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?