The hardest thing for me about character development is what my character is like inside. Yes, of course I know her plot problem. But, what is most important in her life? I can’t just randomly assign this. Same goes for character and personality traits, bad and good habits.
I have to learn who my main character is, like when I meet a new person.
First, we’re introduced. I see his exterior. I may learn: his manner of speech, his job, and where he lives. Nothing very deep. But what I learn hints to who he is. I’ll probably recognize him when I see him next.
In books, we get to choose how to introduce our character. We can’t depend on a visual, since we’re not dealing with pictures. Whatever we write should help our reader recognize this person again. However, we have the advantage that we can start with something deep which will quickly push the relationship closer.
We meet again and I learn: her interests, pet peeves, maybe about her family. I may experience her sense of humor; or hear about the current crisis in her life. We find what we have in common. When we see each other we enjoy the time, but may not make special effort to seek each other out. I often only think of this casual friend when I see her.
In a story, staying at the casual stage doesn’t do it. If a reader doesn’t desire to seek your character out, to see what is happening, the book can be easily set aside and forgotten.
A person who never goes beyond the acquaintance or casual stage with me may be a loner, too different, or perhaps we just didn’t click.
Book characters may be loners, but can’t shut the reader out. The reader must learn some of their secrets, their foibles, their dreams.
If there is nothing in a character a reader can relate to, why read on? That doesn’t mean a character has to be exactly like you or me–for one thing that would be boring–but something must give the reader some sense of familiarity or connection. It may be common values, the way the character thinks, talks, or finds interesting.
Not all characters will click with all readers, of course.
She and I like each other, so mutually agree to be friends, although this is rarely stated openly. Instead we choose to spend time together. I enjoy talking with her and finding out what she has experienced.
Main characters in books need to be likable or intriguing, so the reader will keep going long enough to make friends. Readers must want to spend the time it takes to finish the book. They need to enjoy discovering what is going to happen next.
If the two of us hit it off, we may jump deep into friendship, skipping some stages along the way. But often it’s more a gradual wading in–the more she and I learn about each other, the closer friends we become. (Unless the relationship is interrupted by a big disagreement.) When we are together, it’s usually a good time, even if the circumstances aren’t good. This also doesn’t mean we won’t learn each other’s weaknesses.
If the reader is drawn close to a character, the attachment strengthens, and the reader will care enough to stick through tough spots, weaknesses, and even shocking revelations.
Our friendships are rarely based only on a person’s appearance.
Neither is a reader’s connection to a character.
MY MAIN CHARACTER, MY CLOSE FRIEND
How do I get close to my character? For me, I think about her or him a lot (without putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard).
I ask questions. Big questions and small questions:
- Why is this problem important to her?
- Who does he depend on or confide in?
- Who are her friends? Her enemies?
- What does he want to be when he grows up?
- What does she dream about?
- Does he hate dogs? Why?
- Does she adore a sport or local team? What, who and why?
- How does he spend spare time?
- What chores is she required to do at home?
- What’s his worst class at school? What’s his best? His favorite?
- What extracurricular activities, clubs, or groups does she belong to?
- How does he feel about all of the above things?!
I try to remember to take her with me and think about her participating in what I’m experiencing.
- How would she most likely react to this situation?
- What is she likely to say in this circumstance?
- Would she like this or hate it?
When I go to bed at night I imagine him on scene.
- What will he do?
- What will he say?
- How will he try to solve her problem(s)?
How do other writers do it?
Some use charts or do character interviews. Some writers are more organic–they start writing about the character and as they write they discover things about their characters. Some of what they write is only back story and will not make it into the finished book.
Of course, we all at some level borrow from what we’ve
seen. Not usually a real person’s entire personality, looks, habits, experiences, but that annoying habit of his, her pattern of speech, his way of thinking, her talents, etc.
Whatever method works for you, you’ll probably find it is work. But hopefully you’ll also find it was worthwhile spending this time with your character.
Make Them All Problem Magnets! Seven Principles for Better Fictional Characters
Top Ten Questions for Creating Believable Characters
How to Develop Fictional Characters
Fiction is Folks by Robert Newton Peck
Creating CHARACTERS: How to Build Story People by Dwight V. Swain
The Secrets of Successful Fiction by Robert Newton Peck
Creating Characters Kids Will Love by Elaine Marie Alphin