we’ve given her a typical, middle-class upbringing in a suburb of Des Moines, she will probably talk like a Midwesterner. If she was born in a slum in Seoul and didn’t move to the U.S. until she was 21, obviously that’s going to affect her accent in different ways. And her cleft palate will have a further effect on her speech, too.

Most of all, though, we need to know what she will talk about. Using our example, we could say that she wants those tinted contact lenses so badly she can think of nothing else. She will talk about them to her friends, her family, her co-workers. The story itself doesn’t necessarily need to revolve around the lenses–it’s just that her desire for them will be what propels us into the real heart of it. Perhaps she meets someone at the optician’s office who will change her life. Maybe, after purchasing the lenses, she will realize that they don’t make her as happy as she thought they would. Maybe she gets the lenses, but is then blinded somehow while fighting a fire. There are no limits to where our imagination can take us in developing a story, but we make our task much, much easier if we give our characters a few well-defined parameters.

So, remember: to create vivid characters, start with a general type of person; using a character background sheet, refine their qualities to the point where they are unique and interesting; determine ahead of time what they want, and what they are prepared to do to get it; and form a clear idea of what they will sound like and what they will talk about.

These are the basic rules of character development as I see them. Of course, all rules were made to be broken. When they are broken by mistake, that’s amateurism. When they’re broken on purpose, that’s style.

–William Kowalski

If you enjoyed this article, check out my FREE book, Writing for First-Time Novelists: Notes on the Creative Craft.


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