From Here to There: On the Basics of the Development of Character in Fiction

Who your character’s become is up to you.

I love character driven fiction, and good character development is, therefore, a must.  However, there are a lot of books on the market that have poor, or no character development.  For instance, The Dresden Files provides less character development over the course of five novels as I can find in one novel by Lars Walker (The Year of the Warrior) or Glen Cook (Shadows Linger).  One of the greatest costs of the current focus on serial novels is the strong development of character.  When a single character has to last a writer for ten or twelve novels, then he just can’t develop much in any particular novel.  On the other hand, when a character is only needed for a few novels (one to three perhaps), then much more focused character development is possible.  The same is true when a writer has a large number of character.  Stephen Erikson is a good example of this.  His Malazan Book of the Fallen series has thousands of characters, and hundreds of major characters.  Now some of these characters are obviously not the focus of a great deal of character growth and development.  However, when there are hundreds of major characters over the course of ten novels, the author is not relying so much on one character to carry the series.  He can develop each of these characters well consistently, and show their growth, knowing that he doesn’t need them later on.  Some of my favorite characters in the series only appear in one or two books, are strongly developed, and then die or move on.*

The most basic aspect of developing your character is to have a goal.  We’ve given you a number of good posts on how to create a character, but you should also have a goal in mind for every major character you create.  You can start with something as simple as a theme for the character:

Heroes is a show with some truly phenomenal character development.

At the beginning of the story John is childish and naive, but by the end of the story he is capable of making his way in the world (Coming of Age story)

At the beginning of the story Sathra is a selfish, evil person, but by the end of the story he is a noble character (Redemption story)

At the beginning of the story Melchior is single and hopeless, but by the end of the story he has found his true love (Romance story)

There are any number of themes that you can choose for your character, but the key is to know where you want the character to start, and where you want the character to end.  Ideally, you will develop a character profile for what your character is like at the beginning of your book (who he is) and what you want the character to look like at the end of your book (where he is going), but you can probably get away with general themes.

Overall, the first goal of character development has to be know where each character is going, and who each character is going to be by the end of the novel.  For instance, over the last couple of weeks I posted a two part introduction to a new book I’m working on (here and here).  Right now I know who Alanoc is, and I have a fairly good idea of who Drevor is.  I also know who Alanoc is going to be by the end of the novel, but I’m not completely sure who Drevor is going to be (I have an idea, but it’s something I’m still working on).  Knowing who Alanoc is and where he is going as a character is important (he is the main character), but if I don’t figure out where Drevor is going, then I could easily leave him as a flat character who doesn’t develop over the course of the book.  Obviously, this would be bad.  We’ve all ready flat characters, and they aren’t fun. The best authors are those who provide depth and development even in their minor characters.  J.K. Rowling is a good example of this.  While I don’t like how some of her characters develop in the Harry Potter series, she provides strong character development in each of her characters, even the relatively unimportant ones.

No one really stays the same over time.

So, here is your task: choose one of your stories and make a list of the major characters in that story.  Then write out basic tropes for who the character is now, and who you want the character to be by the end of the story.  This could be as simple as ‘An SOB’ to ‘The White Knight’.  If you want to go the extra mile then take two or three of your main characters and write out full character profiles for who they are at the beginning of the story, and who you want them to be by the end of the story.

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*Erikson writes Russian novels, and so it is not uncommon for major characters to die and be replaced by other characters.

Voices in My Head

This picture was done by Idol, and can be found along with the artists other work.

