So, I have to admit that I’m really enjoying being in school again. Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty sure I failed my first paper (think I said that already), I’m overworked, have no money, and I just spent all day reading philosophy books, but… I just spent all day reading philosophy books. Seriously, exhausting but so much fun! Right now I’m working on Bryan Van Norden’s Virtue Ethics and Consequentialism in Early Chinese Philosophy, Robert Niebuhr’s The Responsible Self, and C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man (I’m hoping to have the last two finished by Friday). It’s fascinating reading, though the first is definitely my favorite of this set. Anyway, you’re here for a writing exercise, and today’s exercise is a scene challenge. If you can’t remember the rules, I’ll provide them: I provide you with specific rules for how to write a particular scene. Try to keep your scene under five hundred words, and try to keep it in the same tone as the introduction. If I give a line that is very dark and depressing, then I don’t want to see a scene about a drunken monkey in a tutu…it just doesn’t fit. If I do give you a line about a drunken monkey in a tutu, then you should probably try for a funny scene.
Your Challenge: amazingly enough I want you to write a scene about absolute submission. This is going to be a variation of the movie/book scene challenges we’ve done in the past. Choose one of your favorite scenes from a good book or movie about struggle and find a moment of absolute submission in the middle of it. However, instead of simply rewriting the scene, I want you to write a version of what happens that is entirely your own. Your own voice, your own characters, your own setting. Everything should be your own. This isn’t a simple rewrite for practice. I want you to write a scene that reflects the same mood, evokes the same emotions, and handles plot in the same way, but that is still completely your own work.
Alright, Cassandra’s busy so we’re trading days again. She’ll be posting on Saturday. Sorry about all the switching around, but unfortunately that’s what happens when lives become hectic. Hopefully things will calm down and the schedule will get back to normal eventually.
So, last Saturday I discussed the most basic element of character development: knowing where your characters are going. However, as another author once told me, ‘knowing the beginning and the end doesn’t make for a story, the story comes in getting from one to the other.’ The same is true in character development. You have to know where your character starts, and where the character is going, but if that’s all you know, then you don’t have a developing character. You have a character that makes sudden, massive jumps in emotion, and your readers are going to notice that.
The character of Marron Shed in Glen Cook’s Shadow’s Linger is one of the best examples of character development that I’ve ever seen. Shed develops subtlely over the course of the novel, so subtlely sometimes that you don’t even realize he’s changing until he does something that is completely congruous with his character, but would have been absolutely antithetical to his character a few chapters before. Shed does not leap from one point of maturity to another, but develops into a completely different person over the course of the novel. A couple other great examples of character development, that I’ve probably mentioned before, are Karsa Orlong in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, and Father Aillil in Lars Walker’s Year of the Warrior. All of these are characters that develop slowly, realistically, and wind up becoming completely different people from who they started as.
So, how does your character get from here to there? That is the million dollar question (sometimes literally), and it’s not an easy question to answer simply because it’s different for every character. For instance, Marron Shed’s character begins as a coward and develops into a noble man. However, he does so by first finding his courage in doing some very wicked things, and then finding his virtue. Karsa Orlong, however, is never a coward. He begins as a rash, brazen, foolish warrior who develops wisdom, strength, and true confidence through being forced into slavery and servitude. Where Shed learns courage, Orlong learns loyalty and submission to a greater cause. Only once he has learned these lessons does he become the man who can lead.
You are the only one who can decide how your characters should and will develop, and what they will develop into. However, there are some things you can avoid:
1) Don’t force your character. Remember that characters need to behave like real people. Your job is to gently guide your character towards the goal you want him to achieve through the course of your novel. Not to force him into the box you want him to fit in. Fifty Shades of Grey made exactly this mistake. In the first chapter of the book the main character, Anastasia, is a virgin who’s never had a boyfriend. She meets Christian Grey and suddenly she must have him. By the third chapter of the book, still a virgin, she is willing to let him chain her up and beat her, and willing to discuss even more extreme activities. Somehow, I don’t buy the leaps that are made to achieve this.
2) Don’t rush. Remember that people develop at their own rate, and the same is true of characters. You can’t force a 17 year old to act like a 25 year old. You can’t force an emotionally immature, cowardly guy to man-up and take the initiative. You can’t force a woman who isn’t ready for a serious relationship to be ready. You can’t force fool to be wise. The same is true of your characters. They need to develop and mature at their own rate, and you have to let them. In many ways being an author is like being a parent. You don’t get to tell your characters, “This is what you should be doing, now shape up and do it!” You have to work with them to make them into the characters you want them to be. Some are going to be more ornery than others.
3) Don’t fake it! This is probably the biggest thing to pay attention to. Be real with your characters. Don’t tell your characters what you want them to do, instead get inside their heads and figure out what they would do. Instead of trying to model the character’s reactions to the events of your story, model the events of your story around the reactions you need your characters to have (to a degree, remember it all has to be realistic). Also remember that not all of your characters will develop. We all know someone who’s been a selfish sixteen year old for the past twenty years. They just never matured, never grew up, and they make everyone’s lives miserable. Those characters will exist in your story as well. This doesn’t mean that you have to write characters like this, but remember that your characters have to be real, and that means that some of them might not change, even if you want them to.
There has to be a balance between where you want your story to go, and where you want you characters to go. Sometimes you’ll run into a situation where an event that is necessary for your story drives one of your characters in the wrong direction. That happens, so let it happen. Don’t force the character to be what you want, even when he’s not. Watch who the character becomes, and if you can guide him back in the direction you want him to go. If not, then you might have to either change the direction of your character, or change the direction of your story (the former is easier than the latter).
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:
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.
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.
*Erikson writes Russian novels, and so it is not uncommon for major characters to die and be replaced by other characters.