Five Reasons to Fully Develop Your Characters

Characters. Can’t live with ’em, can’t write a book without ’em.

In my post about needing Pantsers Anonymous earlier this week, I mentioned that I’d written 60% of my first draft before realising that I didn’t know nearly enough about my protagonist. Not good, right? A few people suggested some great methods for developing characters either before or during writing, and everyone agreed that getting to know your characters is vitally important.

So I got to thinking: How is it that I thought I knew my protagonist, when I really didn’t? How is it that I thought I knew about his motivations, when all I really had was a rough idea that he wanted to be better, stronger, smarter, and more heroic?

That’s when I realised that I had developed his character. To a point. I’d just only concentrated on developing him from the point that interesting things started happening to him.But a fully developed character is so much more than that. A fully developed character is one that we know backwards, forwards and inside out. We may not (and probably shouldn’t) include his/her entire backstory in our writing, but we need to know it.

Here’s why.

1. Because cardboard cut-outs are 2-dimensional.

“Tell me about your character.”

“He’s a taxi driver in New York.”

Surprisingly, that does tell me a fair bit about your character. It tells me his gender, occupation, and location. It paints him as someone who’s seen lots of weird stuff, and probably has nerves of steel. It tells me he’s an adult, and that he probably has a fair bit of life experience. If you add in a couple of descriptive words like ‘grizzled’ or ‘surly’ or ‘dodgy’, I have a pretty good mental image of him. If I had any visual arts skills at all, I could probably draw you a picture of him.

But that’s all it would be: a picture. A 2-dimensional rendering. Because the character has no depth. He has no life outside of taxi driving. He has no goals and no motivations. So he picks up a fare and gets pulled into a situation where he’s got a wounded angel in the back seat and is being chased by blood-thirsty demons intent on destroying the sole creature who can save the world from eternal damnation, you have absolutely no idea how he’ll react.

But develop his character a little more, and suddenly you have a guy who studied comparative religion and philosophy at college, before stumbling across the identities of a number of New York based members of the Illumaniti. He had to go into hiding to save his life, and is working as a taxi driver to earn enough money to keep investigating a secret plot to use demonic powers to control government officials.

Try drawing that on a piece of cardboard!

2. Because he says tomah-to and she says tomay-to.

I was chatting to a friend earlier in the week, and she told me about a book she’s reading at the moment (which will remain nameless). In this particular book, there are two POV characters who narrate the story in alternating chapters. It’s a fairly common method of presenting multiple POVs these days, especially in romance-flavoured books. But my friend isn’t enjoying the structure at all. Why? Because she can never remember which character is narrating at a give time. Their voices are exactly the same.

Regardless of whether you’re writing in 1st or 3rd person, and whether you’ve got one or multiple POVs in your novel, each character should have a distinct voice. You usually shouldn’t need dialogue tags to identify if it’s John or Mary talking. And when you’re dealing with internal dialogue? There should be no question whose head you’re in.

The best way to ensure your characters have distinct voices is to give them distinct personalities, backgrounds, goals, beliefs, and values. And that means spending the time on character development.

3. Because you can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.

Imagine a teenage boy is standing in front of you. He’s wearing a waiter’s uniform and his name tag says his name is Freddy. He has a gold ring on his left ring finger. His hair is short and neat, and he smiles when he takes your order. But there’s something slightly haunted about his eyes.

Imagine this boy grew up in Manhattan, living in an old brownstone house in Carnegie Hill. His father was a banker, and his mother volunteered for various charities.

Now imagine he grew up in Brooklyn, in a crappy tenement in Cypress Hill. He doesn’t know who his father was, and his mother did whatever it took for her son to go to school and have a better life than she did.

In both bases, the superficial description is the same. But the moment he opens his mouth and starts talking? The moment he has to make a difficult moral choice? That’s when you’ll notice the difference. Because when the chips are down and the stakes are high, the circumstances of his childhood, and the values imparted to him by his parents, will matter.

