Hi, I’m Alex Courter for Serious Writers Block, author of the young adult epic fantasy, “Return of the Dragon Knights”. Our goal at Serious Writers Block is to help serious writers share their stories and message, and leave a lasting legacy. Today we’ll be covering just a slice of a much pondered topic in the writer’s space:
Many books have them; I don’t think I’ve read a single fiction book that didn’t have some kind of a character. So to writers like me who LOVE to write fantasy or science-fiction or any other kind of fictional stories, our characters can really make or break the book. Today, we are going to focus more on some basics in developing your characters.
There was a time for me when I didn’t understand how to define my characters or what really made them different and awesome; but, I found that there are ways you can make them better, stronger, or easier to voice, or even, just add another layer to their depth and intrigue. These methods we’ll talk about today have made my writing a thousand times better in my opinion.
But, it’s about what works for you, right? So as we go through these four basic ways you can improve your characters, bear in mind that not every path on the map is easily walked by everybody. Some of these things you may have to adapt to how you prefer to write. I don’t mean to say this is the only way, in fact, there is so much more we can also talk about concerning developing your characters.
I know these are some core principles that I’m about to discuss, and I want you to promise you will try them out, okay? Make it work for you, because you deserve to have awesome characters. You deserve to have a work you can pick up and say, “Yeah, I wrote that.”
Let’s start by dispelling some myths and misunderstandings about developing and designing characters.
4 Common Myths and Misunderstandings to Character Development
- If I give my character all sorts of cool and interesting powers/abilities or traits, he or she will be likeable and unique.
- My good characters have to be perfect
- I have to write characters that the audience likes
- I can leave a lot of a character’s definition up to the audience and they will pick up what I meant through context and their imagination.
Myth 1. If I give my character all sorts of cool and interesting powers / abilities or traits, he or she will be likeable and unique.
These won’t be helpful in the end. You have to really define your characters to make them likeable. Knowing a character’s job helps, but traits won’t matter if he has no personality or the audience can’t relate to him.
Could you imagine if Dracula was nothing more than a monster? Would any of those great powers of his matter if he couldn’t also chill your spine with his speech? With his well-crafted words? Would he be so interesting if he was just a mindless monster? I think not. His words held a certain power as a character. He was not just some shady being in the darkness. He had a tangible personality.
Myth 2. My good characters have to be perfect.
Unless maybe you’re writing a character that has a good reason to be perfect, such as an Angel or a Saint, sometimes it’s your character’s flaws that can make your chapters or situations interesting.
Myth 3. I have to create characters that the audience likes.
This one stumped me for a while. Fact of the matter is everybody will either find a reason to love a character, a reason to hate them, or a reason to not care about them and ignore them. A lot of it has to do with opinion.
The audience that really matters and needs to approve of your character first and foremost is YOU. If they don’t impress you, then they aren’t likely to impress your audience either. Develop your characters into loveable people that you would like to read about. You want your audience to appreciate your book, but not at your own expense. Don’t waste your time writing characters that detract from the way you want to tell the story. If you write for your audience to the exclusion of your taste, it robs you of your work. You don’t have to love all of your characters, but don’t let a poorly written character by define or design trash your life’s work. You’re the Author!
Myth 4. Leave it to their imagination.
This one’s a trouble maker for so many authors. It might just be one of the biggest problems that we have when we are creating characters.
Here’s a test. If you read a passage of your story that you think people will be able to “pick up the information” by themselves from your clues, and it doesn’t clearly shout to you “this is what happened / is happening / is going to happen” or “this is what I meant”, then your audience is definitely not going to get it. They’d be left to a guessing game. You must avoid confusing your reader; because, when it comes to guessing, chances are there are more wrong answers than right.
The Four Keys to Character Development
It may sound simple, but a lot of defining your characters can be discovered by just asking “Why?”
- Why does a character do this?
- Why do they have this power or this strength?
- Why do they have this weakness or flaw?
- Why do they not like this other person?
Absolutely important: If you want to deviate or make a contradiction, or an inconsistency in the way your character should act; if they are going to stray from who they are, you need a good reason. Otherwise your readers will disconnect.
Key #1. Treat them like real people.
Unless your characters are all robots, you should treat them as if they were real people. There are many definitions for the word Character, but the one I like is: Character is the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.
So how do you define the mental and moral qualities distinctive to a character?
Give them real beliefs and moral standards, or “real character” traits.
These include: morals, strengths, beliefs, integrity, honesty, loyalty, kindness, caring, or an understanding heart, bravery, etc. And for evil characters, give them the lack of these traits, or their opposites! This is what people will be able to relate to. They might not be able to relate to the fact that one of my characters is half-dragon, but they can relate to his morals. He values his friends above his own well-being. Doesn’t that sound better than he has no beliefs because, since he’s a dragon, he’s just a reptile that acts on nothing but animal instinct?
Give them motivation.
Why are they here? And what is it that they will live for, love, and are willing to die for? This can help shape the plot of the book in regard to the main character(s). It also allows you a viable reason for conflict.
What does your character fear the most?
This could be a person, thing, circumstance, condition, or situation. Why are they afraid of it?
Add in all of those special fun little traits.
Obsessed with something… owns a talking hamster… special powers… whatever you want. Maybe they’re a hobo. But, make sure they have a reason for traits that do NOT line up with their core nature (e.g. beliefs/standards).
What are your character’s flaws?
What are their weaknesses and short-comings? Make sure to give a good reason why they have these problems so it’s believable.
