Image: Matthew Loffhagen
The first thing to say about character development is that there is no quick and dirty way to breathe life into your characters.
Your characters are people with their own set of complexities, their own opinions, and their own personalities. You need to take time to nurture their growth, development, and relationships.
It has been suggested that character development is a skill that cannot be taught. Well, I’m here to give that idea a resounding thumbs down and to show you some useful techniques to help you along your way.
1. Make it easy for yourself, do some research
I can’t emphasize this point enough, so I decided to put it at the top of the list.
Research is one of your early and most crucial steps in the process of character development. Research equips you with the insight and knowledge to give your characters believable features and traits. It adds legitimacy to your novel and shows your readers you care enough about your characters to properly develop them. This will earn you respect as an author and will pave the way for a loyal readership.
Let’s say you are writing a novel about a teenager dealing with a heroin addiction. You would probably start by researching heroin addiction online which is fair enough but it is vital that you don’t leave it at that. To develop your character effectively, you would need to understand his/her reason for being addicted, his/her routines and perhaps how this is affecting his/her family. Although you can get some of this information online, reading about it will only take you so far. To truly get an understanding of people dealing with an addiction, why not actually visit a rehabilitation centre and talk to some of the people that deal with this on a daily basis. This process of gathering information will give you a deeper understanding of who your character is and how he/she interprets and reacts to the world around him/her.
Reality is a useful tool for you as a writer so make sure that you have big slabs of it to hand when developing your characters.
2. Easy does it
When first introducing your character to your readers, be careful not to fall into the trap of relaying too much detail too soon. Many writers start off by giving their readers a detailed summary of their characters before moving on with their story.
This is a big no no.
Less is more when introducing a new character. You want to drip-feed your readers enough information to whet their appetite and to kick start their imaginations.
For example, when you read this sentence, what do you see?
The Dalmatian chased after the birds in the garden.
Can you see the Dalmatian running after the birds? Can you hear the birds squawking as they fly out of his reach?
I thought so.
In this very simple example, I have kept the detail and description to a minimum. I am giving you as the reader the chance to use your imagination and to fill in the finer details. You would have surmised that the dog looked like most Dalmatians and the birds were minding their own business when the dog decided to chase after them. I didn’t need to tell you what kind of birds they were because that makes no difference to the story at all.
If this description was part of a larger story, your focus would not be taken away from the plot line as the flow is not disrupted.
Now let’s try the same example again but with a bit more detail:
A large dog with black spots and a white body, jumped up and ran across the garden barking. His blue nylon collar slid back and forth on his muscular neck and his ears flapped heavily against his head as he hurtled towards the crows sitting on the blueberry bush.
Too much detail right? I bet you felt the need to concentrate on my description to keep up with what I was describing.
Why is that?
In this case, I have told you what to imagine and how to imagine it. I didn’t trust you enough to allow you to picture it yourself so I explained every detail for you. This is a great way to remind your readers that you are a writer hard at work and is a one-way ticket for your book to end up in the bin.
Too much detail is dangerous as it also interrupts the flow of your story. If you place the second description into a larger story, your readers would lose focus of the plot because they would need to stop and think about what you were saying. This kind of disruption will aggravate your readers which you really don’t want to do.
My point here is to hold back on giving too much detail. Trust and respect your readers enough to allow them to use their imaginations when introducing a new character, they will appreciate it.
3. Let body language play its natural part
Body language speaks volumes about what we are truly thinking and feeling as human beings. By simply lowering your eyes, crossing your arms or biting your nails, you are unwittingly communicating your true feelings.
In fact, research has shown that communication is only 10% of what we say and 90% of how we say it. In other words, we don’t need to be told what someone is feeling because we are already hard-wired to decode and understand emotions. We know that someone is happy if they are smiling and similarly if someone is anxious, they may bite their nails or pace the room.
The power of body language works incredibly well when it comes to developing your character and it brings me on to my next point: show your readers what your character is feeling, don’t tell them.
For example, by saying “Mary was very angry” or “Gerald felt very stressed out”, you are telling your readers how Mary and Gerald feel which means nothing. Telling your readers also does little in the way of encouraging relationship building between your readers and your characters.
However, by showing your readers what your characters feel, you are inviting your readers to participate in the story. A wonderful example of the effect of showing can be found in Ken Follett’s The Fall of Giants:
“My goodness, I remember this”, Fitz said.
“The first vintage I ever tasted, and probably the greatest.”
He felt conscious of the maid’s presence, leaning close to him and peering at the bottle that was many years older than she. To his consternation, her nearness made him slightly out of breath.
In this example, Ken Follett has invited his reader’s to imagine Fitz secretly enjoying the closeness of his maid in spite of himself. This non-verbal explanation and use of body language is very engaging and far more effective than simply saying, “Fitz felt excited by the maid’s closeness”.
4. Use objects and situations to give your characters dimension
This point further builds on the idea of showing rather than telling. As I mentioned above, your readers don’t want to be told that “Rory was crippled with fear”, they want to feel Rory’s fear. They want to connect with Rory in some way.
A great way to start building this connection is by showing how your characters react to the world that they inhabit. What your characters value and how they perceive the world around them reveals more about their feelings than an adjective ever could.
For example, a starry night could be interpreted as romantic by a woman in love but could also be interpreted as a reminder of loneliness by a woman who has just lost a loved one.
My point here is that emotions are layered and complex. You can explore this complexity through your character’s interpretation of their world.
In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver explores Leah Price’s determination to rise above all the strife that life in the Congo has thrown at her. In the below passage, Leah is describing her current living quarters in a way that invites readers to sympathize with her as well as admire her courage:
Our house here is mud and thatch, plenty large with two rooms and a kitchen shed. A happier place, for sure, than the tin-and-cement box that packaged us up with all of our griefs in Kinshasa. There, the cranky indoor plumbing constantly grumbled at us like God to Noah, threatening the deluge…
I am sure you’ll agree that the above description is far more effective than simply saying, “Our new house is much bigger and more comfortable than our old house in Kinshasa.” This sentence leaves no room for imagination and reveals nothing about how Leah actually feels.
5. Say no to the mad scientist and the Russian spy
Clichés are dangerously easy to use but are also highly effective at undermining your characters before they have even had a chance to develop. We are all familiar with the mad scientist, the Russian spy, and the bulimic ballet dancer. In most cases, these characters end up being as unoriginal and uninspiring as we would expect. By using a clichéd character, you are signaling to your readers that no imagination and therefore no interaction is required. Boring!
By populating your novel with clichéd characters, you are effectively making the characters secondary to the plot. This is completely off track as your characters should be the driving force of your plot; your plot should take shape around them.
Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.
~ Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
We are all inclined to write about what we know and what we are familiar with. For example, the violent, knife-wielding gang member with a tattoo across his neck is pretty common. If you feel yourself being drawn in by the ease of a cliché, why not take the opportunity to flip the stereotype onto its head. So for example, you could have a knife-wielding gang member who is actually an aspiring ballet dancer. This quick exercise has taken a cliché and made it into something original.
By allowing your character to be original, your plot will naturally grow out of him/her.
Now that you have an original character, it will take some effort to keep that character original and not to assign the more obvious traits. Your work on achieving originality will go down the drain if your character starts doing things that we expect him to do, so don’t slip into old habits.
How do you bring your characters to life? Do you do research when developing your characters? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.