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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And They All Lived Happily Ever–CUT!

We’ve covered a lot of topics on the business side of creative / non-creative writing lately. But now it’s time to get back into talking about the story itself that you’re writing on the paper (or typing on your computer) to market. First order of business: re-consider that all-too-happy ending.

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There’s a variety of opinions out there on sad vs. happy endings. One article says that sad endings are more emotional and better able to connect with readers. A Reddit thread posed the question of what ending types were preferred–and opinions were mixed between liking bittersweet endings, to just outright sad endings, to one user even saying they disagreed with the others and preferred the happy endings. Something else that popped-up in the consensus was that the ending should be fitting to the story itself–meaning the sad ending may not always work.

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Let’s take for example a story that starts off with an alien’s tyrannical takeover of earth–but yet, the takeover is already in place at the beginning of the story. Everyone lives in sadness and chaos because of this creature, and parents lose their children on a daily basis. The good thing about this story is that it’s premise of sorrow is something that readers can relate to–but the bad thing would be to end the story on the sad note it began with, because the story falls flat if a change hasn’t occurred in its situation.

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Its worth looking into the basic 3 types of endings:

Sweet endings. These are the endings to a story where everything works out. Anyone who died has either been restored to life, or they never died at all–but even with this type of ending, at least have those sad moments where a character passes away (and just bring them back later). There are exceptions, however, if you’re writing a book for very young children (possibly kindergartners) in which case death may be too strong of a subject for them to handle. And the last thing you want is an angry parent chasing you for corrupting their kid.

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Bittersweet endings. This is like the sweet ending–only any characters killed are not brought back, and so your story’s heroes can’t celebrate as much as they’d want. These are actually the best types of endings in my opinion, because the reader gets a little taste of both worlds–the sadness of death, but the happiness of triumph.

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Sad endings. This is where the villain wins–and the protagonist / heroes have lost severely. They could have either been imprisoned, killed–pretty much any tragedy you can think of that they won’t escape. You could try this ending if you wish–after all, I can’t tell you how to write your story–but I will say that this would leave a bitter taste in many readers’ mouths.

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So which ending should you use then? The answer goes back to what we touched on earlier: the ending that best fits your tale. If your story’s started-off in an absolutely jolly world where nothing ever went wrong throughout the whole thing, I strongly suggest you use the sad ending (unless you don’t want your readers to relate to times of loss and sadness–which isn’t a good idea for your target audience).

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On the other hand, if your story starts off super depressing–which we touched on earlier–you need a happy ending (a sweet, not bittersweet kind–though bittersweet too is welcome). Just be aware that depending on how much sadness you use in the beginning of your tale will depend how little of it you should use at the end.

Finally, a tale that starts off super happy, then has a middle story line of many tragic events, should end bittersweet–in fact, this is the type of story where the bittersweet ending is most required. Just think of how odd it would be to start off a tale super happy, then have a middle of severe sadness, then end the story with super happiness all over again. There was no change to the plot that way–and stories that fall flat don’t sit well with readers.

Your exercise today: take into account what we’ve discussed, and get to writing a story of your choice. If you wish to keep in mind the type of ending it should have based on the beginning, you’ll get to that a lot faster by writing an outline / summary of events to occur. It will give you the widest scope possible of seeing how your story begins, and how its ending will prove that it’s changed. One thing to keep in mind is that the change shouldn’t be too abrupt, but take time through the shortcomings and successes of characters, and how those change them throughout the course of your tale.

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Customer Service–It Applies to Writers Too

You may know the answer to this question, but we’ll ask it anyway: who is a writer’s customer? The answer: their readers, buyers of their books, their fans, etc.

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Indeed, all writers enjoy the publicity and success of their work–not to mention the people who support their short stories, novels, essays, poems, etc. But with all this giving that the customers… well, gives–there comes a time when it’s your turn to give back.

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4 Sites For the Amateur Writer–Like Me

I’ve mentioned four websites in previous posts, and decided it’s time to further explain their significance to you as a writer. They are:

  1. FictionPress
  2. Quotev
  3. WattPad
  4. Figment

However, the main discussion of this post doesn’t necessarily pertain to the websites themselves (and you are welcome to visit and learn more of what they have to offer). Rather, their feature of audience feedback to the writings you post (and your efforts to perfect your story, essay, poem, etc. based on that feedback) mirrors the notion of crowdsourcing.

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To put it in latent terms, crowdsourcing is the process of a customer / consumer teamwork in perfecting a product. The producer receives feedback on what they produce, and the consumer has a hands-on involvement in helping the product succeed. For writers, the hands-on involvement comes from the feedback we receive from those works we post on story-sharing websites that we one day plan to bring to the book markets.

There’s even another example of crowdsourcing for writers: Google Docs (which many of you may be aware of). For those of you who aren’t, Google Docs permits multiple users to write / edit / comment on a single document. The platform is a lot like Microsoft Word, only it permits crowdsourcing in the fact that not one person, but many people, are active in creating a written work.

