Insider Tips: Character Development 101

Characters are the bread and butter of your story, the glue that holds the plot together, the icing on the… oh, you get the gist. The characters are the emotional center of any written work — they are who takes us along with them on their journey. If we aren’t emotionally involved with the lead character (who may or may not be the narrator), or find the supporting characters boring or nonsensical, the reader will quickly become bored and no amount of plot will bring them back. It doesn’t matter if it’s a young boy who discovers he’s a wizard, a group of kids who band together to fight the evil lurking in the sewer, or a man who builds a spaceship to hunt for his abducted wife, if the characters are weak or underdeveloped, the story will suffer. So how do you go about engaging the reader with compelling characters that they’ll want to follow to the end of the world?

Understand the Basics
There are several basic things you must know before developing characters. The protagonist is your hero — they dictate the focus of your story and are who the reader must identify with the most. This character will more than likely change over the course of the story, seeing the world or life one way at the beginning and a completely different way at the end based on the obstacles they must overcome. Opposing the protagonist is the antagonist, or the villain of your story. There can be multiple antagonists, and they don’t necessarily have to be human, or humanoid. Very often, weather or celestial objects, such as tornadoes, meteors or an eclipse, are the main antagonist. But when considering who your protagonist and antagonist are, and what journey’s both will take through the story, don’t be afraid to go against  archetypes, either making the villain your protagonist and the hero your antagonist, or digging really deep and making them the exact same character. Just remember that the antagonist should always be stronger, smarter or suaver than your protagonist, because when the villain is weaker than the hero, there are no stakes.

Get To Know Your Characters
The better you know your characters prior to writing your first word, the more likely you’ll be able to let go and allow them to guide you along their journey. As a writer, you’ll spend a lot of time together with your characters. If you don’t find them compelling enough to want to spend time with, why would your readers? Getting to know them gives you the chance to find out what makes them tick and whether they are important enough to keep around.

Learning who they are. A lot of times, if you don’t understand your characters, they’ll meander about your book like a child with amnesia, changing personalities and acting in contradictory ways from scene to scene. This leads to a lot of continuity issues that will have to be corrected while editing and revising. Writing a paragraph or two about the characters prior to writing, you’ll have a better idea as to how they would act in certain situations and where their emotional journey will take them. Don’t spend a lot of time on this: give them some identifying features, a little bit of backstory (where they like to hang out, who their friends are, a little about their personality) and then decide whether they are in need of an emotional journey and what that might entail.

Make sure they help your protagonist (or antagonist) in their journey. There’s nothing worse than hanging out with a well-drawn character for umpteen pages only to have them be inconsequential to anything going on. It doesn’t have to be a major thing, but at some point, their presence should have consequences to the actions of your protagonist. I hated having to kill a couple of characters early on in Jaxxa Rakala: The Search, however their deaths forced characters to rise up where they may not have otherwise and will continue to effect the relationships between all of the characters throughout the series. To test whether or not a character is needed, tell yourself the story without that specific character. Does anything change? Is their lack of presence felt? If so, then they’re a keeper. If not, no matter how much you might like them, you should get rid of them. They’re just taking up valuable real estate.

Utilize the Theory of Opposites
Always try to pair your characters with their direct opposite. if you have a shy, reserved protagonist, give them a fun, outgoing best friend or mentor. If you have a wily, structured villain, give them a goofy, chaotic sidekick. Personality conflicts are a strong way to develop dramatic tension, wherein your lead characters aren’t only fighting their opposition, but their allies as well. It adds depth to the well of the character and gives you the opportunity to develop the characters in a natural way. Instead of dictating who they are to the reader, you can now show who they are because of how they relate to these other personality types. Not only that, but their presence will give the lead characters skills that they otherwise wouldn’t have without them, allowing for a more genuine transformation.

Base Them On People You Know
Don’t be afraid to base your characters on people you hang out with on a daily basis. Observation is the one of a writer’s most important tools because it allows us to understand different personality traits and the way people speak and act when in certain situations. You can do a lot of this while walking through a mall, or waiting in line at the coffee shop. But it’s the people we’re around all the time that give us our best source of character. I’ve developed characters that perhaps have one small habit of someone I know, all the way up to basically putting that person directly into the book, simply because they’re outgoing nature was the perfect balance to the more reserved characters she hangs out with. But the most important person you should base your characters on is reading this blog right now. That’s right — it’s you. Most, if not all, of my characters have some piece of me within them. It could be their fears, their attitudes, their dreams or their spiritual tendencies, but by putting a piece of myself into each of the characters, it draws me closer to them and helps me relate to them more than if I was separating myself from them, which if I did, would push the reader to separate from them as well.

Give Them Flaws
Nobody likes reading about perfection (unless perfection is the character’s flaw). Unlike old archetypal serials, heroes and villains are never black and white. When a hero is pure good or a villain is pure evil, they become boring. To make them dynamic, each one should have some traits that would normally be represented by the other. In other words, a hero can be good at heart, but continually steal or lash out at society; or the villain can be doing something immoral, but be doing so because he has good intentions. But be careful: if you give a hero too may flaws, or a villain too much heart, it could cause confusion in the reader and keep them from connecting to either.

In summary, characters I write are all based on what the protagonist and the antagonist are going to need to tell the story I want to tell and complete their journeys. I draw from the experiences, quirks, habits and personalities of people I know in order to understand them and care about them, to give them purpose and make sure they have meaning to the characters. But most of all, whether it’s genre fiction or a deep, literary character study, I try to stay true to myself and give represent my own personal vulnerabilities within the characters. Because when you connect with your characters and can’t bear to leave them when you’ve finished your edits, more often than not, the reader won’t want to let them go either.

What do you think? Have you ever gotten rid of a character that turned out to be unnecessary to the hero’s journey? Have you ever based your characters off of someone you know? Have you ever given your villain the qualities of a hero that make your reader cry when they are defeated?

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