I kept sitting down to write this, but all the same, I kept hitting writer’s block. I suppose it’s because I’ve never really written about craft before.
Anyway, I’m truly sorry about the time they took, but here are eight quick tips I use to help me with character development, and I hope you’ll find them helpful! I plan to post an article on action sequences next week and more about other writerly things here, too.
Without a further ado:
1. Actions. Quick! You and your friends are alone in the woods when you hear a scream and out of the corner of your eye, see a burning cabin. Someone is trapped inside and there is no one else around to help. What do you do? “You learn a character by their actions and reactions,” someone somewhere really smart said, and this, well, this is the biggest rule to remember about character development. How a character reacts to a situation and the first thoughts that come to his mind say a lot about him. That’s showing, not telling. Rather than having another character say the protagonist is brave, his bravery should leak into his decisions, and most importantly, his actions.
2. Motivations. These, too, speak volumes for who that character is. What does he want? When spit hits the fan, what are the first things he thinks of? “I need to get out of here so I can save my family,” vs. “I need to get out of here so I can warn the rebel movement” have two very different implications on the same character. Everyone wants fame, fortune, and you know, not death, but why someone wants something says more about who they are than just what they want.
3. Voice. We are all our own people, and as such, we each have our own distinct voices, the way we put thoughts into words. Our voices say (heh-heh, puns) a lot about who we are and how we look at the world.
Think this: “The sun paints the cracked earth in shades of orange so bright they remind me of the colored yarn my mother wove tapestries from,” vs. “The sun is bright and orangey and really puts a spotlight on the cakey, dead earth and how dry everything around us is. I don’t know. The color kind of reminds me of the cheap yellow yarn my mom yanked through her loom to knit sheets with.” These two sentences say basically the same thing, but they way they’re told expresses a different identity that would fit different characters.
4. Worldview. What does this character notice about others? An insecure character might notice how beautiful all the people around him are and how expensive their clothes may be. A bubbly character might notice how bored those same people look and how everyone acts and dresses the same. Every person has their own outlook on the world, their own, personal lens that filters out certain details and zooms in on others. A sober person may see things with a gloomy air (“Mold cakes the old brick and the air is a degree too cold no matter how much I tamper with the thermostat. The building is uncomfortably large. A man could scream and no one could hear him.”), while a more excitable person may put a slightly happier tint on what they see (“Shivers rack up my arms. The brick was put up here years ago, and I can’t help thinking of what they’ve seen. Green mold tinges them a bright color, and the temperature here is cool. Space goes on forever. A man could live here, alone and content, and no enemy could ever find him.”) Get into your character’s head and write the world the way he sees it, not just the way it may physically be. Make sure his biases and thoughts show in between the lines.
5. Show a character acting outside their established personality. In real life, there are moments when a strong person is vulnerable, when a coward does something stupidly courageous, and when a calm person loses his cool. These are the times you can really dig into your character’s core: their motivations, their boundaries, their strongest traits and their darkest ones. What would drive a character to act outside their personality? Take Katniss Everdeen for example. She’s a survivor. Everything she does is to simply keep alive, but she volunteers for The Hunger Games – sure death – for her sister. This shows who she truly cares about and establishes how important Prim is to her.
A coward does a cowardly thing because he’s a coward, but why he would do something courageous is much more interesting to read and fleshes him out more thoroughly than any established routine on his part.
6. Show a character’s behavior with different characters in different situations. You act differently with your parents than you do with your best friend, and your character probably does too. When a character is, say, sassy with an enemy, grumpy around a friend, and vulnerable and awkward around a love interest, it rounds him out better than having him act, say, awkward around everyone all the time and makes him ultimately more realistic and endearing. That isn’t to say he can’t have strong traits that bleed through under every circumstance—he definitely should—but it’s just something to keep in mind.
7. Get intimate. What are this character’s dreams, motivations, and his biggest fears? What boundaries will he refuse to cross? What identity does he associate himself with? What traits is your character proud of? Ashamed of? What role do they want to play? These answers should effect the actions your character takes. A character who sees himself as a hero will act differently than a character who sees himself as a damsel in distress.
8. Finally, and this is seeing a little outside the character and more into the audience, but how do you want the audience to feel about this character? When your character walks onto the set of your book, what do you want the audience to feel? Do you want your readers to pity the poor coward, or would you like them to desperately want to give him a hug? A slap in the face? A high five? When you write the character, keep this in mind.
Anyway, these are just guidelines I go by when I write and aren’t set rules. I always want to learn more, so if you have other tips or disagree with mine, feel free to comment! And thanks for reading, as always.