Writing Workshop II: Character Development

In this week’s post, I want to focus on character development and character arcs. As I said last week, characters are the heart of your story. If you can create a character that your readers can get behind and root for, you have won half the battle of writing a good book.

So…what makes a good character? In my opinion, the key is to develop someone well-rounded and multi-dimensional.

That means you have to give them weaknesses (YES, WEAKNESSES!) as well as strengths. You can’t have your protagonist the most powerful, the most beautiful, and the most moral human ever to have lived. You can’t have them miraculously good at everything. “But I want readers to like my character!’ you say. Let me bring you in on a little secret: giving your protagonist weaknesses and faults IS what makes them likeable. Granted, I’m not talking about truly heinous flaws. No one likes a protagonist who wants to torture innocent animals. However, even this would be better than having a protagonist who is faultless and perfect – this is what you might call a Mary Sue character, and let’s face it, these characters are just plain boring. Why? Because if your main character is the ideal hero who is good at everything they do, there will be no struggle, and without struggle, there is no conflict, and without conflict, your character can’t grow.

Let’s take a look at a classic example that many of you are familiar with: Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennett. Of the five Bennett sisters, she is the favoured one. She is clever, energetic, personable and attractive. We like Elizabeth, but she has one major flaw: her pride. In the first instance of meeting Mr. Darcy, our story’s heroine is slighted by Darcy’s callous estimation of her and her family. Because of this, she wilfully misunderstands his character. Conversely, she finds herself enraptured by the charms of the equally unvirtuous Mr. Wickham, as a consequence of his flattery. Thus arises our story’s conflict. It isn’t until the true natures of these two men are revealed that Elizabeth realizes her error, and grows.

So what should your character’s flaw be? If you’re not sure, consider your character’s goal: what does your character want? Do they want to make money? Do they want to fall in love? Do they want to survive? Once you have your answer, consider how these goals might be made unachievable as a result of some intrinsic flaw. Perhaps your character wants to fall in love, but has commitment issues. Perhaps they’re too shy, or believe they are unworthy of being loved. Perhaps your character wants to land their dream job, but because of their loyalty to a disabled family member who needs their help at home, they can’t apply for the position, and this makes them bitter and resentful. The possibilities are endless, so you have no excuse – if your character is perfect, they won’t be relatable, and if they are not relatable, your reader won’t connect with them. End of story.

Another important thing to keep in mind when developing your characters is that for almost every strength and weakness, you should know its cause or origin. What do I mean by that? Well, if you have a character who is good at hacking computers, they must have learned that skill from somewhere. Either they went to University and got a degree in computer science, or they spent their youth glued to a computer. Either way, it would have taken TIME and PRACTICE. You can’t just have your character sit down at a computer, and two minutes later – voila – have them hack into the CIA’s mainframe with no previous experience.

This principle – the importance of cause and origin – also applies to your character’s actions and goals. As the author, you have to know the underlying motive or cause behind everything your character does. Why do they want to run for president? Why did they betray their best friend? Why did they choose to join the circus? And if the answer to these questions is ‘because it’s convenient to the plot’ YOU AREN’T DOING THAT CHARACTER JUSTICE. This is why backstory is important. It explains the all-important why. Now, you don’t want to overload your reader with unnecessary backstory, as this will slow down the pace of your novel. However, good backstory, or as I prefer it, RELEVANT backstory, will give your reader insight into why your character is behaving the way they are.

Phew, okay, I think that is as much as I will say today, but if you have any comments or questions, post them below. Happy writing my friends!

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