Have you ever heard an author talk about their characters as if they were real people? Often most of the easily memorable and relatable characters are the ones that have a well-developed character. Writing a good story, I believe, consists of three main parts. They are Plot, settings, and characters. A flaw in any of these three parts will either cause a writer’s story to fall apart, be unreliable, or will mean a very prolonged editing phase.
Recently I started playing the latest Fallout game. Its C.A.M.P. building mode reminded me of something when I was preparing for this discussion. In the game, like in life, you can choose to build directly on the ground, but you will have rocks, grass, and other junk that litters the world as your the floor of your structure. That makes placing other things difficult when the ground isn’t level, and there may be rocks in your way. Character development is like this building mode. If an author doesn’t take the time to iron out the details, build a clean and sound structure, then the result will be rocks and grass in the form of plot holes and characters that don’t feel real.
Let’s look at the Harry Potter series. JK Rowling had a firm grip on all her characters and their backstory. She is able and willing to answer any questions about her characters and their backstory.
When I’m planning out a new project, I typically merge my outlining phase with my character and setting development. So I’m writing my idea for the chapter on my 3.5-inch notecard, or most likely typing the chapter synopsis into Scrivener’s corkboard view. I keep a list of characters that I just created for the scene in Apple Notes.
“Nellie Wise seats in her local Starbucks, drinking her eggnog latte. She looked down at her Apple Watch. Her cheeks tightened, and she clutched her hand into fists. Nellie took several deep breaths and looking up at the exposed ceiling of the cafe. Isaac is late again.”
While this is closer to what the reader will see in my book than a regular part of my synapses I put into Scrivener’s corkboard view, it gets my point across. So from this part of the story, two characters are named. Are there more? A barista that Nellie sees often, or a fellow customer that Nellie or Isaac interact with. These all need to be listed. Once I have the list of characters, it’s time to develop those characters. Let’s look at what we know of these characters so far. Nellie drinks coffee, and she most likely isn’t lactose intolerant. She has an Apple Watch and, therefore, most likely an iPhone. Finally, this isn’t the first time she has been waiting on Isaac. It would be odd if I caused a paradox in time and space, by going back and saying that Nellie has never had a Starbucks eggnog latte before later in my story. Having a time paradox could be okay if I was writing a SciFi story, but if I’m not, this could destroy the story’s continuity.
I fill out the character development template I created for each character. There are the obvious things that need to be filled in like the character’s name, physical description, their role in the story, and when is their birthday. Anything that I need to know about that character I want to document. What mannerisms and habits do they have. What nervous ticks manifest themselves, and at what point do these come into play. What is the character’s personality trait? I list the positive and negative characteristics. What is the character afraid of? Do they have a fear of spiders, for example? What is the character’s physical and emotional wellness? Does Nellie suffer from depression, for instance, or does Isaac have a physical disability that always causes him to be late? What are the character’s goals and motives, and what stands in the way of those? What is the character’s fatal flaw?
Once I have a firm grasp of the character’s characteristics, its time to write determined what made them this way. We are a product of our experiences, after all. What’s the character’s occupation? How many years of schooling did they complete? Were they ever arrested, or did they work in law enforcement? I write a brief family history. Then there is the importation question. What were the character’s most painful experiences from their past?
I also input pictures into my profile. Often mugshots, or actor profiles that share a trait of the character. There was one woman’s mugshot where she had the most interesting hairstyle I’ve seen. I inserted the picture into the profile to always remind me what that character’s haircut looks like. Or I might see an exciting fashion choice that I feel exemplifies the characters fashion chooses. I insert it. While I don’t copy these styles or looks precisely, they are images that remind me of what my character looks likes.
I answer all these questions for each of my characters. It’s very time-consuming; for the latest project, I just finished the character development took sixty-seven hours. Some will say that this is a waste of time, but I beg to differ. When I’m writing, I often refer back to these character profiles. It allows me to remain consistent when I ask how would this character react, or would my character do this action. These are questions I ask every time that I write for a character in a scene. While there are times that a character does something that is outside their usual characteristics, but for the most part, it helps if each character sticks to their identity.
Remember how I called out JK Rowling and her firm grip on her characters? She can answer any question posed to her about the character, and she can provide an answer to these questions. The ability to answer questions about your character becomes extremely importune when writing a series because an author’s characters should behave and have nearly the same traits and style from book to book. I’ll talk about what I mean when I say almost the same characteristics and style later.
Most authors that write a series create what is often called a series bible. Necessarily it’s a running profile on plots, settings, and characters either as things are learned about them or things change, back to my example of Nellie seating at Starbucks waiting for Isaac. Let’s say that at the end of the story, Isaac and Nellie get married. I would flirt with a Doctor Who sizes time paradox again if in the second book in the series I wrote that Isaac just proposed to Nellie. This is why most authors create a series bible to keep track of the history of the characters. When I write my series bible, I took the character backstory and then summarized what happens in the stories and between the stories. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve had to look back at a character’s history in my series bible to see when they made a change in their thinking or when an importation event took place in their life.
Why did I say nearly the same traits and style? We are are a product of our experience, and we are fluid beings, continually learning and evolving. A writer’s characters should be the same. Sometimes this concept is referred to as dynamic versus static characters. While it’s not unheard for static characters to be well written and relatable, but that is not the norm. This is where character arcs come into play. A dynamic character is alive. They change based on the events and relationships in their life.
Characters are one of the three core parts to writing a successful and relatable story. Taking the time to develop character properly will lessen the chance that they will be unpalatable and two dimensional. Characters should be real. They should pop off the page of their story and feel as if the reader knows them. An author can’t do that effectively without first understanding their characters. An author should never find themselves confronted by a reader questioning them about why a character made this choice or did this or that, and their only answer is because that’s how I wrote it. Let’s say I was asked why is Nellie always waiting for Isaac if she can’t stand his lack of punctuality. I’d say even with all of Isaac’s flaws, is lack of planning to deal with the delays caused by the physical disability that leaves him permanently bound to a wheelchair, Nellie has had a crush on Isaac. He persuaded her, the shy new girl trying to discover who she was, to stop being a wallflower and dance with him at the homecoming dance in her freshman year. While it’s been six years since his brash invitation to dance, she still remembers that night every time they talk. While his flaws irritate her like few other things, she understands that this is who he is, and he will never change. Now isn’t that better then if I just told you because I wrote to her that way? While all that backstory will most of the time never become relevant as far as the books are consumed, it shapes the characters for who they are. I want you to know my characters as I know them, and that will allow you to connect to the story.