Character Development

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A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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How to Create Complex, Interesting
and Memorable Characters
Also: The difference between
plot-driven and character-driven novels.

Allow me to reiterate: A good novel isn’t about What happens. It’s about What happens to whom. This post is all about the whom. Because if readers can’t identify and empathize with your characters, your plot probably won’t matter much. In fiction, even dogs and cats (and rabbits) must have ample personality.

Let’s face it: Every plot imaginable has already been written—many, many times over. Plots written today will seldom, if ever, be truly unique. However, your characters are (or can be) utterly unpredictable, oozing with complexity and charisma. Putting new personalities into established (old) plot lines can create the illusion of originality. If your characters are empathetic, readers won’t mind if the plot feels vaguely familiar—and, hey, they might not even notice. Fully developed characters can be memorable and (imho) the key to a successful novel.

But, first! A preamble.

Fiction typically falls into two major classifications: Plot-driven stories and Character-driven stories. By default, a third also exists, the Hybrid novel—a fairly equal combination of plot-development and character-development. Is the hybrid plot structure better? That potentiality depends upon the writer. And the audience. We all have our preferences.

Need examples?

J.D. Salenger’s The Catcher in the Rye is a character-driven novel. It’s all about a teenaged Holden Caulfield and his various attempts to fit into an uncertain, unrelenting society.

Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park is an example of a plot-driven story. It’s all about the dinosaurs, and their escape from captivity. Crichton’s characters involved are merely onlookers or snacks.

Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is a hybrid novel. The books offers a solid sequence of unfolding plots and sub-plots, yet also features a great, fully-formed ensemble cast. (I consider most sagas and serials to be hybrid efforts.)

Typically, in a character-driven (CD) novel, a story’s focus centers on a character or characters who encounter a plot—or more typically a series of semi-relevant plots or adventures, rather than the singular event that dictates the characters’ roles throughout the story. The author is internalizing much of the story—via thought bubbles (internal monologue) and strong (or unique, or eclectic, or eccentric) POVs. And while a character’s growth arc isn’t absolutely necessary in a CD novel, it’s anticipated. And strongly advised.

In a plot-driven (PD) novel, a singular ‘umbrella’ plot typically takes precedence over a character or characters who are driven or forced into action solely by the plot’s unfolding. One’s inciting incident usually gets the ball rolling. A PD story is often revealed externally (visually) rather than focusing on the personality (or emotional stability or the inner complexities) of a character—or more commonly will contain a group of diverse characters, rather than a single POV. Together, these characters can provide various, disparate, often conflictive, perspectives as the plot unfolds.

As previously stated (See Simple, But Exciting), a novel consists of three main components: 1. Solid plot-momentum; 2. Solid character development, and; 3. Appropriate scene/realm building. When writing a novel, little else matters. Structurally, a PD novel may contain a far greater percentage of plot structure and a relatively smaller amount of character development. Conversely a CD novel will contain a greater percentage of character development—and likely a greater insight into a character’s inner being. Scene/realm building is equally important in both formats.

In Mark Helprin’s character-driven Winter’s Tale, a magically-tinged reality sets an elegant, almost fairy-tale quality to accentuate the mythic qualities of Peter Lake, the story’s MC. It’s difficult to separate the complexity of the book’s grounding (scene-setting) from the personalities who inhabit the story—and only serves to strengthen the bond between author and reader.

In Tom Clancy’s plot-centric techno thriller The Hunt For Red October, the same rules apply, Clancy providing proper grounding for a target (techno-savvy!) reader base. Clancy spends an inordinate amount of time describing the technical details and operational components of a Soviet Tycoon-class submarine—and those fictional sailors aboard the Red October better damn well know those features as well. And although Clancy’s characters remain largely focused on the emerging plot (one will seldom see Jack Ryan at a PTA meeting, for instance) they remain complex enough to keep the drama riveting.

Whether character-driven or a plot-driven, both formats require proper grounding. (See Scene-Setting.) So don’t skimp on building a suitable location or realm that will suspend disbelief. Grounding readers also requires a good deal of continuity (AKA, a character’s choreography from scene to scene). So be sure to update every character’s current environment before continuing forward plot momentum. Has night fallen? Have several hours, days, weeks passed between scenes? Has a character moved from a deep forest wood to a bustling city? Has a character’s mood or emotions changed? Has a bright, sunny morning turned to a gray, rainy afternoon?