Think of the potential this platform has for writers (both on the amateur and professional scale)? You can write-up a story in Google Docs, then (by using the Share feature presented in the upper-right corner) specify the email addresses of people you wish to edit and critique your work in progress. (The photo below shows the location of the Share button–the text of the document being my typical disclaimer for stories, which all writers should use in establishing that none of their characters portray real, living people):

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For crowdsourcing, one question that arises (and indeed rose from me when I first learned of it) is that the consumers who help a product fulfill its goals should be compensated for their help. This is still a belief shared by me, though it is also said that the consumer is rewarded through the success of a product they care for (and will indeed purchase if it fulfills their desires).

Applying this to the literary work you produce, you are rewarding your readers by taking their feedback into account on your work. They are your audience–we are your audience–and we want to feel that our opinions and concerns matter in order to feel fully engaged to with story and work.

The exercise today: look into making an account on FictionPress, Quotev, etc.–any of the story-sharing sites that have been mentioned. In fact, consider experimenting with Google Docs. For any story you’ve written (or plan to write), consider sharing it with your friends / audience / etc. through the Docs platform. You will be amazed at how quick and efficient the digital platform makes feedback to the writer (compared to waiting days for a letter from an editor to return to you–though professional editors should still be valued as they are well-versed in the book market and know what your readers are looking for).

 

Writers–We Too Need Digital Footprints

Happy Easter, everyone! We all know that bunny with the gift basket leaves his footprint everywhere, but you do to through your use of social media. And unlike the bunny’s, your footprint is digital.

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So what exactly is a digital footprint anyway? The simple answer is the reputation you establish through social media–but even your in-person encounters with other people can be captured by someone’s smartphone or camera and posted on the web. The bottom line: try not to do things that could adversely affect your reputation with others. (This rule is universal to every one, not just businesses, professionals, simple every-day people, writers, etc.)

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But here’s the next question: how do you build your digital footprint? The answer is as simple as sharing a photo on Instagram, or a video on YouTube, or even posting a short story you’ve written to a story-sharing website. (Sites that allow users to share their stories and comment on / favorite the works of other writers include FictionPress, WattPad, Figment, Quotev, and a few others out there that I have yet to discover.) In other words, your online activity is what establishes your reputation–but online and offline.

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My point however is not to tell you how to use the internet–but how to use it responsibly. Let’s think of potential employers, for example. You want to work for a publishing house (we’ll call them PH-A) and you send them the resume of your skills–interning for a publishing house back in your college days, an experience of editing stories through college classes in editing, etc. Your skill set is not too shabby–but very shabby is your digital footprint. Your Twitter is infested with pictures of you writing graffiti on the walls of public buildings. Some of your Facebook statuses read things like, “Just thought about hanging this guy from the brim of his neck for messing up my order today,” and, “I absolutely HATE the publishing business; they’re nothing but dogs who are all about themselves and NOT the writer!”

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Don’t get me wrong–we have every right to feel upset about something. But sometimes posting those feelings to public places–such as online–isn’t the wisest choice when we’re trying to get hired by someone and make a difference in the world. To make a difference, you have to play by others’ rules first–at least long enough for you to stand on your own feet without their help. But even then, don’t post something like, “HA! You idiots! You helped me become the big cheese now!” You never know when you’ll need those idiots to help you in the event that you fall on tough times. It happens to us all–even the “rich” and “successful” people.

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Even if you think establishing privacy settings for your social media profiles hides the things you don’t want others to see, think twice. If it’s on the web, it’s vulnerable to anyone’s hands. Who could still see your posts even if no one else can? Simple: the website owner(s). Nothing is private on the web–so certainly don’t post what you wouldn’t be willing to show anyone in person. Even if you delete a post, you can’t delete our memory banks–we’ll always remember your digital footprint, even if you try to erase it.

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We writers especially must remember that while social media can be used to establish our character in the eyes of others, it must also be used in a way that respects our audience. How can we use the internet in a way that advances others and not just ourselves? Again–respect is a good place to start.

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One way to respect others is to post things that teach them. Posting a status update to Facebook that reads, “Just got a new pair of sunglasses! I feel so special *heart heart heart*” is one thing. But posting a status that reads, “Just got a new pair of sunglasses! You all should totally invest in this brand; they offer X-Y-Z” not only tells us how happy you are, but how we can share in your happiness and get that pair of sunglasses for ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with telling us how proud you are of something, but it’s even better to invite us to share in that pride.

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So the exercise I want you to try today is pretty self-explanatory: build your digital footprint. Post photos, videos, status updates–things that express to us who you are. And while you’re at it, invite your audience to join in the fun! Also keep in mind that you want to convey your love for creative writing–but in a way that invites others to find their own inner writing capabilities.

Don’t just promote your book or only post things about your experiences with writing, but invite us to learn from your experiences. A post like, “Today I learned that my character is too one-dimensional” is not the same as, “Today I learned that my character is too one-dimensional–but here’s how you can avoid the same for yours.” Help your audience first, and they’ll help you. And remember, a post like, “I just thought of rolling this person over for taking SOOOO long to cross the street,” could leave you with the skid marks in social media.

