As a part of my series of Virtual Writing Seminars, I’d like to start a series of blogs on character development today. This series of posts has no definite end in sight, and may go on for quite some time. It will focus on how I develop characters both for a series and for a single novel or short story, and will hopefully give some insight as to why some insight into why some of your characters pop and others… Don’t.
With this post I’m going to focus on the most important character you’ll create: your lead. While other characters may be more entertaining or even interesting, your lead is the hook on which every other event in your story is hung. It’s his story (pardon the male pronoun… Nothing against female protagonists).
The first thing to make sure of is the your lead is three dimensional. I know that sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how often it’s not. A lot of books and movies feature one-note characters, and it absolutely drives me insane. Think of yourself. Do you act the same way towards your mother as you do your partner? Or to your friend? Or your boss? Of course not. We all wear different hats at different times, and so should your character. Sit down with a list of all your characters and figure out how your lead interacts with each of them. Does he love them? Does he hate them? Is he attracted to them? I don’t know. But you should.
This also leads into having the character fleshed out at the start of the story. It really draws a reader in when characters are fully formed, real people. Take Victor from Infinity. He’s enigmatic and we know little about him… But I do. I know everything about him. I even know where he went to high school. I’m not telling you that yet though… I simply know it ahead of time so that he can react appropriately to the situations I put him in. The result works well. There’s a reason we, as fans, love characters like Mal from Firefly and dislike characters like Bella from Twilight… It helps when the writers knows what they’re doing beforehand.
That said, a big part of your character is dialog. This is what makes your character believable, and almost all suspension of disbelief hinges on it. Nicolas Brenden once said of Buffy the vampire slayer that: “It’s realistic. Well, the things that happen aren’t realistic but the ways people respond to them are.” (I’m paraphrasing from memory, apologies if it’s off). What he’s saying is true: it doesn’t matter that a dragon just came out of the floor. If your character responds to it realistically it will be bought.
On the flip side, if you claim your character is a scientist and they get every scientific fact they say wrong, his (and your) credibility is gone.
Also, if you say they’re “grim” but all they do is joke around, you’ve undermined yourself there too. (side note: it’s better not to SAY your character is anything, just to let your reader decide for themselves… But that’s a rant for another time).
Another point is to not let them be passive. This is one that’s not so obvious. A lot of professional writers do this, myself included. I consider Xander (in the first Black Womb book only) to be passive. It’s something I’ve tried to resolve for the international release. For those of you who haven’t read Black Womb (what’s wrong with you? Lol) a good example is Jennifer Connoly’s character from The Strangers. These characters are frustratingly passive. They don’t affect the plot, the plot happens TO them. This isn’t just bad character development, it’s bad storytelling. Make the character the active part of the plot. Make their actions affect the story and the world around them. If it’s a crime story, have him hunt bad guys rather than simply react to their actions. If it’s a love story, make the character be proactive in his relationship rather than just reacting to their partner. This, above almost anything else, makes engaging stories.
Once that’s all done, be consistent in how you’ve portrayed them. Nothin comes out of left field more than a character acting in a way that doesn’t jive with the rest of what you’ve told us. That said, they can’t remain the same. The characters have to move over an arc. They have to grow and be different at the end of the tale than they were at the beginning.
Hopefully I haven’t been too overwhelming with all this, and that you’ve got a great character in mind. Don’t be afraid to base them off yourselves or even other characters in fiction either, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Hope your stories are coming along great.