What do I have to say about character development?

Afterall, I’m not an experienced fiction writer. My first novel hasn’t even been released a year, yet.

But I am a teacher by trade. That means I notice what is involved in learning, and how learning happens.

I notice details, steps, procedures. I notice connections between things that most people miss.

As I’m doing the work of editing my second novel (a sequel to the first) I’m learning a couple of things about character development that I simply hadn’t thought of before I began writing fiction.

I thought it would be fun to outline some of my discoveries (which more experienced writers have probably discovered long ago).

1 Once a character is developed, he’s developed.

That may not sound like much of a revelation to you, but it has some pretty significant implications.

  • The way you develop a character at the beginning (in my case, in my first novel) is going to dictate what you can do with that character from then on. It’s obvious, but when you’re writing you tend not to think about it enough. I’ve found myself making slight changes to a character’s personality and then realizing, “Oh, I can’t do that. He doesn’t talk that way (act that way, say such things, etc.).”
  • Consistency has to flow from book to book. For example, a character known for repeating a certain phrase (“Don’t you know” or “As I was saying” are great examples) needs to be known for that throughout the book or series. It’s part of how people recognize the character or place them in the story.
  • If you come up with some great idea for a character’s personality and you didn’t include that in previous versions, too bad. You have to leave it out (no matter how great the idea is.

Working on my second novel I’m paying close attention to new characters, being a bit more intentional about the things I make them say or do. I’m trying to be mindful of their uniqueness before I write them, so that I can portray them uniquely, compellingly, and with emotion that I think I missed in some ways in my first novel.

The real challenge doing so in a way that doesn’t make the first novel seem flat. We’ll see how I do with that.

2 Consistency within a character’s personality is very, very hard.

You might not think so, but it is. If you have a character who is Scottish for instance and instead of saying, “I think” he says “Methinks” (like my character, Gerrard), you have to be careful that such personality or speech traits remain consistent. When you’re writing an entire story, creating an entire world as is necessary in fiction, that gets increasingly harder with the number of characters, places, events, and settings you press into the narrative.

3 Character growth is even harder.

Characters, like the people they are supposed to represent, should grow over time.

Yes, there can be exceptions, like the guy you went to high school with who still talks about the exact same things now that he did way back then. But that’s not normal. A character like that would be a “stereotypical” type of figure, one used for comic relief or to help the reader gain familiarity with a minor character quickly.

But in real life, people grow, so characters in the story should too. Deciding how they are going to grow and what that growth is going to look like is excruciating work.

It’s not only difficult to decide, it’s even more difficult to write because as an author I begin to think of my characters in certain ways. To break out of my own perception of the character to make them stretch and grow is difficult at best.

4 The tendency toward making characters who think like you is very strong.

This is one of the reasons that writers should read. We’ve got to hear how other people think, how other people write, and how personalities other than our own view and interact with the world.

I think this is a great reason authors should be people-watchers too. Go to the mall, the store, the fun fair downtown and watch people. Pay attention to personalities, quirks, phrases of speech, and habitual gestures and habits.

People are very interesting because they are so varied… characters have to be that way too.

5 Characters should illicit emotion from the reader.

A good character, good or bad, protagonist or antagonist, has to be well-rounded… enough to make people feel for them (good or bad). I’ve found myself crying a couple of times at what “happened” to particular characters as I’ve been reading back through to do edits.

Yes, that’s strange. But it’s understandable.

I’ve spent two years with these characters to date. They’re not real to me, but I feel that I “know” them in a way. There is an emotional attachment as a result.

I don’t think that says so much regarding my talent as a writer as it does that I have some memorable characters that matter (at least to me). That’s a good sign in my book.

What have you learned about character development – from reading or writing? I’d love to hear your comments below!