How do you acknowledge new characters who first appear in a scene? One suggestion: don’t just throw readers a random name—give each character a bit of personality and/or motivation as well. Just a line or two is sufficient for the moment. If that character is to reappear again in the story, give them sufficient identity for readers to remember them 5 or 10 or 50 pages hence. One not need build an elaborate dossier every time you introduce or re-acquaint readers with a character, but drop a few hints about who this new character might be. Such as:

“Hello,” Ryan said. “I’m your new neighbor.
“Hello,” Phil replied. “Nice to meet you.”

Might become: “Hello,” the young man said, smiling broadly, holding out a bottle of pino noir. “Welcome to the neighborhood. My name’s Ryan. I live next door.”
‘. . . . .” “Nice to meet you,” Phil replied. He couldn’t help notice the ragged scar that sliced across Ryan’s cheek. An old war wound, Phil assumed, shaking his new neighbor’s outstretched hand, returning the smile, albeit warily.

That’s all it takes—a snippet of personality, an off-hand comment, a curious presumption. Readers will remember those small touches, if adroitly placed.

Occasionally, an avant-garde or experimental story idea may come along, offering little more than riveting dialogue from unique personalities. Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, or example. Or Manuel Puig’s richly intimate, dialogue-heavy The Kiss of the Spider Woman. Or—and these are cinematic examples, BTW—1981’s My Dinner With Andre and 1990’s Mindwalk. These plot-lite stories may only hint at any sort of tangible story line. The unfolding drama stems wholly from dialogue and personality/perspective.

Building the Basic Beast: What to Consider.

When you begin to write a story, you’re introducing characters who are new to you, and also new to readers. However, these paper-people have been (theoretically) living full, complex lives long before they appear on the page. Thus, even if your plot dictates that your characters attempt to save the world—rocket scientists who discover a giant meteor about to obliterate Mankind, for instance—they have presumably led full lives filled with various ups and downs. Some have perhaps endured difficult childhoods, lost (or won) love and probably come into focus with a great deal of emotional baggage. What to omit? What to include? And when? That’s up to you. Do you immediately describe their past lives in great detail to readers? Absolutely not! But it’s important that you know who they are, and who they’ve been, and what makes them tick. And then you begin to parse those personalities/POV’s/motivations slowly to readers.

In other words, if the end of the world is around the proverbial corner, the rent’s still due, or maybe your MC’s getting divorced, or someone’s having mother-in-law issues or has a runaway kid sister. Maybe somebody discovers that the meteor’s actually a giant diamond and thwarts any effort to destroy it before he can scoop up a fortune for himself. The more conflicted or erratic or flawed your characters, the more likely they’ll feel “real” to your audience. Readers love relatable (and yet unpredictable) characters.

So bring your characters into your story fully formed…at least inside your head.

However! I do think it’s important to reveal certain atypical, physical traits ASAP. For instance, if a character stands 7-foot tall, or is wheelchair-bound, or is a pointy-eared, 3-foot tall Orc, readers don’t want to be surprised to discover such visual attributes 100+ pages into the story. Introduce those atypical aspects as soon as you can, to help readers create a reasonable mental image of your cast.

In this age of fractured cultural norms and political correctness, one should be aware of treading carefully if a character is Black in a sea of white faces, (or, a white face in a sea of otherwise Black characters.) So give readers visual clues ASAP. Avoid stereotyping or using outdated clichés as shortcuts.

For instance, if Edward’s lost a leg, long ago in some obscure Afghanistan battle, mention it once and, unless there’s a plot-specific reason, don’t mention it again. So I strongly suggest not mentioning Ed’s a one-legged Afghan vet every time he appears on a page. Give your readers credit for remembering such characteristics and traits.

The same rule applies to atypical emotional traits—PTSD, ADHD, Asperger’s, co-dependency, malevolent narcissism, severe anxiety, insanity. You need not directly reveal these traits upon introduction (or ever, unless relevant to your story) and can hint or imply such neuro-divergency through speech patterns, or dialogue, or other characters’ speculations. Or simply allow readers to deduce such traits for themselves.

A few potentially major stumbles that some writers (and many new writers) make are believing that:

  1. Your characters are here only to serve your plot.
  2. Your characters must be fully developed immediately upon introduction.
  3. Your characters are ‘born’ the moment you introduce them on the page.
  4. Dialogue (and linguistic patterns) aren’t that important….

Let’s evaluate each.

1. Your characters are only here to serve your plot.

Not so! It’s probably more accurate to say that your plot’s here to serve your characters. Your characters are your story’s sensual presence. It’s through their fears, or curiosity or humor or warmth or love that readers will respond to the humanistic quality of your story. Without characters present, a giant meteor hurling toward Earth is simply a story about two rocks colliding. But place a handful of likeable astronauts and physicists and that one, young, misunderstood assistant rocket-scientist with a crazy idea of how to save the planet—and now you’re ready to manipulate the emotions and gain the empathy of a bejillion breathless readers.

