Author Troubleshooting: Successful character development

November 26, 2014

Today we’re talking character development. I’ve been asked about this a number of times, and my answer will be different from other authors, but this is how I develop my characters…

Once I have my idea for a plot, I kind of just let it sit in my mind and simmer away before I work out all the little details. For other authors, the plot is the next element, but for me, characters are the most important part of the book.

Let’s start with a physical description. Think about everything – does your character have dark/fair/red/multi-hued hair? What color are their eyes? Is there anything unusual about them? How would you describe them? Are they tall/short/fat/thin/muscular/petite/slim/chubby? Do they have any scar/tattoos/piercings/distinguishing features? What kind of clothes do they like to wear? Do they wear make-up religiously? Is their second toe longer than their first? 

I know it seems like a lot of information to think about, but in the end it helps to make your character as believable as possible – and that is the name of the game. You could have a great plot and an amazing writing style, but if your characters are unbelievable, no one will be able to relate to them.

I always find it helpful to scour the Internet in search of the perfect image that represents your character – unless you’ve created a peg-legged pirate with pink hair and soft-spot for kittens…that might be a little difficult to find an image for. 

When you have all your images for your characters, I like print them out and create a mood board filled with the images and their physical descriptions either printed out or hand-written on Post-it notes or index cards. As an alternative, you could simply write your characters information in a notebook, or create a Word document or Excel spreadsheet with all the important information on it.  In my self-published series, I used Excel spreadsheets and hand-written notes in a book to keep track of my characters.

All right, so now you know what they look like. What’s next? Although a physical description isn’t the most important thing to know about your character, I find that knowing what they look like helps me to detail their personality. For each and every character I have in my books, I have an A4 page with the following headings spaced out down the length of the page:

1)      Need/longing
2)      Wound
3)      Belief
4)      Fear
5)      Identity (their face to the world)
6)      Essence (who they really are)

I stumbled across this list about a year ago while cruising the Internet. These headings aren’t mine, but I could kiss the person who developed them because they’ve helped me so much when I’ve been thinking about new characters to add to my books.

As you can see, having these headings to guide you really pays off. My only gripe is that it’s a time consuming process, especially if you have a dozen characters you need to write them for. 

Another component that’s good to have is giving your character a history. If they have a scar, how did they get it? How would they tell the story of how they got it? If your character is untrusting of men, how did they develop this wariness? If your character is afraid of fire, why? What happened to them? Traumatic events/personal experiences are often the best way to develop this, but sometimes it could be second-hand trauma that causes their misgivings. For example, they’re against forming relationships even though they’ve never been in one before BUT their parents or siblings had a bad relationship which left them with a bad impression.

Finally, you should make sure your characters act their age. There are so many books out there that have 20-something characters who act, and talk, like they’re still 16. When this happens, readers get frustrated as the character who is supposed to be a successful lawyer pouts and talks in abbreviations, thus completely losing credibility. If you have a character who is 25, make sure they have the maturity of a 25-year-old.

In order to get your characters’ ages right, think about your target audience. Are you trying to appeal to young children or pre-teens? Or is the young adult market your audience? Or are your books and characters strictly only for adults?

So there you have it, my tips for developing successful characters. I’ve posted the things I’ve discussed below in my ‘pressure points’ list so you can refresh your memory a little more easily if you choose to take on some of my techniques.

If you’d like me to talk about anything else in regards to writing techniques, leave me a comment below and I’ll see what I can do!

“When the characters are really alive before their author, the latter does nothing but follow them in their action, in their words, in the situations which they suggest to him.” 

Pressure points:

  • Think about what they physically look like.
  • Develop a ‘mood board’ with images that inspire you to keep writing.
  • Detail their personality.
  • Give them a history.
  • Make sure your characters act their age. 

Happy writing!

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