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Friday, July 24, 2015

Character Development

Character Development

I’ve seen a lot of stories where the story was good, but the characters were flat.  The protagonist is beautiful or handsome and seems to have no flaws.  The antagonist is inherently evil with no redeeming qualities simply because the author needs a villain.  Okay, sometimes the latter works, but usually only when you’re dealing with an entity of some type.  But humans are different.  We’re a psychologically messy and complex breed of animal.  Even the best of us have dark sides.  Geez, even the angels from the Bible have dark sides (really dark sides).  After all, Lucifer was an angel before he screwed up and was cast out of Heaven.

Characters need layers.  We don’t need to see every layer, but scenes should be written with those layers in mind.  You want to make the characters live and breathe for the readers.  You don’t have to drown us in the details, but let us inside the character’s head from time to time.  After all, ninety-nine percent of the time, we’re in that character’s POV, so we’re supposed to be in their head.  We’re supposed to hear the voices in their head when those voices are talking about the scene.

You know what I’m talking about.  When you’re arguing with someone, you’re not just listening to what they’re saying and not reacting at all.  You’re listening, and you might be thinking what a jerk this person is, or you might be in shock or disbelief this person could actually believe the words coming out of their mouth.  You’re likely to be thinking of what you’re going to say next, but you’re not likely to be staring at that person and listening to what they’re saying with drool running down your chin.  Your mind’s not going to be one big blank as they rant and rave and call you an ignorant idiot for the tenth time in two minutes.

So when we listen for those voices in the character’s head and we hear nothing but crickets chirping, it freezes us out.  Now, if the character’s mind is wandering and they’re wondering if the pants they have on makes their butt look big, no, we don’t need to see that.  Unless it somehow pertains to the scene—and I doubt that whether or not the pants make her butt look big is going to be relevant—it’s not something we need to see.  If, on the other hand, she’s fighting the urge to choke him if he calls her an ignorant idiot one more time, that might be relevant (sort of like in Hancock, when Hancock tells someone to call him a certain ugly name one more time, or when Mary tells Hancock to call her crazy one more time.  If these were written scenes, wouldn’t you just love to know what was going on in their heads at those moments?).

Just let us into the character’s head from time to time, show us what they’re thinking or feeling.  Give us opportunities to figure out what makes them tick.  Some writers think letting the readers inside the character’s head means using internal dialogue, but the same can be accomplished in narration or a combination of both.  Just remember to show us instead of telling us, and make sure you don’t slow the pace of the story.  Don’t drag on for three pages as your MC agonizes over all the reasons why she shouldn’t or can’t do this or that.


Christine Rains said...

Fantastic post. I'm a character driven writer and reader. There's no better way to keep me hooked than multi-layered characters.

Liz A. said...

That's always tricky. How much do you show? I've seen three pages of what the character is thinking, and then I have to go back to remember what the other character was saying before the musing began.

Angela said...

Three pages? Well, yeah... That's too long. Sometimes all it takes is a well-placed sentence or two, depending on the scene. Other times, you might need a paragraph or two, but I wouldn't recommend more than that. Even though you want your readers to get to know your characters, if it's not directly relevant to the story, you don't want bog the readers down in those details.

It's like a painting. Bold brush strokes make up the majority of the painting, but what helps give the painting depth and meaning to people is often the way the artist uses shading. Certain parts of your character are going to be in the bold strokes that put your character on the page. Name, age (or approximate age), hair color, eye color, what they do for a living, who they are to the story... Those are all some of the things that make up the bold strokes. But the shading in your story is made up of the smaller things.

So, obviously, don't go musing for three pages. I agree, that's too much. Usually, a sentence or two, maybe a paragraph or two, is enough. It really depends on the scene, and what you're trying to convey about your character. You also convey characterization by how a character talks, how they dress, and how they interact with your other characters. If a character has a smear of grease on his cheek or has grease smears on his shirt, and his fingernails have black grime under them, that tells you some things about him, doesn't it? You know one of two things about him. He's either working on a car, or he's a mechanic by trade. Later details will help you determine which assumption is correct, but it gives you a foundation to build on. So the internal stuff is intended to help firm up our initial impressions of the character.

And it doesn't all have to come out in one place. You can sprinkle it throughout to help create the whole picture. If you have a glass of tea, and you drink it in small swallows, you'll still consume the entire glass. Perhaps not as quickly as when you just guzzle the whole thing, but you'll still drink it all.

Again, a sentence or two is good. A short paragraph or two is fine. But definitely not three pages. Does that help?