Writing Tips: Character development

Here’s a tip: You should know everything about your character from the shape of his big toe, to the colour of his eyes, his date of birth and what he had for breakfast that morning.

Do me a favour: If anyone ever tells you this, punch them in the face. It’ll make you feel better and it will make the world a better place. At a writer’s workshop one time, a friend of mine was asked what his main character’s favourite shape was. I won’t tell you said friends response. Suffice to say, it wasn’t pleasant.

And quite rightly so.

Knowing your character’s favourite colour will not give you a greater insight into that imaginary person’s life. There is no written rule that serial killers like black or that girls like pink. Similarly, there’s no particular reason why your character’s liking for Bay City Rollers, Led Zepplin or Roquefort cheese will help you develop the story that’s tied up in your brain.

The truth is this: all your characters, good, bad and indifferent, come from the same gene pool. Whether they are Hannibal Lecter, Bilbo Baggins or Dirk Pitt, they are ALL YOU. They are your creations and mapping them out to the nth degree is not going to make them any more real.

Don’t let character development get in the way of a good plot

So I’ve heard: But my character wouldn’t do that!

Really? There is nothing a human being won’t do given the right circumstances. You may think you’re the next thing to Christ (in which case you need therapy), but you’re not.

You are capable of anything. Ergo, so are your characters.

Knowing what your character looks like

Let me ask you a question: How many good books have anything more than a fleeting description of a character. You don’t need to know every pimple and wart on your character’s body. By all means, have a picture. They are great for visualising your character. Stick a picture on your wall if it’s helpful.

But, dear writer friend, it’s as certain as there are drugs in MacDonald’s filter coffee, that your reader will not see your character as you do.

Here’s yet another truism: What you write, including the description of your character, is not the same thing that ends up in the mind of the reader. You see the book one way, the reader sees it another.

That’s a basic fact of writing life.

That’s why witness evidence at crime scenes varies so much from person to person. People (damn them) bring their own THING to the world. You have no control over it, so there’s no real point getting all riled up about it.

But…but…how do I get to know my character?

Forget the endless lists of character traits. Forget the Freudian psychoanalysis. And for chrissakes get rid of those dumb prompt cards.

  1. Thinly sketch your character. Get a picture and stick it on your wall if it helps.
  2. Let them loose on the world, unformed and full of potential. They are your children. They deserve their freedom. Don’t shackle them to early rules that will eventually damage your plot.
  3. Then do something remarkable: Talk to your kids.

How yah feeling Jed? What are you up to now? Beelzebub and bannoffee pie, Jed, why the hell would you want to do that?

And LISTEN to them, you dumb parent. LISTEN to your kids.

Jed’s from the same gene pool as you. He shares many of the same things as you. That’s why you should find him easy to talk to and easy to understand even if he is a boss-eyed serial killer.

Listen: If you spend too much time mapping out your characters in detail you are going to:

  1. Get hung up on how they react to given situations
  2. Stifle them by over-mothering

Let your characters come to life. Let them be free. Only then will they become what they should be – full-bodied and memorable, and only then will they turn round and do the unexpected.

5 thoughts on “Writing Tips: Character development

  1. Oh this made me laugh. You’re SO right!Even my publisher didn’t see the main character of my first book the way I did… as evidenced by the cover art!And yes… if I read another book that details how many buttons some ninny has on her dress, I’m going to hurt someone. Just because you do research doesn’t mean you have to inflict it on your reader, and just because YOU know what your character has eaten every day for the past 12 months doesn’t mean *I* want to.[/end rant]

  2. I am in such agreement! I didn’t even describe my hero in my last novel. The issue isn’t what X looks like to me, anyway, what’s important is what other characters in the book perceive about X!

  3. Umm. What did the Commissioning editor say.

  4. Couldn’t agree more. Developing your characters is one thing. Letting them free to take you in an unexpected direction is what writing is all about.

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