2. Characters must be fully developed immediately upon introduction.

Nope. Nobody wants to read a dossier on page 1. By gradually revealing fragments of proper scene-setting (your story’s physical realm) and plot momentum (leading readers from here to there), you’re gradually revealing various snippets of a character’s personality as well. You’re basically teasing readers—challenging them to read on and discover more about the people who inhabit your story. Every scene you write should contain all three elements—a little of this, a little of that, and then a bit of the other. Meaning a writer can allude to a physical appearance, a personality (quirks and all) and possible plot-related motivations over several scenes or chapters. It’s okay to tease readers about those paper-people who inhabit your book. Sure—just as IRL—it’s fine to make a memorable first impression, but give readers room to gradually acquaint themselves. Curiosity is a great motivator—and a motivated reader will turn page after page after page….

3. Your characters are ‘born’ the moment you introduce them on the page.

This one’s tricky. You, the writer, have soooo much to reveal about a protagonist, or an antagonist, and/or that crucial, although seldom-scene best friend. However, it’s important to realize that these people existed (existentially, of course) long before you decided to drop them onto the page. Some are going through personal issues—an impending marriage, or divorce, or maybe one has a gambling addiction, or is confronting a recent, tenuous sobriety, or maybe has a kid sister who disappeared 14 years ago—all of which may have little or nothing to do with your primary plot. (…or might they?)

Secondary plot-lines can have tremendous value in character-building. A singular plot, with various characters auto-focused on a single resolution… sorry, but that can get tedious or monotonous. However, give characters additional issue or problems (“What do you mean my check bounced?”) can infuse nuance, rapport, insight and empathy to your characters. I mean imagine that the aforementioned meteor’s going to strike Earth in 23 days. And your MC’s just been evicted from her apartment. Throwing obstacles large and small can humanize your story and make your paper-people feel very, very real.

4. Dialogue isn’t that important.

Dialogue can make a break your story. Good dialogue can transform cardboard characters into real people. Great dialogue can transform well-written characters into literary icons.

“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” This infamous line from the lips of author Thomas Harris’s far-from-vegan Hannibal Lecter. Or take George R.R. Martin’s classic, off repeated line; “Hodor!” Because sometimes a single word (even from a minor character!) can reveal an astounding character-trait or plot device that might just become eternally meme-able. Such is the power of dialogue.

Other memorable quotes? How about:

“You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” Lauren Bacall to Humphrey Bogart in To Have And Have Not.

“It was a pleasure to burn.” Montag in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. Jaques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. (Not to mention Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be….” a line that’s almost become a parody of famous literary quotes.)

“After all, tomorrow is another day.” Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. (As well as Clark Gable’s—as Rhett Butler—“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”) BTW, In 1939 the Hays-Code era censors went ballistic with this one.

“Time is the longest distance between two places.” Tom Wingfield in Tennesee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.

“My God. It’s full of stars!” Keir Dullea—as David Bowman—in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

…but I digress!

I suspect that few/none of these memorable quotes are accidental comments. None feel ‘off the cuff.’ Meaning I cannot emphasize enough the importance of well-considered dialogue.

They say that the eyes are windows to the soul. In fiction, dialogue is the window to each character’s soul. (See Dialogueparts 1-thru-8—for more in-depth info.) However, in the here and now, do realize that for many writers, dialogue adds the necessary depth to produce well-developed characters. For those writing a story in First Person POV, internal monologue (What secret is Emma keeping from me, I wondered. What isn’t she telling me?) is as equally important; absolutely essential for readers to fully understanding the complexity of your solitary MC. I’m aware of some novelists who try to avoid inner monologue (a fear of deep emotional commitment perhaps?) when writing First Person narratives—but I wouldn’t recommend it. IMHO, First Person POV demands that type of soul searching. If plumbing the depths of a character’s soul isn’t as important to you as developing nifty, Adrenalin-packed plot structures, then I suggest sticking to writing in Third Person POV. (…which isn’t a slam, BTW, just an observation. We write what we write best!)

One last word of a advice. A fictional character should (typically, but not always) be larger than life in certain ways. I’m not talking superhero type awesomeness; just that novelists typically emphasize both the good and bad in everyday people. All my protagonists are a bit smarter, better looking, nicer and far more extroverted than I’ll ever be. Everyday people inhabit an everyday world. But in fiction feel rather blasé—so accentuate and embellish whenever possible.


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