If you’ve read my blog post “Plot vs Character” then you know I’m a character-driven writer and what that means. Over the last few years I’ve gained some insights about developing characters, and I hope it might help other writers by sharing what I’ve learned. Let’s start by categorizing characters into three basic sorts:
There’s nothing that makes me want to hurl a book across the room more than cardboard characters, and it’s pretty much a guarantee that I won’t continue reading. In fact, I’m just getting rid of a YA novel in which the protagonist’s parents were brutally killed, but he’s too busy sorting out the strange stuff going on in the action-filled story to even grieve or go into shock, despite a bullet to dad’s head and a slit throat for mom. Get real!
Not that we often see cardboard characters in books; if anything, this is more common in movies, usually in the over-the-top action/adventure or thriller type. It’s unlikely a novel with stiff and shallow characters can even get published these days unless it’s by a very small, independent press or a self-published author. Much more common is the device character. In the supporting cast, they’re merely a convenience to the story–and to an intelligent reader an annoyance. True confessions here: I’ve done this myself and been called to task for it. It’s a common mistake, especially with newer authors who don’t know better.
I can think of a very successful Young Adult novel series with truly great teen characters who are fully developed. A drawback to the story, however, are the weak parents. One of them is uninvolved, the other is about as perceptive as a rock. These two clueless device characters are simply a convenience to the story, allowing an underage teen to get involved in all sorts of scary experiences because the parents are so clueless. That’s not to say parents can’t be uninvolved or clueless, but if that’s the case then this needs to become part of the story. Example: how does our teen feel about the semi-abandonment of one parent or the total lack of perceptiveness by the other? (After all, no matter how much it might seem that teens don’t want adults involved in their lives, I’ve worked in high schools and middle schools long enough to know this isn’t really true. It always surprises me how many kids just want to chat with me or sit and talk on the bus when we head out on field trips.)
The first step in creating developed characters, whether it’s your protagonist, your protagonist’s love interest, the antagonist, or the supporting cast, is to be aware that each one of them deserves to be developed. From their point of view, the story you are writing is about them. For example, in my book The Vanishing Game (formerly The Third Freak), I know it’s Jocelyn’s story about the search for her missing brother, Jack. And of course it IS, because she’s telling it in first person. However, I also realize that to Noah it’s his story about Jocelyn coming back into his life, which forces him to deal with their past and also his feelings for her. To Georgie, a minor character in the beginning of the book, it’s his story of revenge and anger. To Zachary Saulto, a guy Jocelyn’s brother used to work with, it’s his story about following her in order to learn the truth. And for the dangerous mystery stalker, it’s his story as he tries to retrieve what’s been taken from him.
I first learned about this concept at Randy Ingermanson’s excellent website: AdvancedFictionWriting.com It’s in his Fiction 101 Course under Character Motivation. Understanding this basic premise can change your characters from device to developed.
The second step is to create profiles for the characters, and this can be a lot of fun. Using a theme book (or any notebook will do) I start with my main character, who in most of my books is female. In the beginning I just make lists. Remember, my protagonist has already been somewhat created in my mind, and I’ve had my first introduction to her in that opening scene I quickly penned (see: Plot Development). Now it’s time to learn all about her. One page will be a list of everything she likes; I do this in a zoned-out free-write style, jotting down whatever comes to mind which seems right for her. Another page is all the stuff she hates. A third page is a physical description. There will even be a list of what vehicle she drives, what work she does or school grade she’s in, clothes she prefers wearing, etc. More pages are about family, friends, talents, challenges. Added to this are pictures. I prefer catalogs because they tend to use the same models (male and female) in multiple poses and outfits, so it’s easier to get different facial expressions. I cut them out and glue them into my notebook. Also, where she lives is important, too, and if I have research on that, I add it in–either hand-written, photocopied, or printed from the internet.
Next, I start the interview process which continues in the free-write method. I jot down a question and then have my protagonist answer it in a first-person reply. In this way I encourage her to tell me her story, and after a lot of questions I end up learning far more about the main character than would have seemed possible. Much of this will never make it into the novel, though sometimes I can go back and pluck out pieces to use, which is a real plus. Most of the time though, the deep background is for my benefit, and bits will just be added in here or there where needed. For example, I have quite a few pages of Jocelyn’s angry and painful story about a promiscuous, neglectful mother and dangerous childhood. Only a fraction of that creeps into her story, but because she’s so completely defined to me, it’s far easier to write about her. That’s because at this point she’s become a nearly real person to me.
When I feel like I’ve got enough info on her, I then repeat this process for the other characters, though not in quite that same depth. Sometimes, if I want info on those characters, I’ll free-write it from my protagonist’s point of view. Example, in The Sender it was my main character Noelle who told me all about her mom, dad, granny, and cousin Banjo, and of course the mysterious guy Levi she was coming to know. But later on, when I was further in the story but needed to know more about Levi, I added another interview. Although I’d already done a profile on him that included pictures, a description, and Noelle’s first-person telling of a scene between them, I needed more. As he became stronger in the story, and as Noelle was coming to know him better, I felt he wasn’t fleshed out enough. I went back and interviewed him, getting his first-person account of his life. Fifteen handwritten pages later, he had a great deal more depth. And the upsetting experiences of his personal history really helped flesh out the ending of the book once Noelle (and the reader) finally learn the full truth about him.
To recap, don’t forget your supporting cast and the fact that in their minds they are the center of the story. If you don’t take the time to fully develop them, and to really know them, then they’ll become just a story device at best, or a cardboard character at worst.