Character Development, part I

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Today, I begin a two part discussion of character development.  Tomorrow, I’ll post the second part at www.sfnovelists.com, and I hope that after you check in here at magicalwords to read Catie’s post, you’ll come over to sfnovelists and read part two of this discussion.

Whenever I’m on panels or in workshops talking about writing fantasy, I try to convey the same basic point:  No matter how terrific a world you’ve created for your story, no matter how complex and clever your plot twists, no matter how gorgeous your prose, successful fantasy, like successful fiction in all genres, comes down to character.  If you create compelling, fascinating, multi-dimensional characters who fascinate your readers, your book or story will be successful.  If your characters are flat, boring, or unbelievable, or if they don’t captivate your readers, your book will fail.  That may seem like an extreme statement, but I believe it’s true.  A book with a flawed world can work if the characters and plot make up for the world’s shortcomings.  A fascinating world and terrific characters can carry a less-than-stellar plot. But if the characters don’t work, the world and plot won’t save you.

So, if you want to write a book that works, just create great characters.  It’s that easy, right?  Right.  Except that creating those believable, fascinating characters isn’t easy at all.  And while I’d love to be able to give you the ABCs of character creation there is no such thing.  Creating characters is as individual as . . . well . . . as any other endeavor in writing.  We each have to find our own way.  But I can at least tell you some of the things that I do when I’m working out characters.

Ideas for new projects come to me in a variety of forms.  Sometimes they begin with a character or group of characters, but other times they begin with magic systems, or plot points, or some other aspect of the worlds I’ve begun to imagine.  In all cases though, my new ideas quickly become character-driven, much like my books.  Not surprisingly, I will begin by focusing on the character who I envision as my main protagonist.  My approach to developing this character goes through several phases.

First, there’s the “Introduction” stage.  I start with a name.  Yeah, I know that sounds pretty basic, but finding a name I like for a main character can take me days.  This is a person with whom I plan to spend a great deal of time.  I’ll probably type his or her name thousands of times.  I’d better like it.  I then start to work on this person’s physical appearance.  This may sound shallow to some, but think about how important physical appearance is in most human interaction.  It’s usually the first thing we notice about a person, and it can often have a profound impact on the way someone interacts with the world.  (For a dramatic example of this, I offer Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan books.)  I jot down how I envision the character — face, build, hair, eye color, distinguishing marks.  If I see the character having scars, I give some indication of the source.  I then think about secondary characteristics — voice quality, manner of speaking (clipped, verbose, nervous, confident), physical tics or habits.  Does this person move or carry him/herself a certain way?  IN short, I focus on all the things you might notice the first time you meet someone.

From here I move on to the “Getting to Know You” stage.  I begin to fill in background information:  What do I know about the character’s family history?  What were his/her parents like?  What did they do with their lives — were they soldiers, farmers, nobles?  What were they like as parents and what was the main character’s relationship with them like?  Does/did the character have siblings?  How many?  What were they like and what kind of relationship did the character have with them?  Did the character have a happy childhood or a difficult one (or both)?  Where did the character grow up?  Yes, this is going to be dependent on some worldbuilding, but even if the information is limited to “a small fishing village on an island far removed from the great event of the character’s time” or, conversely, “the largest wealthiest city in the most powerful realm in the land” that is significant information.  And of course, I need to know what this character does for a living, or what role he/she plays in society.  Usually that’s a pretty simple piece of information to fill in, since it’s often central to the plot I’m planning and the character’s role in that plot.  But still, it is important.

Finally, I move on to the “Psychoanalysis” stage.  What is this character like?  What kind of personality traits does this person have?  Is he/she confident or insecure?  Friendly or standoffish?  Arrogant or humble?  Quick tempered or unflappable?  What kind of relationships does he/she have with the people around him or her?  And (this is very important) what personal traits and faults will this person have to overcome in order to deal with the problems I plan to throw at him/her during the course of the book?

I can go on and on, but I figure you get the picture.  Is all of this background work necessary?  Maybe not.  But I like to know as much as possible about a character from the outset.  Sometimes I’ll even write out a character sketch incorporating all of the information that I’ve listed here.  The important thing is that I know a great deal about this person before I begin to outline the plot in a serious way and before I start working on the people around him/her.  This is not to say that I neglect other characters in favor of this one, or that I don’t take as much time and effort with other characters.  (All right, with some characters I take far less time — bit characters need depth and substance, too, but not nearly as much.  But major secondary characters — the supporting cast, if you will, need to be complex and well thought-out, or else the relationships they have with the lead character won’t work.)  But the main character is the one that matters most, the one who has the greatest potential to make or break the book and/or series.

So start with these tips, and tomorrow I’ll talk a bit more about where I like to go from here.  Check out tomorrow’s post at www.sfnovelists.com.

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3 comments to Character Development, part I

  • David,
    Sorry about the johnny-come-lately timing. I am in the mountains and I just found the Internet. (Insert commercial here?) I was hoping for black bear, but there you have it.

    I’ve heard you give a short version of this several times and I am always amazed. My own character creation processes are much less involved. *Much less!* In fact, I’d like to think it through and on Wednesday I’ll post the way I do it. I’m guessing the post will be about 3 lines long.
    This is fun!
    Faith

  • Hope you’re enjoying the mountains, Faith! As we’re fond of saying here, there’s no right way to do this. My process is time consuming and cumbersome, but it works for me. Your characters seem super real to me, so you’re obviously doing something right.