4. Because the difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.

No one has an idyllic childhood, then wakes up one day and decides to be a serial killer.

Well, maybe that happens in real life. I don’t know. But in fiction, things have to make sense. In fiction, a cause must come before an effect. In fiction, that serial killer was tortured, tormented and/or abused as a child. Because if she wasn’t, readers won’t buy it.

Every insecurity, ever internal conflict, ever moral dilemma, every hard choice that your character needs to make is only difficult because of something that happened in her past. And if you don’t know anything about her past… Well, how can you possibly figure out what she’s going to do in the future? You’re trying to write an effect without a cause. That doesn’t mean you need to know the cause first — in many cases, it’s easier to work out a character’s past based on what she’s doing in the present. But the trick is to do that consistently. If chapter seven sees her too scared to go into the basement because her step-mother used to lock her in the dark when she was bad, don’t have her willingly going into series of tunnels in chapter three.

5. Because one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

Everyone is the hero of their own story. Even the villain. The villain in your story probably doesn’t think of himself as a villain. He may be doing villainous things, but he probably thinks that he’s doing them for good reasons. So, if everyone is the hero of their own story, does that mean they all want the same thing?

No. For some people, “winning” means being safe. For others, “winning” means being famous or rich. For still others, “winning” means finding love. (We won’t go into what Charlie Sheen thinks winning means.)

If your hero is going to win the day, you’d better know what he thinks “winning” is all about. Because the guy who desperately wants to find love is probably not going to feel very satisfied if he triumphs over evil, and his reward is a modelling contract.

When do you develop your characters — before or during the writing process? Do you have any tips or suggestions for how to do it effectively?

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Five Reasons to Fully Develop Your Characters

  1. We’ve somewhat disagreed about this before (http://u-town.com/collins/?p=2434). 🙂

    I absolutely agree about the voice, and this is why multiple-POV first person should only be attempted by a few. It’s a very special skill set. It defeated Hemingway, for example (To Have and Have Not) because, well, he always sounds like Hemingway.

    Point #5 is also really important. That’s something you have to know from early on. You don’t always have to know why your characters want this or that (any more than you do with people), but they have to have a goal. And, if they’re going to get that goal, you have to know if it will really make them happy or not.

    I do have a suggestion. Don’t throw your characters away after one appearance. Live with them. Get to know them over years and even decades. Write one book about your character at 20, and another at 35, and another at 75. Put your character in a mystery story and a fantasy story, and a comedy.

    I know a lot about my detective, Jan Sleet (though she can still surprise me). I know her parents (really well) and a couple of her grandparents (also really well), and what role she played in her high school play, and why she will never die of cancer (even though she smokes). But it’s taken a few decades to learn all that, and I certainly didn’t know it all before I started writing about her.

    • Hahaha. Thanks for being the first to comment, Anthony. As I was writing this (particularly point 4) I was thinking about our earlier disagreements over this point.

      I really like your suggestion about continuing to live with your characters. Having only read your more recent Jan Sleet stories, I’d have to say that it definitely comes across that you know her incredibly well.

      I like the idea of writing about a character at different points in their life as well, even if only short stories to get to know them a bit better — although I know that’s not exactly what you meant. 🙂

  2. “the difference between
    reality and fiction is that fiction has to
    make sense.”

    Had to steal that quote.

  3. If I tried to figure out my characters before I started writing, I’d never start writing. I’ve been known to throw out the first six chapters because it took that long to get to know them (if then!) and to figure out where the story really started.

    I don’t (so far, at least) write in first person, but character’s voice is just as important in third person POV. Narrative should reflect the POV character as much as dialog or thoughts.

    And of course if I really knew what I was talking about, I’d probably be published by now.

  4. Pingback: Characters of our Lives | Write Am I

  5. Pingback: On Writing and Developing Characters | The Happy Logophile

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