Writer’s Insights: Character Development
Developing characters is probably the most difficult aspect of writing. Well, almost every aspect of writing is difficult. Plots are full of holes, and sometimes getting the words down on the page is an uphill battle.
So why would I peg character development as the most difficult aspect of an admittedly difficult task?
Because it is. You might have heard people complain about authors just shoehorning flat characters into plots—the characters are more like cardboard cutouts than people, and they get shunted around as it’s convenient to the plot, with little respect for their supposed character traits. That’s how you end up with a very pious character betraying their moral beliefs with seemingly no thought, no guilt, no crisis of conscience, no premeditation.
And it leaves the reader saying, “Huh?”
A Stockpile of Characters
Another issue is clearly stereotypes. Plenty of writers pull on “stock characters,” many of which run the danger of being ignorant or hurtful. Think of the dumb blonde, the fat friend, the stoic man. And then think of other stock characters such as the thug, the terrorist, and the gay friend. You can see how people land themselves in trouble when they pick up a stereotype and do nothing to shape the character away from that base.
Then, of course, there’s the issue of actual character development. Over the course of the book or short story, readers want to see your character evolve in some way. In most action novels, the hero becomes more heroic and strong. In a romance, perhaps they start dealing with a trauma that made them unable to commit to their partner fully. The character faces their fears. They realize something about themselves. They uphold their values in the face of adversity. Something happens to make the character a different person than they were at the beginning of the book.
The More Things Change …
Of course, without them becoming an entirely different person. This is a delicate balancing act: The character’s growth has to be organic and it has to remain within the bounds of what was initially established about the character. If the book is about a character rejecting his or her religion, the reader has to feel the character’s journey is traumatic enough for them to reject the identity. The character can’t just wake up at the end of the book and say, “Well, I’m not a Buddhist anymore!”
But perhaps even more than all of these challenges is even establishing a character in the first place. Many writers assume this is the easy part: You give the character a name, describe their physical traits, maybe give them a couple of likes/dislikes, and insert fatal flaw. Ready to go, right?
A More Complicated Genesis
Not … really. See, “round” characters—those who are fully developed—exhibit a lot more nuance than “I like carrots” and “I hate math class.” Even the fatal flaw has to be organic to the character.
Character development is a process for me. I enjoy it. Take a look at the expansive cast of characters I have in Slapshot! While not everyone is fleshed out at the moment, I know each of these characters is going to be different. Some of them will be subtly different than their peers. Others are going to be flagrantly different. There’s degrees of variation, however: Not all of my characters have to be loudmouths or shy introverts.
Let’s take a look at the character development process I went through for Gabriel Foss and Reese Lockwood, the MCs in the Something in the Water series.
A Study in Contrasts
The process started about a year ago, in September 2016. Reese was probably better drawn than Gabriel, at least initially. The two were meant to play off each other, so I knew they had to be a study in contrasts. Whatever Reese is, Gabriel isn’t, and vice-versa.
So Reese ended up coming from a big family. He’s smack-dab in the middle, but the eldest boy. He has a mixed background: His mother is Puerto Rican and Spanish-speaking, but his father is Anglo-Saxon in ancestry. Reese is loud; he speaks before he thinks. He’s usually running his mouth, just blurting out whatever he’s thinking. He’s not quite no-filter, but he’s pretty close. Reese is also happy-go-lucky, at least on the surface. He’s one of those characters who’s usually smiling.
This is reflected in his name: “Reese” is an anglicized version of the Welsh name “Rhys,” which means “enthusiasm.”
Gabriel, then, became Reese’s opposite: He’s quiet, conservative, and rarely speaks. He’s intensely critical. His family is smaller, Protestant, all-American. He’s intensely intellectual, and he’s incredibly competitive. He sees everything as a challenge.
I also knew there were going to be alpha-omega dynamics at play here; Gabriel’s an alpha, so his characteristics also include being dominant. Reese has a bit of a temper (he is a redhead, guys), but he’s an omega, so he stands down a lot.
Here’s where character inversion happens: Reese is actually a bit of a sad-sack behind closed doors. He seems like the kind of character who is very open, but he’s actually incredibly secretive. He’s almost as private as Gabriel. He manages to talk about everything but himself a lot of the time.
Here’s another contrast: Gabriel knows he’s good. Reese, on the other hand, has struggled a lot, with school and sport, so he doesn’t have the same kind of confidence. Whereas Gabriel’s confidence is almost arrogance, Reese’s is more of a façade than anything.
If you follow my Facebook page, last week, you got a sneak peek at another part of my character development process: character sketches. And I mean actually doing sketches. I typically use them to envision the character’s facial expressions. I also use it to determine facial contrasts.