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This all said, your exercise today is to do something with social media, but not just anything. Research information on your field of creative writing (thriller novels, personal essays, poems, etc.) and share it on Twitter, Facebook, etc.–any social media platform you use. Start sharing meaningful content with your target audience (that is, content that they would be interested in seeing). And remember, post responsibly. Anything posted on the internet lasts forever–even the bad stuff.

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This Is One Way to Do It

Let’s face it–we writers want our works to be noticed. Sites like FictionPress, WattPad, and Figment allow us to post our stories online for others to view and critique. But why stop there? The possibilities and avenues of the internet are endless–and certainly a gold mine for writers, if used wisely.gold-513062_960_720

Almost half a year ago, I took a class in social media that introduced me to the term Twitter Chat. But it’s more than a term–it’s a way to create an audience for your short story, your novel, your anything that you’ve written and want to get out there in the public eye–the public that starts with cyberspace that is.

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Before I go any further, let’s get into the basics of Twitter Chats:

1. You choose what your topic will be about (in this case, “creative writing”, or maybe you’ll think outside the box and make the topic “dinosaurs”, the subject characters of a short story you’ve been working on). Ideally, the topic should pertain to something your target audience is currently interested in. Search for examples of other Twitter chats. Observe their topics and how they appealed to their audience. Especially helpful is learning from Twitter Chats that didn’t earn much of our attention. Learning from others’ mistakes is one of the most essential tools in helping your own topic.

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2. Think of a hashtag. You can search hashtags via Twitter’s search bar–and you type something such as #WritersBlock or #Poetry, etc. in order to see if the hashtag you desire has already been taken by someone else. While you may not get sued by a Twitter user for using their hashtag–though you certainly could if the user’s hashtag is a part of their business and your copy is taking their profits–you are hindering your own notoriety by seeming like the other 3 or 7–or even 10–users using a hashtag. Think of one that no one’s used–and certainly search Twitter to see if no results show-up for it. No results means you’re establishing your unique symbol for tweeting–but it doesn’t stop there.

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3. This step is especially important if your hashtag is an odd word such as #Blimurfigluplin. (Woe to the person who gets that desperate–hopefully it won’t be you.) Still, you will need to spread the word of when your chat will be held. Design posters or imagery, record live videos–use any medium you can think of in regards to you spreading the word of your Twitter Chat’s hashtag and what time it will take place. And again, it’s all about your audience. What visuals or strategies do you know will catch their attention? This is what it really comes down to.

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Believe it or not, your audience is closer than you think. Your friends and followers on Twitter are especially the people you can ask to join your chat. You know what appeals to them–and you can use that even if most of them aren’t interesting in creative writing. Perhaps your friend who likes to play basketball would be interested in your book on a sports person who helps his team win a championship. And if sports stories aren’t their thing (sports certainly aren’t mine either), they still have other interests that you can make your chat appeal to.

But sometimes you just have to remember the saying “You can’t please everyone.” Sports people, science people, and not even all writers will find interest in your work. But the ones who do will help build your fan base. And remember, they don’t just give to you–you give back to them.

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One last tip: don’t make the entire chat comprised of you showing-off your story. Lines like “Who wants to check-out my new book?!” aren’t as engaging to your audience as “This is my book, but how can I make it better?” Not many people will have time to read your story in full either, so you must know your plot and how to summarize it for your reviewers. Also keep in mind that when these chatters give you advice, they’ve technically earned the right to sharing in the profits of your work one day if it becomes a bestseller. (This goes back to the idea of something called crowdsourcing in Ch. 11 of Quesenberry’s “Social Media Strategy” bookcrowdsourcing being your audience’s help in making your product or service work efficiently.)

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Asking questions that invite your audience’s participation will ultimately work more effectively than telling them how happy you are about your work (even though that is wonderful) when it comes to Twitter Chats. The chat lasts for however long of a time period you specify in your announcements–just try not to make it too long as many people can’t stay on the web for hours and not tend to their non-digital duties).

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Your exercise then is to try using a Twitter Chat in engaging with other writers such as yourself. Even if you have no literary work to showcase, worry about it not–but do utilize the chat to teach others and learn from them. Get their advice on how you can improve your own writing skills for the better. The wonderful thing about Twitter Chats is that some of the most famous people out there join them. This goes back to the idea that social media has broken the wall between customer and consumer, average-day person and Hollywood star, beginning writer and best-selling author.

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If you want to get your work known, utilizing a Twitter Chat isn’t the only way to do it–but certainly one way to do it.

Writing Art

To draw is to use a pencil or pen, a brush, a bucket of paint, or anything else you can think of.

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But writing art takes something more than sketching that picture of a flower on paper, or finishing that portrait of Ms. Hemming in your studio.

To write art is to reflect on your life, your experiences, and what inspired you to write.

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Like drawing or painting, writing too can be expressed in any way you imagine–and more.

Now that you know this, take some time today to think about your experiences.

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You can write about it in your journal, or maybe on a digital platform such as Microsoft Word.

Don’t bother editing until you’ve written anything on your mind.

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Sometimes the best written art is not the kind that reflects standard grammar or spelling, but the grammar or spelling that reflects you.