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Writing a book can often feel like a never-ending battle between yourself and your ideas. Just when you have figured out the intricacies of world-building and the polish of the plot, character development rears its head to remind you of how much work you still have left.
Character development (next to world-building) is the hardest challenge any writer has to face. It is difficult because, unlike world-building or plot progression, there is no escaping character development. Novels, poems, short stories, and even biographies have at least one character! To have uninteresting or one-dimensional characters is career suicide for an author.
That is why it is so important to understand “character development: what it is and how to use it.”
What Is Character Development?
Character development is the art of creating well rounded and engaging personalities within a narrative. Like any other skill, it takes countless hours of practice before it can be mastered.
When authors begin to write characters, it can often be a delightful experience. You can feel like the God of your fantasy world as you sculpt people from nothing but your words and your imagination. Writers stretch and squeeze diction, chisel and grind punctuation, and paint and shine imagery until they have the cast of a human being.
This stage is magical, and it can remind writers of why they loved writing in the first place. The creative license and the artistry of building a personality from the ground up is a feeling like no other!
However, the conflict arrives when it comes to filling in the hollow cast you have just molded. A human being is more than just the sum of their parts; they have mannerisms and quirks and morals that they develop over a lifetime. An author has to create this identity from scratch. They, unlike Gods, have to inject a lifetime’s worth of choices, character traits, and experiences into their models. Coming up with the concept was easy; endowing it with a soul is the challenge.
Breathing life into a character is the crux of character development. Making a living breathing spirit out of just ink and paper is harder than it looks (and it doesn’t look all that simple!). Nevertheless, there is no need to panic. There are a few straightforward tips and tricks you can use during character development to perfect your story.
Types of Character Development:
Before we can work on bettering our character development skills, it is worthwhile to understand the different ways in which authors develop characters for their narrative purposes.
Archetypal Character Development:
All literature and media have characters that fall into certain ‘tropes.’ These are categories that explain or define the personalities of certain characters and how they act. These character ‘archetypes’ can include the ‘quirky best friend,’ the ‘hero with a dark past,’ and the ‘femme fatal.’
Archetypes can be useful during character development when used correctly. Models should only be employed as overarching themes and starting points for further exploration. An over-reliance upon patterns can create a flat, one-dimensional character that can bring your writing skills into question!
One example of archetypes done well is the James Bond 007 series. Bond characters are almost exclusively archetypes; Bond is the suave, super-secret spy, his Bond Girls are pin-ups and Femme Fatales, and the villains are dastardly European businessmen and mad scientists. This should have created a wholly unoriginal, boring series, but it managed to captivate generations of audiences. How is that possible?
Well, for starters, James Bond is not a stereotype; James Bond is an icon. His personality was crafted to have all the makings of a ‘cooler than ice,’ perfect male figure. He is a womanizer, chauvinist, almost superhumanly skilled with futuristic and impossible technology. To make this interesting, however, novelist Ian Fleming imbibed him with flaws.
Bond is a weapon for the British government with no strings attached attitude, but he also manages to have a mother-son relationship with M and grieves when she dies. A bond is a man of discipline, never straying from his loyalty to Vodka martinis and the British Crown, but he also gambles more than he should. Friendship is a womanizer, but he is charming, respectful, and upfront with women about his intentions.
As we can see, James Bond was crafted to be a balanced character. Ian Fleming rooted the archetype in reality by creating contradictions and imperfections that make the man an icon and not a caricature. The repetition of tropes and motifs and phrases like ‘shaken not stirred’ and ‘the name’s Bond, James Bond’ make the character memorable. Still, the introduction of personality traits and flaws make him believable as a character.
So if you are going to use archetypal character development, remember to create a celebrity, not a cartoon!
Symbolic Character Development:
Writers often decide to create narratives that have a moral or sociopolitical message to them. Whether it be George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, or Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’urbervilles – authors have always loved stories that are a metaphor for society.
If your narrative is a representation of something else, then obviously, your characters are also going to be representational of specific themes and concepts. This type of character development is called symbolic character development because the figures in the story symbolize something else entirely.
Symbolic character development is a simple but effective way to create compelling leads in your story. This way, you can get away with a somewhat one-dimensional character because they are supposed to be the personification of certain tropes.
For example, the characters of Peeta and Gale in The Hunger Games series are embodiments of peace and war, respectively, and the heroine’s decision to marry Peeta is a metaphor for her choosing peace instead of violence.
However, just because this method allows you to get away with simplistic characters, that does not mean that you should deliberately create flat characters! Adding nuances to any type of attitude is guaranteed to improve your writing.