Key #2. Give them the gift of life
Your characters still have more they can tell you. And in turn, more you can tell the readers (Or not. Or even just hint at it). It’s up to you how far you go, but it can be a lot of fun to figure these things out.
What’s the character’s background?
Make sure it fits who they are now. For example, what was the betrayal that led to their trust issues? You can give your character memories of family, special times in their life, tragedies, hard times, a previous career or life, social status… Anything. It’s up to your imagination and what you feel is right for your character.
What is your character’s relationship to the other characters?
Make a list of the other characters in your story and give them the appropriate labels: enemy, friend, family, love interest, co-worker, etc. This will help you keep your connections straight. Your character should usually interact appropriately with the other characters based on his or her relationship to them.
Your character needs real emotions. So give them some.
Based on their core nature, how does your character react in the situations in your story? What is this character’s normal attitude? Are they usually happy or sad or angry or indifferent or bored? Are they optimistic or pessimistic? Avoid constant “middle ground” unless your character explicitly needs to not care. If so, remember to give your reason why they don’t care. Your character needs at least some emotion to not sound robotic (unless that’s what you’re going for…)
Give your character a profile.
That’s right. Create a character profile. You will be glad you did. This can be more or less detailed based on the time available and your proclivity, but the more you know the more you can define them for your audience and the more real your character will become.
What is their Name? Define physical characteristics such as height, weight, shape, posture, athleticism, eye color, hair color, skin color/tone, smell, etc. Don’t forget to clothe them. Clothes and their fashion preferences are like the cover of a book waiting to be read.
Key #3: Keep Characters Consistent.
Actions speak louder than words. A lot of the time what we do will say more about us than what is said. There is an oft quoted Bible verse that reads, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” You are writing their script. You have an outline of who your character is, and it is your responsibility to make sure they follow this outline with their actions.
Make sure your character’s actions line up with his or her core nature.
This is important. If you don’t have a good reason for your character acting against their core nature, readers will feel disconnected from that character.
You can give the character a profession or job, but make sure it fits them.
This isn’t to say that your character has to have a job they like. But they should have a reason for having a job they don’t. This is the same for a job that doesn’t make sense or fit them. Much like any other intentional inconsistency in your character, you need a good reason.
Key #4: Tell the audience if it’s important!
This key is worth watching my video. What does character development have to do with Jambalaya? It all comes down to providing a fool-proof recipe and shopping list. Suffice it to say… Authors, if you don’t give your readers the list, one that is easy to understand, then you aren’t getting any Jambalaya.
As you’re going through the story, make sure to give the audience pieces of this character’s life at the appropriate times.
Readers love to know more about a character they like. Your audience wants to know more. Don’t make them beg! Obviously, it’s important to tell things about your character at the right time, but that is not an excuse to be stingy with the goods, or obtusely misleading.
Could you imagine if you had a character you called Chris, and after one hundred pages of the audience thinking he’s a Christopher, they find out HER name is Christina? Avoid that like the plague, writers. Tell your Audience what they NEED to know about your characters, at the right time.
If you read through a portion of the story and you are left with even the easiest questions, they still might be questions that the reader can’t answer on his or her own without your help; that means you need to put the answer to it in there.
Take care of your characters
They deserve for you to be proud of them, just like you deserve to be proud. They are yours. Own them. Don’t be embarrassed by your characters. You shouldn’t have to worry what others think of them. What matters is what you think about them. You’re their creator after all.
Treat our characters like real people. Breathe life into them. Keep your characters consistent with their core nature. And tell your audience what you mean, and especially if it is important.
These are the tools I have used to improve my characters, and it impacted my overall writing, too. I would like to commend you for taking action to expand your knowledge and for trying new methods. Most of all, of everything I gave you, it is up to you to decide what’s best for your style and for your characters.
The Secret: If you ever find yourself stuck, remember to ask “Why?” That is the secret that will differentiate you characters from those of hacks. It is that simple. Ask “why?” and you may just learn something new about your creation.
One size does not fit all, and results may vary. Keep in mind that you don’t have to do everything in order either. Some people find giving their character a profile or knowing what they look like is the first step. You might agree, especially if you are a more visual thinker. Others see entire scenes from the story in their head and build how their character acts around that. Still, others create their characters from scratch in any given order. What’s important is to remember to include what will make them memorable. Their nature and their actions will speak louder than their powers or status.
Give these methods a try. You could make it like an interview or, if they’re a bad guy, maybe it’s an interrogation. Ask all the questions you can think of. The easiest mistake I can make is to not find out enough about my characters. I’ve gotten into some tight spots while writing that made me have to rethink entire scenes because I wrote myself into a one way dead end street due to a character not “living” up to the definition; core nature wins every time. Profiling your characters will save some of the hassle of trying to fix what’s not how we want it.
Leave a post in the comments if you have questions. Feel free to offer your opinion and answer other people’s questions if you wish. I will be actively monitoring the comments to offer any help I can. Feel free to also leave your feedback or ideas. I’m here to serve you, writers. And I want to do so to the best of my ability; so, if there is something you’re concerned about, I would like to hear you out.
I wish you the best in your endeavors. If you’re serious, then let your writing adventure begin. Until next time, take care.
Alex D.K. Courter is the author of the young adult epic fantasy, “Return of the Dragon Knights”. He founded Serious Writers Block to help fellow and aspiring authors to achieve their dream of writing and publishing a work.
Check out Alex’s work at http://www.lqmpublishing.com/
Check out our Youtube Channel to learn more about how to Become a Serious Writer.