Thursday, 13 August 2015

A Look Into Character Development

A week ago saw the first meeting of the newly formed Start That Novel Group. Being the first meeting it was more of an introduction meeting, where each member spoke of their planned/ in progress project. It seems this will be an exciting group with all members starting from different points and writing different genres.

It was decided that the subject for the next meeting will be character development, which is a very important area of writing. As such, I thought it an idea to put down my thoughts on the subject for anyone who is interested.

Character development is a tricky beast and quite frequently can be what lets a novel down. If you read back a story you've written and feel it's lacking something then quite often, I've found, character development is the key. It's so easy to focus on the plot of a story, on events, on the world, the politics and completely forget the elements which holds all those things together, your characters. I've read and reviewed many stories, particularly those submitted for competitions, where all elements are well thought out, the world well built and yet the characters inhabiting the story are more like cardboard cut outs than characters, just there to drive the plot forward or act a role. This weakens the story substantially.

For readers to be drawn fully into a story, the character driving it has to be believable and has to connect to the reader. A character who seems to have no past and no personality will struggle to engage the attention of the reader, no matter how that character acts according to the plot. Therefore characters are key and are as important if not more important than the plot. A good character can drive a plot. A bad character will get dragged along by it.

For the writing group, I've set the below exercise. To write a character profile for their main characters. Feel free to complete the exercise yourselves and post them in the comments for all to see.

Hair colour:
Eye colour:
Character traits:

It's quite a simple exercise but one that can be as detailed as the author wants to be.

I've also included and example of one I made earlier:

Name: Carnander (or Carn, he hates his full name) Delandis
Age: 21
Gender: Male
Hair colour: Blond
Eye colour: Blue
Stature: Medium build, average height.

Character traits: Generally passive and rarely aggressive. Slightly unstable and reckless. Determined. Can be a little manipulative, if necessary to get his way. Very independent. Unwilling to live up to others expectations. Loves freedom. Rebels against control. Emotional and empathic. Kind to others. Self-sacrificing. Well educated. Had a middle class upbringing with high expectations. Very imaginative and creative. 


Until six months before the story Carn had lived his whole life in world in which there were no clouds, rain, or precipitation of any kind. The atmosphere had been altered as the consequence of a world war a hundred years previously. The losing faction, while cornered and on the verge of defeat, had threatened to destroy the world’s climate. Believing it to be a bluff the other faction just moved in for the kill. As a result a device was set off that destroyed the atmosphere’s ability to form clouds, and as a result the whole planet entered a century long drought.

Throughout his childhood Carn was obsessed with the idea of clouds. His fantasy all the way into adult hood was that one day he would be able to look up at a cloud filled sky and feel rain fall on his face. 

While the drought resulted in the death of half the planets population and severe poverty, Carn was born into a middle class family. His parents were loving and supportive but they both died in an earthquake, a few years before the story, while Carn was in his final year of University. Carn has an elder brother, Saul, who is two years older and is an inspector at the nearby police station, where their father was a Chief Inspector before his death. 

Carn’s father had been grooming both his sons for the police force but while it worked with Saul, Carn went, in some ways, off the rail after his parents’ death. Carn estranged himself from his family and took up a less affluent job as a warehouse worker, much to his brother’s despair. Saul and Carn’s relationship was strained for a few years, as Saul tried, rather aggressively, to shove Carn back onto his envisioned path. The more Saul tried to control Carn’s future, the more resistant and wilful Carn became, to the point that he started asserting his independence in quite a reckless manner. 


Carn has been off work recuperating from his injuries for six months and is now on the verge of deciding what route to take in the newly repaired world. Since Carn’s injury, Saul has become less controlling but even more of a hypochondriac as to Carn’s safety, convinced there is someone out to get him. Carn, himself, is just determined to prove he can get back to life as usual, fed up of being fussed over and treated as if he could break at any moment. His walk to the pub for his birthday celebrations is a milestone in his recovery, where he is hoping to prove, once and for all, that he can cope on his own and return to full independence. 

However, despite his brother’s seeming paranoia, Carn did make some powerful enemies in restoring the world’s climate, as not everyone had lost through the disaster. His actions destroyed some powerful people’s fortunes, tipping the scale of gain back in favour of the masses. There could, indeed, be people out to get him.

There is a rule in character development that if you list all a character traits and take away any related to family position, job, class/ social standing, and race/culture then what you have left is the character's personality. It is really easy to end up with characters who are governed by what they do and not who they are. For example a mother who is just a mother with motherly traits but nothing else. So let's list Carn's traits and start taking out any related to the above.

Passive and rarely aggressive.
Slightly unstable and reckless.
A little manipulative.
Very independent.
Unwilling to live up to others expectations.
Loves freedom.
Rebels against control.
Emotional and empathic.
Kind to others.
Well educated.
A middle class upbringing with high expectations.

Very imaginative and creative.

Those in red are traits related to social standing and therefore don't count as character traits. None of the traits relate to his job, culture or his family position. The more character traits you have left over, the stronger the character. 

As you can see Carn has quite a few left. Try doing this with your characters and if you have less than five traits left then add a few more. Just make sure the traits relate to each other and don't clash and try to match them to the character's history. If a character got mauled by a dog when they were five then they might have a fear of dogs. If they were abused as a child then they might be emotionally vulnerable as an adult. A lot of character traits are reactive and formed by experiences, so try to build them into your character's history. Also remember that people change and that your character may not end the novel with the same character traits as when it started. 

You don't have to reveal everything about your characters in your novel. Just by you knowing it, it will affect the way the character behaves and should come across passively.

Anyway, lecture over. I hope you all find my views on the subject helpful.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I completely agree that well developed characters are at least as important as having a nice plot.
    I had never heard the part about figuring out character traits not related to social standing, job, etc. Though, it seems like a valid point. Definitely something worth considering for my next story.