A Guide to Character Development

November 18, 2009

- See all 763 of my articles

I have written a few other articles on the topic of writing fiction. Today, I’ll spend our time together talking solely about the development of characters.

Let them have a little fun

Characters are the lifeblood of any story. If your characters are dull, your story will be uninteresting. Conversely, an interesting character can not only captivate your audience, but also inspire you during the writing process.

Recently, Martin Kelly mentioned that he liked his characters. To an outsider, it might seem odd, but I also find myself relating with characters. With a short story, a writer doesn’t spend a lot of time developing characters, due to the compressed nature of the writing. For longer stories, though, many hours can be spent molding the character.

In order to explore various plot scenarios, I often will send my characters to the “back burner” of my brain to let them try out various experiences in and effort see what experiences are good fits of the plot and which are not.

The net result is that I create a nearly sentient being. These characters can run wild inside the imagination of an author, living very full lives as they rush to and fro, experiencing all that life has to offer. Do I sometimes wake up and wonder what a character did while I was sleeping? Well, um, sometimes.

Let your characters have fun, and you will have more fun writing about them.

Attributes of a character

One problem I have stumbled across is that many of my characters are quite slender. Why is this? Quite simply because I’m projecting. I stand a shade under six feet tall and tip the scales around 150 pounds. Not surprisingly, it is easier for me to write about slender characters than it is to write about characters who are 5’4” and 275 pounds. I simply don’t have as solid a frame of reference for the other characters.

I also have a habit of making most of my characters physically attractive. Most of my characters also have very engaging personalities. Many of them share the interests and hobbies that I myself enjoy. In short, they are people that I would get along with great.

So, by default, I have a bunch of Stepford characters running amok in my brain. In terms of their usefulness as imaginary friends, this is pretty nifty. Unfortunately, these happy-go-lucky characters make for a pretty lousy plot – because there is not conflict.

Thus, I am always compelled to roughen the edges on a few of the characters. Interestingly, it isn’t difficult for me to create truly bad characters such as murderers – I struggle more with putting a few necessary blemishes on the nice people. For the most part, I actually fail at this. The majority of my characters are still much nicer than I would like.

So, it’s OK to like some of your characters, but you should also dislike a few – and dislike some aspects of nearly all of the characters. Also, avoid using yourself as too much of a reference point. After finishing up the writing of Key Relationships, I was stunned to find out that the vast majority of the story is written from the male perspective! Even worse, there was no valid plot-related reason for this.

Names and Dialogue

If you write a lot of stories, it can be difficult to constantly find new names. You may find yourself using names of family, friends, and celebrities. Within the past year, I have begun going to the source. The US Census Bureau tracks first and last names and ranks them by how common they are. This is, in a word, SWEET. Not only does it provide you with names you may not have considered previously, but it also lets you know how common the name is.

As we segue smoothly from names to dialogue, we encounter the topic of names being used as part of the dialogue. It is important to avoid overusing the names of characters during the dialogues. If Mark and Bob are speaking to each other, you need not use “Mark” or “Bob” during each line of dialogue – you will drive your readers crazy.

It is also important to spice up the dialogue with a bit of variety. “Said” is a perfectly fine word, but people can also ask, shout, exclaim, whisper, hiss, utter, reply, or comment. Amazingly, most of the time you can simply avoid using any of these verbs. The presence of quotes already makes the reader aware of the fact that someone is speaking.

Finally, natural dialogue will typically be less formal than the prose that surrounds it. Spoken language tends to be less formal than written language – in large part due to the minimal preparation before speaking. If your characters’ dialogue sounds as if they are reading it from a teleprompter, it won’t ring true to your audience.

One Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Financial Samurai
    Nov 19, 2009 @ 12:33:04

    Nice tips Kosmo on character development. That’s pretty funny what you say regarding skinny characters! You gotta introduce a hefty one to go the other extreme cuz I gotta say, 6feet and 150 lbs is pretty light! 🙂
    .-= Financial Samurai´s last blog ..My SUV Will Beat Up Your Hybrid & Save The World! =-.


Leave a Reply