I recently added a cool little widget to my site to give me a little insight as to what level of writer reads my blog so I can tailor my writing advice more in keeping with their needs. Of course, a website survey was bound to bring mixed results. As I stared at all the coloured segments and pondered what articles I can create that address these writing conundrums and try to clear what are often distinctly muddy waters, I realised character development can't come without plot. That is to say, the story arc is fundamental in the development of fictional characters. And because my most recent online class Creating Emotional Identities covers the first stage of this development, I thought it a good idea to make character development the focus of this month’s main article.
To give you a cut down version: Your character's emotional identity is the foundation of your plot. Once you have established who they are at the beginning, you can start to see a roadmap to who they will be by the end. Their development relies on the emotional markers in between.
Character development very much depends on how the author takes the story through those stages of change, and how they use fear and ambition to push the protagonist onward. Without these two vital insights – the emotional trajectory and how fear and ambition force the character through it – it's hard to work out how to move forward in a convincing way.
But in order to move your characters through that trajectory, there needs to be a firm basis in familiarity. If you haven't explored who your characters are, how do you know what decisions they will make? How will you know what markers to use? How a character is emotionally structured will affect their decision-making process and those decisions will create more plot.
Now, most of what I’ve just outlined is big-picture development, but what about at chapter or even sentence levels?
Here are some approaches I use in my own character designs some of you might not have thought to use:
1) Research. Yep, an obvious one, but researching a topic or place can really help you understand where your character is coming from, not just help you out with world building or convenient technobabble for your high concept sci-fi novel. Research can be daunting, but the more of it you do the more ideas it will stimulate. It would also do to remember that character can be honed from a setting. Example: when I researched my main character Meredith for my first novel, I discovered that area (Oregon) has a healthy apple industry – similar to where I live, in fact – which changed Meredith's family business from a timber yard to a fruit farm, where she grew up. Throughout the story, connections are drawn between her and her upbringing: the only alcohol she's ever really drunk is cider because their biggest trade was in apples, which leaves her as the type to prefer sweet-tasting alcohol rather than the harsher flavours of beer or whisky. These small details deepen character and make them feel more rounded. It sets an impression that, despite her more competitive nature, she's still quite young and inexperienced.
2) Attention to Detail. Instead of using generic, sweeping ones, the smaller, seeming inconsequential details are what count. They are key to the vivacity of character. Be specific, home in on a couple of key particulars and allow them to say something about the protag/villain’s personality. A good exercise for this is to write a short piece about what items they carry in their bag (or their car). Maybe a Save the Heroes badge or a jar of body butter. Maybe lots of scrap pieces of paper with endless lists written on them. Maybe a bag of weed or a gun. If you want some ideas, google Contents of my Bag, hit the images tab and see what comes up (there’s a lot). Build a character based on one or a mixture of bags. If the contents seem too mundane, google 'trinkets' (or another keyword) and throw that into the mix.
3) Blogs. Reading other people's blogs was a massive help in understanding where Meredith came from, to the point that I even knew which cinema she would have likely gone to over and above a different one. It gave me inside, local info which made me view the place from a closer perspective. I also found twitter posts referring to Oregon being 'rain-soaked' (again, much like where I live). This meant I could use the contrast of Meredith's humid hometown against the present day setting of the story which is set in the parched, dusty Australian outback. Why is this important? Because one of the running themes in the story is homesickness and how being out of your comfort zone instils fear. Fear is one of the main driving factors of any story and the contrasting settings worked well to make Meredith feel unsettled and out of place. But what blogs to look for? Well, probably not your usual tourist ones. Look for subculture – art, music, comedy – local celebs/artists, local projects. Particularly good if you can find opinion blogs or blogs that are more like an online journal than an informative article. Also, make sure to read the comments boxes, if they have one, as people add all sorts of interesting insights.
4) Online videos. I trawled a lot of sites watching videos of people from Oregon, so I could get a feel for how they sound, what accent they have. Getting a feel for the rhythm in which a person speaks can help with the natural flow of writing.
5) Slang dictionaries and articles. Another trawling landed me with local vernacular which lent more authenticity to my character. I discovered that, because she comes from Portland, Oregon, she would use the term 'tennis shoes' as oppose to 'sneakers' (which I mistakenly thought ALL Americans use because that’s what they use in American films (pre-internet)).
6) Local sports, hobbies and interests. Researching these kinds of activities around the hometown of your character can help define them. Your story might not have anything to do with their childhood, but most real people drag likes/dislikes from their younger years into their later lives. So, for Meredith, she is quite a tomboy and I discovered that basketball is quite a popular sport in Oregon. Her interest in this sport shaped a lot of the type of verbal expressions she used, which were sometimes basketball slang. It also highlighted early on that she's highly competitive, which is key to motivating much of the plot.
7) Quirks. Lastly, and this is one of my best secret tactics, finding those quirky details that make us human. Now, you must understand that I am an immigrant to my host nation and therefore, going down to a café to listen out for snippets of conversation that might lend more realism to my characters tends to slip behind the net when having to translate the language first. Plus, as most of my stories do not happen in France and I don’t often write French characters, there’s the whole question of an entirely different culture. Also, I live in the back end of nowhere, so I am entirely reliant on the internet for much of my writing resources. Anyway, onto one of my best tricks for finding character quirks: www.postsecrets.com Check it out, pick out a card – or three; three’s a good number to create a short story – and go from there. If you’d like to see the end result of one of my own stories created from this process, read FEET. It was created using this Post Secrets premise. Here are the postcards that inspired the character and created the plot, all three picked out of a bag at random:
Just to add a few more thoughts on some of the above list: it's not just about researching the place where your story happens. All of us are sculpted to some degree by the place we grew up. The same goes for fictional characters because, ultimately, fiction is a mimic of real life. And once you have familiarised yourself with your character, ideas will pour out of your head until you go crazy. Authentic character development cannot happen with cereal box personalities. Deep familiarity is key. So, another thing you can – should – try is writing some scenes or short stories about your character. Write about something they did a week before the story starts. Write about a favourite or worst time (or both) in their childhood. Most importantly, write about what motivates them. You always discover something you didn't know before about your characters through the process of writing, no matter how stringently you plan and pre-plot.
But no matter where your story is set – Mars, Igulania in a galaxy far, far away, China or Victorian England – an understanding of culture will help you write your characters better, and I mean their base local culture, not necessarily the cultures of different countries. Think about what challenges are presented to them by their surrounding culture. We've all read or watched a period drama where the women's only hope of a happy ending is to marry well and not suffer scandal because that is what the culture of the time dictated. What cultures in your story dictate your character, and how does that put them under pressure?
And, to re-iterate, small details are key to realistic personalities.
What are your favourite tricks for developing character? Please share!