#017 - Our character's ... do we really know them?


This is an often quoted subject normally linked to criticism rather than praise. An editor may refer to 'character development' in writing up his or her comments on your submitted manuscript. So, what is character development? Well, it's basically creating a character in your mind and then building up a complete life of the character as a series of notes or a full-blown mini life story. The process of character development adds some depth and even some life into what may slip by unnoticed as a rather flat personality. This is one that does not come over well within the twists and turns of the plot at the heart of your novel.

A good development process would be to start listing your characters life points; where they were born, went to school, went to university, first job, career path. Then you need to describe them, physically. If you know your characters well, and you will by the time you have finished an extensive character development project, then you will not fall in to the novelist's trap. That is putting them in the wrong place at the wrong time or asking them to do things that are - for them - physically impossible. If you write a full and detailed sketch of your story before you go to work on the real thing (as recommended) then developed character profiles will form part of that process.

Creating Characters

Developing characters is one thing, but how do you go about creating them in the first place? Fortunately there is no hard and fast rule relating to the creation of a character. The individual is part of the story, a fiction story, all of which is contained within your head. It's generally accepted that if you are producing an action thriller designed to be fast paced and written around a tight plot, then the characters involved need to be presented to the reader in some detail. If you are writing a science fiction novel set some time in the far and distant future, you may need to do a lot of work on creating your characters in order to make the whole scenario believable. Whatever your characters do, it must be believable to the reader; this is the key. So, what does your character look like? You will need to start by putting together some details.

A believable name for the character

A history of the character; school, career etc.

A physical description of the character; tall, thin, short, fat etc.

The habits, family and foibles of the character

The motivations that drive your character

How the character will impact on the story-line

Likes and dislikes of the character

Marital situation or marital history of the character

An important point relating to how your characters will fit the plot and create excitement or tension within the story-line is how you introduce him or her to the reader. Don't simply place them on the stage of your book with a well written bio in their hand, such as....

Declan Doyle was a successful businessman who had moved to Abu Nar after gaining his degree in engineering at Leeds University.

Who cares if Declan Doyle has a degree or not! Take this same 'flat' character introduction and turn it into something interesting; into someone you immediately want to know more about, such as....

Declan Doyle stepped out of his silver grey Mercedes with the words from his favorite Queen track ringing in his ears. Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? He pushed the door shut, made his way toward the rear door of his office building. He was smiling. Sometimes for Doyle it seemed his life in the tiny Gulf state of Abu Nar in 1987 really was fantasy.

There is another approach to finding out about the background and metal of a character by actually introducing a full and detailed background description of the individual woven in as part of the deepening story-line, such as....

He opened the cover, took out the first page and held it up to the light. The water mark showed up clearly, proving that the information contained in the file was at least typed on departmental paper; Maxwell commenced to read:

Name: Maxwell Armstrong. Operative Number: 1134.

Nationality: British. Country of Birth: United Kingdom.

Date of Birth: October 30th, 1928.

Place of Birth: Lee Meadows, Soningdale, Berkshire.

Last Update: June 1973.

It was strange reading about oneself in such matter of fact terms. Maxwell had never read his own personal file and therefore didn't really know what was listed in it. One thing was for sure, this sort of information should not be revealed about him to anyone outside of, 'the company' He carried on reading.

Be careful here to make sure the reading of a personnel file by the character referred to, or someone else, must add to the pace of the writing and not detract from it. If in doubt, don't do it.

Some writers go to the extremes of actually visiting places their character may have been born, taking photographs of houses he or she may have lived in along with schools attended. This may be a 'bridge too far' for many of you but if it works for you, then go ahead. We will have said before that 'research is king' and if taking this approach gets your juices going, then go for it!