Today, we’re going to talk about developing characters. I decided on this for the most important reason of all — you wonderful readers put character development as the Number One area you wanted more information on. Isn’t that cool? You ask, you receive.
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to assume you already have a character sketched out and the question is How do I develop this character within a story?
To begin with, if you’ve been reading here regularly, you’ll have learned that every scene should accomplish one or both of these things: advance the plot, advance a character. There are other things you can do in addition to these two, but these are essential. Even if you’re writing a flashback, you better give us information regarding one of these or else it’s wasted words. Advancing a character really means developing a character and that means writing words that make the character seem like a real thing, a complex thing, and not just a convenient plot point or a stand-in for “THE MESSAGE” of your book. Since developing a character is considered one of the essential elements of a scene and advancing the plot is the other, it seems natural that they should relate to each other. And, what do you know, they do.
When you develop a plot, you take the impetus of the idea and flesh it out into a full-blown story. You craft each moment so that it flows from one to the next in a logical and, hopefully, satisfying manner. When developing a character, you take the basic idea of a character, the sketch, and flesh it out into a full-blown person (or animal or supernatural creature or undead being or mythic god — you get the idea). You then craft each moment of this character’s existence so that it flows from one to the next in a believable and, hopefully, satisfying manner. If done well, plot point and character development will have a lot of overlap.
Let’s get to an example to clear this all up with a little story called —
The Beanstalk of Death
Character Sketch — Jack is a young man living with his mother in a small hovel. They are struggling and things are not going well. He’s good-looking, strong, willful, and thinks he knows best. He loves his mother and wants to make life better. Jack likes taking risks and is self-centered.
Basic Plot Points
- Mother tasks Jack to sell their good cow.
- Jack trades the cow for magic beans.
- Magic Beans create giant beanstalk into the clouds.
- Jack climbs beanstalk and encounters Giant’s castle.
- Jack attempts to steal gold and magic creatures from Giant.
- Jack is captured.
- With the help of magic creatures, Jack escapes.
- Giant chases Jack but Jack reaches bottom of beanstalk and cuts it down.
- Giant dies. Jack has Gold-Egg-Laying Goose. He and Mother are happy.
Okay, this is a very loose outline that gives us many of the highlight points we want to hit when writing our story. One way to develop a character is to have them change over time as s/he reacts to the experiences in the story. In other words, just as a plot must have a beginning, several key points in the middle, and an ending, so must a well-developed character.
In the example above, some scenes offer a natural reason for character development. Notice that in plot point 2, Jack’s character gets developed if we, as the author, ask a simple question — Why does Jack trade the beans instead of listening to his mother’s orders? The answer (conveniently found in our character sketch) is that Jack thinks he knows best. By adding that aspect of his character into the scene, we get a richer scene, a more intriguing plot point (now the reader wonders what’ll happen when this hubris clashes with mother’s wishes), and we see a deeper character in Jack (for although he loves his mother, he’s willing to defy her). Asking “Why” a character does an action is a sure-fire way to find places for character development.
Let’s apply this to our collection of Plot Points —
Basic Plot Points
- Mother tasks Jack to sell their good cow which he does out of love for mother and desire to see his small family better off.
- Thinking he knows better, Jack trades the cow for magic beans.
- Magic Beans create giant beanstalk into the clouds. Jack grows more confident since his decision is paying off.(Here, rather than asking Why, I asked “How does Jack feel about the Plot Point?”)
- Though Mother objects, Jack ignores her and takes the risk of climbing beanstalk and encountering Giant’s castle.
- At the height of his hubris, Jack attempts to steal gold and magic creatures from the Giant.
- Jack is captured, and for the first time considers that maybe his Mother wasn’t all wrong about her caution. What good will he be to her if he’s dead? (Here we move away from the character sketch to show some change/growth in Jack)
- Though he’s acted independently until now, he finally sees that his actions touch others and that he needs others sometimes. So, with the help of magic creatures, Jack escapes.
- Giant chases Jack but Jack reaches bottom of beanstalk and cuts it down, willing to destroy the thing he created for his own safety as well as the safety of others.
- Giant dies. Jack has Gold-Egg-Laying Goose. He and Mother are happy. Both Jack and Mother realize that a little bit of caution and a little bit of confidence go a long way.
Now we’ve got a more developed Jack for our story. As we write, we’ll find more opportunities to develop him further that we never would have seen without putting him in the context of the plot points.
Of course, this is just one of a gazillion methods to develop a character and all authors use many more than one method at any given time. I find, however, that if I’m having trouble locating the best places to develop a specific character, it can help to think of it in terms of the plot points.