Today we have a post from Sabrina Hardy:

For a writer, creativity can often take strange forms. Someone I know views the story she is working on as if she is the narrator. She sees the events, places and the dramatis personae, but has no involvement in it herself, and she is unable to see what the characters are thinking because she views them as an outsider. Another one of my acquaintances is more like an architect. He starts the writing process by crafting each character, each location, and each plot point in full detail before he puts them all together to form a complete story. He’ll spend weeks on just one character, fully fleshing it out until it becomes who he wants it to be. His stories are beautifully crafted and intricate, it just takes a very long time for him to write even a 5 page short story. Some people “get inside” the head of one particular character, and then write from that character’s perspective. That character is naturally the most well-rounded (and probably the most interesting, as a result) of the cast, and the story is often written in first person. Other writers prefer the most straightforward way of scribbling a story into existence: just sitting down and writing. They get an idea, sit down, and just write. They don’t bother with figuring out plot details, fleshing out the characters, or designing anything beforehand. They just let the story take care of itself through constant revisions. Hey, whatever works, right?

J.K. Rowling, famous author of the Harry Potter novels

The way I write, on the other hand, is pretty odd (from the perspective of “normal” people, anyway). It’s not a manifestation of creativity solely attributed to me, I know several other people who write this way too. It’s just strange, and there’s not many of us who work this way. As you can probably tell from the title of this post, I have voices in my head. No, I don’t have Multiple Personality Disorder. That’s just how my creativity works: I get an idea for a story, and the whole cast of characters jumps into my mind. I didn’t consciously create them; they’re just there, fully formed. I don’t know every aspect of their personalities right away, of course. Different characteristics reveal themselves as the story goes on. The characters just randomly show up in my head, introduce themselves, and say “Hey, we want to tell you the story of our lives so you can write it down for posterity” or something along those lines. And before you start thinking that’s crazy, let me remind you that J.K. Rowling started her immensely popular novel series that way. She said that a kid with black hair and glasses popped into her head one day and said something along the lines of “Hi, I’m Harry Potter.” Not that I’m going to be the author of the next multi-million dollar series of books or anything, but you get the picture.

Ok, now that the voices have started, what next? Writing the story, of course. I talk to the characters and ask them what happened, and then they tell me the story in their own words: what they were thinking, how they were acting, where they were, even what they were wearing. It works best when I write the story in first person, because then I get the perspective of all the characters, but I only have to put it into the words of one. Having six or more different personalities in your head can be very confusing at times, otherwise. Writing in third person isn’t hard, it just takes longer. I have analyze every scene from the point of each character involved in that scene. First I have to talk to the scene’s main character, and find out what he/she was doing, saying, etc. at this particular point. Then I have to interview any other characters one by one and figure out what they were doing during the whole scene. After that, I have to match everyone’s thoughts and actions up to figure out whom was doing what at any particular second in the scene. Things have to match up, otherwise you get problems like the villain ordering the execution of the hero before he even knows that said hero exists. This is very problematic, and should be avoided at all costs.

Sometimes you just can't get along.

The issue of writer’s block can also be somewhat odd in this case. The problem with all the characters living in my head is that the protagonists and the antagonists hate each other. Since they all want the story written, you’d think they’d cooperate. No, not really. They usually end up fighting and arguing and generally not talking to me. This is how writer’s block manifests itself, for me: characters don’t get along, they squabble, they don’t communicate with me, and I have no idea what happens next in the story. When that happens, I get stuck in the middle of a war, trying to broker a peace treaty between them so I can get the story written. It’s very annoying, and sometimes leads to me contemplating destroying the entire cast of characters and just starting all over again. I haven’t gotten that far…yet.

And a Jedi Penguin, just to top things off.

Once those problems are sorted out, the story pretty much takes care of itself. The voices in my head tell me what happened, and all I do is the physical act of writing it down. I don’t have to understand what’s going on, just that something is happening and it’s important. When the characters shut up, I know I’m done, and I can go back and read the story to see what I’ve written. Keeps things interesting that way. Once the story is finished, the characters retreat to a retirement village somewhere in the back of my mind, where the rest of my characters exist. They’ll talk to me occasionally, and I can bring them out of retirement if I need them. All-in-all, things work out pretty well. Not everyone works this way, obviously, but I’ve been pretty satisfied with it. I rather like having voices in my head (in a completely non-insane way).