Sometimes it is said that the world of a good novel puts a reader in an escape mode. It transforms them into another place, a different time and weave upon them a plot that is engaging and commanding. But none of this holds true if strong character development isn’t at the core of the story; the players who let it unfold.
Think of the characters that stand out in some of the world’s best fiction : Atticus Finch, Jane Eyre, Harry Potter. How did the author create such vivid representations of people that come alive in the story, and make the reader feel connected and invested?
Writing is a craft, and as such, there are methods and means to use as tools in developing every aspect of fiction, form setting and mood, to descriptions, imagery and even characters. Here are some that can prove useful.
Base a character on a real person.
Many writer’s seeking advice on improving their craft are given the recommendation to “write what you know.” Living through an experience or delving into the real world around you is an ideal place to start and develop a plot. The people who come into play in that plot can be central to the story.
Perhaps your grandmother led an extraordinary life, or your favourite teacher had experiences that are worthy of becoming part of a story. Use them. Be authentic when describing how they appear physically without sounding like a medical report. Small details such as the way they carry themselves, how they speak to others, mannerisms they use can all become part of rounding out a character.
If your grandmother was uneducated and spoke with poor grammar and a clipped dialect, use it. If the local priest who worked with the catechism class had a secret life with a gambling addiction, use it. If the grocery store cashier was a single mother working on a law degree at night, use it.
Perhaps the characters in your story need traits, skills or styling that can’t all be attributed to one person. A character can easily be a composite of many people you know. If your favourite elementary school teacher was great with dealing with challenging children, but your hockey coach was the one who made the game fun, put their characteristics together. If your dentist is acerbic and impersonal, and your grandfather is obsessed with re-enacting Civil War battles, put them together.
Sometimes listing all the possible traits people can display will help you find the right match of characteristics for everyone in your story. It can be endless: honest, forgetful, commandeering, cheating, abusive, pious, generous, messy, cruel…
Make a character larger than life.
This might be a great way to develop a character when you are writing in the fantasy or supernatural genres or it is likely a reader will dismiss the character as too unbelievable in other settings. Think – if Harry Potter behaved the way he did in
Oliver Twist, it wouldn’t have been convincing. But in the realm of Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, it totally works.
Attribute characteristics, skills and abilities to your character that aren’t expected in a typical child, youth or adult. It was Anne’s wild imagination that led the people of Avonlea to be intrigued by her. It was Christian Grey’s bizarre secret life in the realm of sadomasochism that makes readers want to suspend belief and delve further.
Make a character an ideal.
As an author you have complete control over your characters, their actions and what motivates them. Make them behave the way you want them to. Here is your opportunity to have a character reflect your opinions and values or to reflect the opinions and values of your society at large. Ina historical context this is more difficult because the characters’ words and actions have to be authentic to the time and place where they live, but in a contemporary story, use what you are living, or use the current events of your culture to have your characters speak and behave with a message.
Surround a Character
Even Robinson Crusoe needed his man Friday to converse with. To help your reader learn more about your character, give them surrounding characters to converse with, interact with, and to develop relationships. We are invested in Huckleberry Finn because of the way he treats Jim, the runaway slave, and the dialogue between the two helps us learn more about the culture of the era where and when the novel is set. Supporting characters can be as developed as you like, as long as they are still central to the plot and enhance the story, and message, you hope to convey.
Be a people watcher!
Some authors are meticulous about inventing and developing characters to the point where they constantly keep notes about people around them. It could be a conversation you overheard between passengers on a train, the way a customer behaves in a store to a clerk, or even the doctor who has to deliver medical information to a terminal patient. Pay attention. Create “what if” scenarios in your mind. What if a mentally challenged youth won the lottery? What if you found a lottery ticket in a library book? What if you found a winning lottery ticket in the jacket of your recently deceased grandfather?
Humanity is all around us, and it turns us all into characters.
About the Author
Jessica Millis, experienced writer, editor and copywriter. She works as an educator in James Madison University (writing classes) and at EssayMama.com as an essay writing specialist and a head of the essay contest jury.