Emotional Development of Characters

Image: graur codrin / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last year I drew The Emotional Development of Characters as the topic for my speaking engagement at the Tucson Festival of Books. Part of me was delighted; developing characters is one of my favorite parts of writing. The other part was terrified. Character development, like many aspects of writing, is very individual to the writer, and while I knew how I did it, it wasn’t exactly easy to explain, nor was I entirely convinced the majority of what I did wasn’t done subconsciously. Still, I took the challenge and came up with  a few pointers any writer might use as a starting point. Since Tuesday is a day for sharing about writing on the WordServe Water Cooler, I share those tips here with hopes someone might find them useful.

What do you remember most when you finish a really good novel? Are you left in awe at the amazing plot? Or do you have lingering thoughts about the characters? For most readers, it’s the characters they identify with more than anything. That’s because to care about what happens in a story the reader must care about its characters. So, how do you create characters your audience will care about?

One time literary agent, now children’s book author, Nathan Bransford once tweeted: In great novels, every character has their own set of goals, vices, and motivations and no one is purely good or evil.

In other words, they are human. One way to make it easier to connect to your characters emotionally is to give them some flaw. After all, to err is human. You don’t want to give them just any old flaw, though. It should be an important inner flaw, ideally one that plays off their strength. For instance, someone who is self-disciplined and organized (strength) may also be a control freak or inflexible (weakness). A strong and brave character (strength) may be overprotective and overbearing (weakness). Whatever the flaw, it should prevent the character from being the best they can be. It should get in the way of what they want, resulting in some internal struggle they will eventually face to overcome—or not if your story is a tragedy or the character in question a villain.

I like to think about my characters strength and flaws by getting a glimpse into their personality. There are lots of personality profiles available for a writer to tap into, but I use the Myers-Briggs Personality Assessment to sketch my characters’ profiles. It suggests people have different ways of gaining energy (Introversion or Extraversion), being aware of information (Sensing or Intuition), coming to conclusions or decisions about that information (Thinking or Feeling), and ultimately dealing with the world around them (Judging or Perceiving).

If my heroine was Intuitive—trusting interrelationships, theories and future possibilities, her strength might be that she’s aware of others, and she is able to weave together possibilities from bits of information. Her flaw may be that those possibilities are not always based in fact, and therefore she makes decisions using circumstantial evidence. Maybe my hero is Perceiving—adaptable and keeps options open as long as possible. While this allows him to be flexible and go with the flow (strength), it backfires when he adopts a ‘wait and see’ approach when he should be taking affirmative action (flaw).

Once I have my characters’ personalities down, if I’m writing a romance I like to make the hero and heroine as opposite as possible. Those differences are ripe for emotional conflict. Or, maybe the conflict stems from the fact they are too much alike, such as Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. Either way, the process of overcoming and resolving those conflicts requires emotional maturity if the couple ever hopes to be together—and that is one part of their emotional development.

Another tool the personality assessment provides me with is the framework for how my characters would realistically act in any given circumstance. You know that adage about sticks and stones breaking bones but words never hurting? It’s a lie. Words hurt because they are aimed at emotions. How a character reacts (or doesn’t) to internal and external conflict throughout your story should reflect who they are and where they are emotionally at that particular point in time.  More importantly, it should develop as the story progresses, eventually cultivating in some notable change to the character’s emotional self. Understanding your character’s personality, their strength and flaws is a start to making their responses more believable.

What about you? What tips or tools do you use to help readers care about your characters, and by default, their story?

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22 thoughts on “Emotional Development of Characters

  1. This is another keeper post!
    Such great insights, Rebecca. I bet your workshop was well-received. I like to consider the whole idea of birth order when crafting my characters.
    And I always, always develop my characters using author Susan May Warren’s The Book Buddy, which is filled with questions & charts to delve deep into your characters’ emotional make-up.

    • Ooh, I like the birth order idea. I use charts and questions as well—I think it’s so much fun to fill those out! (:

  2. Great post, Rebecca. I’m a plot driven girl so character development is an area that tends to be challenging for me. Great tips!

    • Thanks, Jordyn! I can’t seem to get enough advice on plot myself. I’ll have to watch for any future posts you may have on that topic. (:

  3. I like using the Myers-Briggs tool to help round out a character, but also have to be careful not to pigeon-hole the character into a cookie cutter type by following too closely to the model, afraid to color outside the lines. I like to start by plinking around with a few character quirks, in inner value, certain expressions, motives, etc until the character starts to show me who they are. Then as they grow with the plot and the events that bring out their values, character, fears, etc, I like to look back at those MB types and see if my character is being true to one type more than the others, or if they are a weird patchwork composite. Oddly enough, they often fall in large part within one type. I don’t know if that comes from inspiration, intuition, or dumb luck, but plinking around keeps this detail-freak from going all Frankenstein with character creation. 🙂

    Youre right, we all approach character development differently. I’m glad there are as many methods for drawing intriguing characters as there are artists. And I like what you said about creativity being subconcious. We pick up more than we realize from people, experience, entertainment, etc and probably have untapped reserves of character traits rattling around waiting to be turned loose on the page. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing these tips, Rebecca!

