Getting to the Heart of Character Development

– by Autumn Birt

Every story needs a unique idea (or at least a new spin on a classic!), but good character development can keep a reader going despite plot flaws far longer than a brilliant plot with flat characters. At least for me. And if you go by the comments and complaints out there, for most people as well. We write in a era of character driven novels.

The typical problems are stories with great ideas and cardboard characters. There are so many levels of poor character development: no interaction with other characters, speeches that are information dumps, no nuanced emotions. What is your pet peeve? Mine – have you ever begun a story where it felt like the character showed up the same time you did? A character who knows as much about the fantasy world as you on page one, but they supposedly grew up there?! Those books get tossed onto my “too frustrating to read” pile pretty quickly.

a-game-of-thronesOf course, characterization can be too good. I’m a huge fan of George R.R. Martin’s writing. I keep a few passages from A Game of Thrones mixed with my writing notes to inspire me. But I stopped reading the Song of Ice and Fire Series in book 2. Too many characters that I liked had died and the pace was too slow. Despite brilliant writing, I cared too little about the plot and too much about the characters to continue!

When it comes down to it good characterization, especially with several unique individuals in a novel, is tricky.

I’m editing the final book of my epic fantasy series. By this point, I know all the characters so much they feel real to me. Which is great! There is nothing easier than having a character with a strong personality to make your writing flow. Set up a scenario, drop in person X and let them have it. Chaos ensues and you are left trying to keep up.

But I had a recent reminder that getting to this point wasn’t so easy. When I started writing book 1, things didn’t go so well. Actually, I scrapped the whole book after the first draft, deciding there were a few good ideas but it needed reincarnation more than CPR. Part of the problem was the characters. I was only dealing with four at that point and I still didn’t know who they were or why they did what they did.

So, I jumped into all the typical techniques of character development: bubble charts, character sheets, photos for visualization, and world building to understand lifestyles. I was ready to write!

Color - that is where I went wrong! I didn't use colors!

Color – that is where I went wrong! I didn’t use colors!

Only I didn’t. They were still, at best, reflections of me. Not unique and rounded.

I was getting pretty desperate by this time, wondering why all the tried and true characterization tips weren’t working (and were making me feel like an obsessed stalker). I’m really not sure where the idea came from, but one day I sat down and wrote a short story from Niri’s point of view, in first person, that took place the day before Born of Water began.

Her world opened to me.

I knew she had been taken from her family by the Church of Four Orders when she was nine (the bubble chart told me!). Feeling how that affected her, described in her voice, changed my entire perspective of… well her. AND how she viewed the world and the Church and even why she chose to save Ria, despite the consequences.

So, of course, I wrote ‘before stories’ for each of the characters and learned more than any bubble chart ever could have told me (I still do use the character description sheets though. They help me keep physical details straight!). I realized why Ty had come home to Mirocyne and why he had left for his apprenticeship nearly a year late. Ria’s fears became understandable as much as Lavinia’s optimistic hopes.

RofF-Cover-final smallAlmost as good as finally having a true understanding of my characters, it placed them firmly in their world. They had lives before the novel began (on a day when everything went crazy). The problem of having them feel ‘dropped in’ to their world evaporated.

And another strange advantage that came out of this technique was that I realized how differently each character interacted with their world. Niri is educated. She uses big words in dialogue AND in her thoughts to describe what she sees. Ty and Lavinia, siblings that grew up sailing, can name every board, line, and sheet of a boat. They would never think ‘left’ or ‘right’ but ‘port’ or ‘starboard.’ Character mindset is anchored in far more than highlighting associations and past experiences. Lives are shaped by more than the big events you might jot out in a bubble chart.

I’m looking ahead to the next story I’ll write, wondering if I will use this ‘before’ story method again. And then I realized, I did. I’ve spent quiet a bit off time thinking of the characters’ lives prior to the novel’s opening. I might not have written it down (yet), but I still worked out the details before I ever started typing.

So, here is a new method to add to the character development list. What else have you got? I’d love to hear of other character development techniques that worked for you!

Autumn is currently editing the final book in her Rise of the Fifth Order epic fantasy series while holding a smash-up competition between WIP to see which one will be written next. Unfortunately, the dystopian military scifi seems to be winning… go figure. She shouldn’t have let them keep their guns.

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5 comments on “Getting to the Heart of Character Development

    • I know they helped me out… and conviently provide fun info to toss up to Wattpad or Goodreads for free! 😉 Your writing is already awesome, Bruce, but I’m happy if I inspired you.

  1. Totally agreed. Developing character charts just does not feel natural. Letting the inspiration come during the writing is much better and yes, developing the characters’ background story is great help!

    I also believe in Steven King’s advice of writing your story based on a situation instead of plotting. Your advice works the same way: write your character based on her background instead of artificially jiggling down her traits!

    Thanks for the good post!

    • Hi Tim!

      Thanks for the comment and I’m so glad you liked the post. I love the concept of ‘artificislly jiggling down traits!’ And that is what character charts feel like to me. A person develops and evolves. So should a character – before and during a novel. Just outlining a few key events in a life doesn’t do it for me. 🙂

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