Developing Characters–What It Means

If you’ve read reviews for TV shows or movies (those mediums that your story can rise to if someone decides to make it into one of them), you’ve probably come across the term character development or developing characters. And like many aspiring writers out there (me included), you probably wondered what that term meant.

Even if you do know what it means, there’s always that challenge of putting it in writing–actually developing your character in a story vs. knowing the concept itself. Character development certainly isn’t something to overlook–especially if you want to make your character(s) believable to your reader.

Websites like WikiHow say that the development of a character begins with their personality and physical appearance. NY Times best-seller J.T. Ellison says that the setting of the story itself is a character in need of development. Here’s how I would advise you to develop characters, based on what I learned from these sources:

First, think of your character’s appearance. (There is not much you can do in working from a character you haven’t yet visualized.) And as the case goes beyond fiction and in real life, we are born and seen before we are given a name. We are also heard, so think of their voice as well; how do they sound when they speak?

Secondly (as hinted previously), come-up for a name for your character. This in itself could have points to consider–at least if your character’s name will be of human origins:

  • If giving your character a surname–in addition to a first name–it is wise to use a disclaimer that says your story is purely fictional and does not intend to portray any real, living people. Even if your character’s name is a common one (such as Emily Smith, Thomas Johnson, etc.), you never know which Emily Smith or Thomas Johnson out there could believe that your character is an unauthorized satire of them. You know where this kind of story goes (i.e. potential lawsuits), so establishing that short disclaimer in the beginning (which will cost you but a minute or two) will help you avoid court costs in the long run (which could cost you, heaven forbid, thousands or even millions of dollars.

Some sources say that a character’s name should somehow reflect their personality (i.e. “Molly” for a little, candy-loving girl, or “Brad” for an all-time jock who loves to run the sports field–oy…) Here’s the bottom line: the name doesn’t define the character–it is the character who defines the name. Naming a villain “Pure Evil”, for instance, is rather silly compared to naming a villain “Angelo”. See the zing in giving a villain a holy name, or giving a hero a villainous name such as “Demon?” If you can picture the guy below as a hero who wants to stop mutants from destroying earth (because he cares for humanity), you’re on the right track.

Thirdly, come-up with the habits and likes / dislikes of your character. Do they bite their nails? Do they hate people who chatter like there’s no tomorrow? Do they prefer bad weather because nice weather is overrated?

Fourthly, the third point potentially intertwines with the concept of backstory. Many of the likes / dislikes / habits we develop derive from how we feel and view the world–not to mention how we feel and view our own bodies. What does your character think or feel when they look in the mirror? What sort of past led to their present self? Did their father beat them as a child? Did that first person they fell in love with cheat on them with another person? Maybe they can’t shake that feeling they had the day they saw their pet dog and best friend lying dead in the street (after getting mauled by a pack of strays). Tragedies and sad endings are what stick with us the most–often more than the happy times–so it is important to know what sadness helped build your character into the figure we see in your story.

Fifthly, what dreams / goals / etc. does your character wish to fulfill? Are they actively trying to fulfill those dreams, or sitting around and waiting for the dreams to come to them. Truth be told, unless this kind of character is chained-up in a prison cell and unable to break free of the bars, they should be making the effort to fulfill their aspirations. A character who wants change but doesn’t try to fight for it… well, that’s kind of a buzzkill. True, in real life there are people who will go on-and-on about how badly they want something, but probably never pursue the task to get there. When it comes to fiction, however, this character needs to be that person who will invite us to step out of our own comfort zone and join them in what may be the perilous quest of getting what they want. After all, Morrell makes the point in Ch. 9 of her book Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us that characters do the things that the readers would fear doing–but it’s that thrill of whether or not a character will succeed that keeps the audience on their edge of their reading chair.

Sixthly, the characters (especially the hero) must have some kind of dark side. Likewise, the villain can’t be all-bad. Perhaps the hero, noble as they try to be, can’t help but tease their younger sibling who’s shorter than them–or maybe they’re addicted to something that could kill them, but find it hard to quit the fix.

Maybe the villain, dangerous or evil as they are, is good at making people laugh or–if you want to go really deep–a noble father to his daughter and actively advises her not to throw her life away to some guy who will break her heart. Talk about a likable villain! This kind of fatherly-ness coming from the same guy who’s planning a crusade of all the foreigners living on his block?

No matter how you size it up, character development is what adds credibility to your story. The reader can’t relate to someone who, for instance, is always seen drinking soda and laughing like a maniac (that’s too one-dimensional). But the reader can relate to a character who, like themselves, has those moments where they cry, laugh, rest, work, play a game of cards with some friends here and there, keeps up with finishing their graduate degree program, etc.

My exercise for you: write a brief summary for a character you decide to create. Keep the points in mind that we’ve mentioned (appearance, name, habits, backstory, villain or non-villain, etc.). If they are a villain, what’s making them villainous? Why do they believe that what they’re doing is the right thing? What made them villainous in the first place? No one is born evil, after all–and a little backstory–believable enough to be the reason for whatever level of evil they’re planning–can go a long way. For instance, a 9-year-old boy getting chocolate ice cream (when he asked for vanilla from a clumsy sales person) may not be a credible reason for him, upon adulthood,  wanting to grow to the size of the galaxy itself and crush the world with his bare hands.

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