Character development is as much a technical thing as it is art. I start with a mini-bio based on Nancy Kress’s mini-bio from her book Characters, Emotions, & Viewpoint. Basically, a mini-bio is just that a collection of general facts about a character. I use excel but any spreadsheet or piece of paper will do. All you need to do is list the character’s name, how old it is, where it was born. That’s the idea. I do it chart style with questions like that and others that help me get a sense of who the character is. These are questions like, is the character married? Does it have children? Where does it live? What does it do for a living? Sometimes I even delve into the character’s family a little bit. You know, notes like “fought with brother over toys most of his life.” That kind of thing. These are things that can give you sense of who the character is. You don’t have to be too detailed with it, just a general sense of the character is what you are looking for at this stage.
Once you have the mini chart done, you look the mini-bio over and then do a more in depth study of the character. What are its characteristics? What does it like or not like? How does it feel about itself? Answering these types of questions about your character is a good way to get to know it. Does your character have any quirks? There’s a good character chart at eclectics.com that has the kinds of questions you might need to answer. It’s relatively easy to complete and gives you a good sense of who your character is. You need to know who your characters are if you want to write good stories about them.
You want your readers to want to spend time with your characters. Make them as likable as possible for your story, but remember, they must read true. Give your characters some flaws – something the reader can relate to. The flaws don’t have to be visible all the time, but they need to be there somewhere. Show the flaws now and then – no one is perfect and your characters shouldn’t be either. In Terminator 3, I think it was 3, I watched the android get pulverized and come back. This happened over and over so that by the end of the movie, I was thinking, “Just die already.” You don’t want to do that to your reader. You want to keep your reader engaged with the characters and their story. So give your characters flaws and quirks, but don’t overdo it.
There are times when character development is just a technical thing you need to do. Then there are times when developing a character is more of an art. Create more characters than you know that you will use and you will come out ahead in the long run. Practice your craft. Craft your characters with care and you won’t go wrong.
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