    • Thanks for sharing your approach, Camille, and excellent point about not wanting to pigeon-hole anyone. Even people who fall mostly into one area will ‘flex’ how they respond depending on their environment and situation (especially if their work requires them to break their mold a bit). You made me laugh with the Frankenstein analogy—I admit, it can be fun to play the ‘mad doctor’ sometimes. 🙂

    • Oh, that’s a good point, Lucille. But sometimes writing about real people is even stranger than fiction, no? (And I mean that in the best of ways.) 🙂

  4. I so appreciate this post. I’m still learning how to figure out my characters. I have one I’m having trouble getting my head around, so I think I’m going to pop over to the MB site and see if that helps me get to know her better. 🙂 This was very helpful. Thanks!

    • Glad I could help! Check out Camille and Beth’s comments above, too. They have some great ideas & I can’t wait to finish reading comments to see if there are others. (:

  5. I never thought of using that model before! What a great idea.

    I like to interview my characters. Since I usually start out with a basic plot in mind, I’ll ask them why they will make the choices they do. What motivates them to choose a certain path over another, easier one? What was their life like before the book started? What did they envision their life would be like if the crisis never happened and what has the crisis taught them? And since I like to have romantic elements, what is it about the hero/heroine that draws you to them, and it can’t be a physical description. It has to be deeper than that.

    • Interviewing the charcters—I love that! I’m definitely going to try that for my next MS. Thanks for sharing, Ann.

    • At the TFoB a lot of writers said that system helped them. I’ve been meaning to check it out and I probably will just to mix things up a bit. Thanks for reminding me! 🙂

  6. Most of the time, my characters just sort of happen, but when I want to flesh them out, or dig deeper into a walk-on who’s starting to take a major role, I steal from my newspaper background. I use the local profile format my paper uses, but with a longer Q&A, to flesh out my characters. Because of the way my series is structured, I’ve started posting versions of the profiles on my blog. I tend to find that the act of figuring out the answers to the questions gives me the support for the character’s actions, a way of making my subconscious conscious.

    • Sounds like a solid process, Jennie. I especially like the idea of posting profiles on your blog. When I find characters I really connected with I love it when the author gives me bonus material. Thanks for sharing! (:

  7. A wonderful post, and such great advice!

    I really try to think of the characters as people — not necessarily people I know, but as people I may know. If you observe the people around you and think about why they do what they do, and where their actions might stem from, you can get wonderful ideas for characters. And then when you go to write that character, you have a small basis to build from, because you’re thinking of what you saw — perception is key, I believe.

    Thank you again for the advice! 🙂

    • Great insight—watching how people with those targeted personality traits act…especially during the mundane tasks of life and not necessarily in a crisis (though that is also very telling)…is a fantastic idea, and it can really help your characters come alive. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Very interesting! I don’t write fiction, but I find myself fascinated by the character development by novelists.

    I especially like how you write about playing a character’s corresponding strengths and weaknesses, because that is so true of people, in general.

    I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago titled, “Sammy the Game Cock – Protector or Bully?” in which I discussed how the very character trait we may admire in someone becomes a point of irritation under different circumstances. I have been working on trying to catch myself being critical, and ask myself under what circumstances I see that same character trait as a strength in that person.

    Good stuff! Thanks for posting!

    • That’s a great way to look at it, Joe, and I think you hit the nail right on the head. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

  9. Fascinating post and comments. Lots to think about here and some fabulous tools and tips! My characters just come to me…already made. Seriously. But then I tweak them a bit to make sure they’re fully rounded, so to speak. For instance, I think of the worst, most hateful, most awful people I know and I try to remember something I’ve seen them do that was kind. I focus on that one instance when they showed greater depth or revealed a softer side. Someone put it this way – “readers must sympathize with all characters, even the villians. let them play with kittens.” Have fun! Character-driven books are my favorite!!! Of course, I’m southern…so characters are all around me! It’s easy down here.

    • Hi Julie! Thanks for sharing your approach—sounds like you are very fortunate. I love what you said about the villains—so, so true. Villains are human too! (:

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