Last month, I wrote a blog about the making of a hero in a murder mystery. That brief exercise on character development generated considerable interest. So today I’d like to expand those thoughts and discuss character development from a broader viewpoint.
Often I’m asked how I “think up” the characters I write about. Specifically, where do I get my ideas for a character? The answer is simple: from everyday life. As writers, we tend to size up people as future characters. The long answer, however, is much more complex.
While it’s true that a character is often based on real life experiences, transforming a person’s mental image into a fictional character is an intricate process and comparable to applying multiple layers of varnish onto a raw piece of furniture with intermittent buffing before the finish gains depth and beauty.
In a similar way, character development is a process of layering all the components of a person (or of several different people) to build a multi-dimensional fictional being that the reader can connect with in the two-dimensional world of literature.
So when developing a character, I follow my own Prescription For Murder, a variation of the 3P Model. I structure a character physiologically, psychologically and philosophically. Let’s take a closer look at these and I’ll explain what I mean.
The Physical Aspects of a Character: You should have a good idea what your character looks like before being able to convey that to a reader, but you don’t have to go into anatomical detail. Saying “She’s five foot eleven, has red hair and weighs 110-lbs” is a rookie mistake. Instead say, “Her legs went on forever, her waistline the envy of most women, her flaming hair a perfect complement to her peaches and cream complexion,” or some other subtle, more pictorial description. Be creative, not biological, when describing characters.
Physical features are the first of several aspects of a character to lock down in your own mind. Appearances often influence how others act around them and, although we need not specifically state what a person looks like, hints at physical attributes give the reader the needed information to arrive at an accurate mental image of the character, how the character acts and how others react in their presence.
The Psychology of the Character: A character’s mental state – their feelings and their perceptions of the world around them – drive the character’s actions. This is where background development becomes so important. Create a virtual life for your main characters, a pedigree that makes them who they are and determines their actions. For example, a person raised in a loving family with close siblings would react differently in a given situation than a person who grew up in foster care or reform school.
It’s said that we are the product of our life experiences. For readers to be able to connect with the characters we create, we have to first construct full lives for those characters in our minds. That means where and how they were raised and educated and what sacrifices they endured to reach their present state of being. Most of what you envision about a character (preferably in a brief outline) will never actually be stated in your book unless it’s important for the story’s progress, but it provides valuable information to you for character direction. Knowing how a character would feel in a scene provides important visual clues to help indicate what a character is thinking and feeling without wasting dialogue. For instance, a character fidgeting indicates nervousness and putting a hand over the mouth shows disbelief.
The reader should be satisfied that a character is acting appropriately in any given scene. Your job as a writer is not only to write the scene but also to direct your characters to act according to what information you’ve provided about them. A reader should never say, “Hmm, he would never have done that!” It takes the reader out of the story and you lose the reader’s emotional connection to the character.
The Character’s Philosophy: Each of us has opinions and beliefs about most any given subject. We’re either for or against something. Sometimes we’re indifferent and could not care less one way or the other, but that doesn’t make for good storytelling. Our characters need to be definitive and those definitive beliefs and philosophies are what drive the story one way or the other. A character can be indecisive initially and that can create important dramatic tension, but then their inner principles must take over. Without a character with a strong viewpoint, the story doesn’t progress; there’s no reason for the character to take action. Action moves the story forward and motivates our protagonists and antagonists to do what they should do to entertain the reader.
Characters are good, evil or neutral. Good and evil characters create and drive a story. A villain’s selfishness and greed make good fiction as well as the altruistic concerns of a hero, but neutral characters don’t. They may be necessary to create a realistic background, but they don’t propel the story to any formidable conclusion and are always secondary.
Finally, success, like the devil, is in the details. A well-conceived character has likes, dislikes, and specific needs – just as real people do. Everyone has merits, flaws and quirks. Your dialogue and narrative should be peppered with those of your main characters. The more these individual traits are exposed, the more emotional connection the reader will have with a character. The primary reason people continue to read a novel is to see the villains they hate get their just desserts or to know that their heroes live to save the day. Make your characters real and believable by first making them real to you. That will make your writing journey so much easier.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!
Another excellent post, Jim. The particular characters I created in my own novel were either fragments of myself, or composites of people I have known. At first they were like young children; easily controlled and perfectly malleable. But as the story progressed the characters grew. They began almost to develop their own personality. Ultimately, I had to change the story I had in mind, because I could not get these characters to act in a way I had intended.
Ever had that experience?
Yes, I have. It’s crazy that these characters seem to have their own minds, but when that happens I like to think that we’re finally defining the character well enough to trust what they would do in a given situation. Congrats on your writing!