Character Development Arcs:
The place where most novice writers trip up during character development is how to present the character to the reader. To the creator of the character, it is easy to see the motivations and thought processes of nature because they have spent weeks fleshing out their backstory and personality.
The reader, however, has just met the character and having your opening paragraphs be an explanation of who your style is. Their backstory is tedious, unimaginative, and the quickest way to lose your reader’s interest!
The way some writers work around this is by deploying a ‘character development arc.’ The way this works is the author writes a shallow, fairly uninspiring character – a villain, for example – and has them develop a new personality during the book. This way, readers are given time to start caring about the character and their journey as they watch them grow in real-time before their very eyes!
An example of this is Loki from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the first Avengers movie, Loki is a clear-cut villain with the unoriginal motive of wanting to ‘take over and rule the world.’ By Thor Ragnarok, however, Loki’s personality is developed further, and we see him as a rebellious son, neglected by his father and vilified by his people. Thus his need for power, respect, and autonomy is justified to audiences, and they begin to sympathize with him.
By Avengers: Infinity War, his death is impactful as readers have invested time and energy into the character and therefore mourn his death that much harder. This is the classic ‘villain redemption arc’ type of character development.
As with any type of character development, moderation is key. You can only have one or two kinds of arcs in the story before it gets repetitive. If you are going to use this technique, try to have characters whose arcs pair together well. In a romance novel, you could have one aspect learn compassion, while their love interest gains independence. A fantasy novel could have a hero and villain with a similar past choose different paths in their lives and thus have different character arcs.
Character arcs are an excellent way to get started on your character development and take some of a load of explaining backstories off your plate.
Realistic Character Development:
Have you ever read a book that makes you feel at home? A book that gives you a sense of familiarity and comfort, a sense of belonging amongst characters that have become old friends, is the best kind of book to read.
The best character development is also the hardest to pull off! Ideally, your book’s lead characters will be believable as human beings and, therefore, sympathetic to the readers. Characters that feel like they could exist create the highest engagement with a book’s plot.
Readers want to spend more time with stories that make them feel as if they’re following the journey of their newfound friends. Making fully developed, complex characters will take your book from good to great to legendary!
There is no ‘correct’ way to create convincing character development, but there are a few helpful techniques that authors use to achieve this.
The most popular method is to translate real people into your fictional characters. Take a real person you know (ideally someone you know personally, but second-hand knowledge can also work) in real life and turn them into a character in your story. Use their personality as a base to build your narrative around.
For example, if you are trying to write a medieval female warrior character, take a strong, fierce woman you know in your life and give her the qualities of a medieval-style and place her in the relevant scenes of your novel. It’s the same as typecasting an actor for a film!
The most significant part of realistic character development is that you can never overdo it! So take a look around your family, friends, and coworkers and figure out who would make a good protagonist.
Character Development Do’s and Don’ts:
Now that you know how writers create character development let’s go over
Some things you absolutely must do and some things you should avoid like the plague!
Do: Have Your Characters Evolve
It doesn’t matter how brilliant your character’s personality and backstory is if they don’t evolve during the narrative. Having a role be the same emotionally, spiritually, and in their nature in the beginning and the end of the book is a character development faux pas!
Don’t: Copy Someone Else’s Character
After reading a particularly riveting book, it can be tempting to add similar characters to your own story. However, this is a huge mistake! It is impossible to create characters that try to emulate another person’s writing. Each author has a distinct style, ideas, and experiences and trying to copy that would make your own story a cheap and underwhelming replica of an original tale.
Do: Be Selective
Once you start creating a character, it’s hard to stop! Authors often write too little about their role (to the point where they have no idea what the character’s backstory is) or too much ( to the point where they know the character’s favorite brand of bottled water!).
It is salient to remember the Chekhov’s Gun principle that states: ‘If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.’ If you are going to be mentioning a detail, it has to be relevant to the plot at some point in the novel. If your character is allergic to strawberries, they need to be in danger of an allergy flare-up by the end of the book!
Don’t: Introduce ‘Plot Device’ Characters
You should generally avoid adding characters to your story that are only there to further the plot. This creates a one-dimensional figure that usually pulls readers out of the narrative. It is unrealistic for people to show up just when it is convenient for the plot and is a sign of lazy writing! If you are creating character development, you must have equally fleshed out characters for readers to compare them to!
What Have We Learned?
Character Development is challenging and is certainly no walk in the park. However, Character Development can make or break a novel and can be a rewarding experience for both the reader and the writer.
Character Development is an enormous investment but, ultimately, a worthy one!