Here’s my sketch sheet for Reese.
It took me a bit to figure out he’s a redhead. His other siblings have dark hair, but Reese is a bit of an anomaly in his family.
Reese has a somewhat rounder face and big eyes. Generally speaking, he doesn’t necessarily look “manly,” but he does look innocent and honest. He’s also an open book: When he’s happy, you can tell. He doesn’t do glaring very well, but he can look snide or smug.
Gabriel, on the other hand, mostly has resting bitch face. He’s got a bigger nose, big ears, and he’s a little more masculine. His eyes are smaller, and he’s not as expressive as Reese, which fits his character.
SitW is primarily driven by the characters, not necessarily a plot. That means I need to be working with well-rounded characters.
An important part of Gabriel’s character is how he deals with infidelity—or in Going Under, thoughts of infidelity. It’s a driving fear for him, and it causes him some strife and remorse. He’s also slowly discovering his own sexual identity, even though he’s dancing around labels at the moment.
Reese is dealing with his self-confidence. In a few places, Reese fails. Reese also has to deal with the issue of (in)fidelity, and the problem of letting go.
Both characters lie—to themselves and others—throughout the book. In most cases, the lies are benign, but the issue of honesty never seems to come up for either of them. Reese continually lies by omission, and Gabriel denies or ignores the truth as it’s convenient for him.
The Importance of Backgrounds
Working through Reese’s character, a lot hinges on his familial background.
We’ll start with the mixed descent. His mother is Puerto Rican and Spanish-speaking. She’s also Catholic—and Reese and his siblings are raised within a Spanish-speaking, Caribbean Catholic tradition. They’re very close with their aunts and uncles, as well as their cousins. They’re used to some of the magic beliefs and occult practices that their mother and aunts hold. They recognize themselves as outsiders within the idea of white America, but also identify as Americans.
Reese in particular is “white,” but he identifies more strongly with his mother’s Hispanic heritage. He’s fully fluent in both English and Spanish, and he enjoys being “different.” His Catholic faith is also important to him—even though it causes him a lot of problems, especially since he identifies as gay.
Gabriel, by contrast, is less defined by his background and his family—in part because he’s part of “mainstream” America. He’s a white, middle-class American attending college on the east coast. He’s never wandered very far from home; he speaks only English, and he doesn’t interact in a meaningful and sustained way with too, too many people who fall outside this category. His family is Protestant, but he and his sisters are less religious than their mother.
In order to define all of these details about these two characters, though, I had to pin down a lot of details about their families and their backgrounds.
Allowing Characters to Tell You Who They Are
I’m a big believer in allowing a character to “self-identify.” Sure, these are make-believe people in my head, and I can exercise all control over them if I so desire.
But sometimes, they call the shots.
Have you ever tried to give a character a characteristic—even something as simple as a like or dislike—and it just would not take? No matter how hard you tried to make that character hate peas, they just wouldn’t.
It might sound silly, but in my experience, it can be very true. A character slowly “reveals” who he or she is through writing, often revealing themselves to the writer just as much as they’ll reveal to the reader later on.
I’ve had this come up before: Characters essentially tell me who they are. Mason Green in Slapshot!, was very adamant that he was bisexual. I didn’t think, “I’m going to write a bi character in here.” Characters who self-identify have usually “revealed” that identity to me.
The end result is a mix of identities—and of comfort levels with those identities. Reese clearly identifies himself as gay; he has little to no interest in women. Gabriel, by contrast, doesn’t stick a label on himself. He’s had girlfriends in the past, but he’s also experimented with men. The act of liking (or loving) men is still rather new to him. He worries about “being gay.” He resists the label, even when other characters try to apply it to him.
In short, he’s not sure what he is yet. His identity is still evolving, and he’s hesitantly exploring it.
Reese’s religious identity is another “revealed” trait. I nominally made him Catholic, owing to his familial background. As I was writing, the religious identity became more central to Reese as a character—even if he’s not a very good Catholic.
Teasing It All Out
Some authors like to sit down and make up character profiles. I’ve enjoyed doing that before—but I mostly restrict them to physical characteristics, at least at first. As I write characters, more and more of their personality tends to emerge.
I find that far more organic than sitting down and shoving my characters into little boxes. I often start with some general ideas, but nothing is set in stone until I’m writing. It also saves me from describing the character one way and then having them evolve into a radically different person by the end of the book—an issue with trying to predetermine who your characters are.
This is ultimately why I say character development is one of the most labor-intensive aspects of writing. But it’s also fun—in part because so much of it can and should come out during the actual act of writing.
For me, writing is, in a lot of ways, simply the way I get to know my characters.