Monday, February 13, 2012

Getting a Grip on Character Development


A couple weeks ago, after a starry-eyed breakthrough in Seaspear, I sat at the kitchen table, my notebook in front of me.  Inside, I had written Cheryl Klein's "Plot Checklist" from her writing book Second Sight (I heartily recommend it) but I was stuck on the very first question.

1.  The overall change my character experiences is:

I just sat there twirling my pen and feeling growing panic.  I had had my suspicions that Ren was rather flat, but I had always passed over the fact because I didn't think I could fix it at the moment.  My parents were washing the dishes and so finally I decided to ask for some advice.  I did this by giving a loud sigh and exclaiming, "My story is TERRIBLE.  It's awful! I don't know what to do!"

Not the most admirable way to get advice, I agree, but hey, it worked.  My dad turned around, ears almost visibly pricked and said, "Why?"

"Ren doesn't change!" I wailed.  "She's just the same through the whole story.  I tried to..." From here I went on to despair over how weak, pale, fragile, and useless my main character was.  "She's too passive.  And that won't work in a book."

"Of course it will," Dad said.  "Ren is great because she knows what's right and she does it."

Now if someone's ever complimented your character, you'll know that it's like someone's complimented you personally, but ten times better.

Now that my mood had lifted, both my parents went on to help me brainstorm a way for Ren to develop through the story.  They knew as well as I did that even if they kept on bringing up ideas that would never fit with my current plot, they were sure to spark an idea of my own that would work, which is exactly what happened.

Why do we character develop?

I can think of three reasons why we character develop.  Please add to the list in a comment, if you so wish :)

1.  To make our characters and our stories realistic.  Close your eyes and think of something BIG that has happened to you.  For you to even call it BIG, it must have inwardly changed you in some way, no matter how slight. A lot of times, stories center around big things that happen to normal people.  After a story character goes through one of these ordeals, there is no way he or she can be the same.  It's only natural for he/she (okay, I'm going to say 'she' from now on, don't perceive me as feministic) to have changed in some way, due to her experiences.

2.  To make our characters loveable.  For one, it is very hard to love and sympathize with a character who has no faults.  A long time ago, my mom said she picked up the Elsie Dinsmore series, to preview it for then 10/11 year old me.  She told me later that she was disgusted with how perfect Elsie was! (My apologies, any Elsie-lovers.)  For two, we as human readers, YA at that, are always changing as we search for our identity.  Static characters who never change are not appealing to us.

3.  To further hook our readers.  We could throw a character into a pandemonious roil of car chases and flying bullets, but if the character wants nothing from it, if she has no reason to be there, then she isn't truly engaged in the action.  And if our character isn't truly engaged in the action, then no reader will be either.

from national treasure 1 via

Where do I start character developing?

Good question.  I'll do my best to answer it, for myself as much as for the rest of you.

One way to start is to figure out what fault your character has that (1) you want to change into a positive thing, and (2) that by being changed, relates with and enhances the other elements and themes of the story.

How do you figure out this magical fault?

You can figure out what your character WANTS.  What drives her very being? What is she striving for throughout the story?  I'll use Ren from Seaspear as an example.

Ren wants: To recover the magic spear, which was stolen.

The want will sometimes be something physical, like the above, and in that case, narrow down the WANT (physical) to a DESIRE (emotional).  Okay, so Ren wants the magic spear.  But why? Why is it so important? The answer:

Ren desires: The trust and approval of Captain Ajax, which she lost.

Now take this and narrow it down even further into a CHARACTER TRAIT.  This will usually be what you're going to change throughout the story.  Again, ask why:

Ren wants Capt.'s trust because she bases her opinion of herself on other people's opinions of herself.  If the Capt., her hero, thinks ill of her, than she thinks she must be very bad indeed. now we get to the root of the thing! The above is obviously bad; Ren needs to learn to accept herself no matter what other people think and no matter how influential those said people are.

So that's one way you can get started on your character developing.  Other times, though, characters aren't very clear on what they want.  I haven't read Pride and Prejudice in a while, but I did just watch the ('05) movie for the millionth time.  *mushy smile*

Lizzy Bennet wants:

What? She's just a normal girl living a normal life.  She might want to get married, I don't know.  Maybe she wants a new tea gown.  Or ribbons.  Or a new supply of smart remarks for Darcy.  (That last one seems the most legitimate.)  But Pride and Prejudice is known for its character development, because at the beginning Lizzy perceives Darcy as cold, stiff, and insulting and at the end she sees that she misjudged him and he isn't that bad of a guy after all.  In fact, she wants to marry him.

So the point of all this - another thing that can influence character development other than her WANTS are the other people she interacts with and who influence her.  For Ren, that's mainly Captain Ajax, because he is the one whose opinion she values most.  Grailyn and several others are also involved.


Once you figure out what it is about your character that you plan to change, you can go forth and do so as you write the rest of your story.

Well, of course it isn't that easy, but I don't know how to explain it yet....we'll see how I do with Ren.


Mia said...

I *just* came across an Virginia Woolf quote that seems to suit Ren: "The eyes of others our prisons; their thoughts our cages.”

As soon as I have a speck of time, I'm going through the paces you set out for a few'll be great. :D

Ashley said...

Ugh, Elsie Dinsmore. I read the whole book and went, "What lovely nonsense".

I should do my post now..or, soon.

Evergreena said...

asdkfjsdfk I love Pride & Prejudice.

Great musings!

P.S. I'm going to try to do a post this week. I haven't posted at all yet, due to an excessive amount of homework (!) but I feel like I should contribute something to the blog,

Emily V. said...

What a great post! Character development is tricky. My WIP is kind of stalled right now partially because of that (and partially because I'm a little lazy. :P).
Those are some great questions to ask one's self. Plus, you mention Pride and Prejudice which is an automatic win if you ask me. ;) Thanks for sharing!

The Mad Elvish Poet said...

Ah! A Fellow '05!!! So nice, very nice indeed.
I really like this idea, and the gears are spinning in my head, and I forsee several posts! This was really great, I loved it!