Creating Fictional Characters—Part 8: Developing Characters throughout Your Story

take a hike!

We’ve covered a lot about creating characters. In this last installment in the series, we’ll cover developing your characters throughout your story.

If you thought you were finished with character development when you created that character chart or bio, you were wrong.

Just as people grow and change in real life, so must your characters. Not only do they grow physically, they grow emotionally and in many other ways.

Added 7/28/09: I just read a great post on character growth at Spunk on a Stick.

  • Develop characters through stress and emotion.
    • Stress is mental tension springing from emotion—something we’re probably all familiar with in our own lives.
    • Emotion is liking or disliking, feeling good or feeling bad about something—another common experience for all of us.
    • Emotion gives the character direction, and direction is what makes us know the character is alive.
  • Gain your reader’s empathy for your characters.
    • Characters showing emotion rouses our emotions—we feel with the characters. 
    • Consider your audience—what arouses emotion in one group (senior citizens) may not in another group (teens).
  • Hook the reader immediately.
    • A hook is a scene early in the story that plunges the main character into danger and captures your reader’s attention and interest.
    • Create and raise the fear that something will or won’t happen (the bomb will explode or the girl won’t have a date for the prom).
  • Change is danger.
    • Every story is the record of how characters deal with danger, but every change constitutes a danger.
    • Every change, no matter how minor, requires people or characters to adjust, to adapt, and there’s always the threat that the adjustment won’t be successful.
    • The initial change may seem trivial, but it leads to more change and more danger.
    • You, the writer, have to see the potential for impending doom in everything that happens.
  • Emotion doesn’t have to be described intensely for the reader to feel it intensely.
    • The events themselves can create emotion because we are programmed to react to certain things with certain emotions. If the character hears strange noises in the house in the middle of the night, we fear an intruder and react emotionally as if the intruder were in our own living room.
    • Actions speak louder than words—instead of describing the emotion, show how the character manifests it in action. Rather than write “She was terrified,” write “She broke into a cold sweat and pulled the covers more tightly around her; her own heartbeat sounded louder than the crashing noises coming from the living room.”
  • Remember, your main characters must have purpose and direction.
    • The character doesn’t have to recognize they have a goal. She may think it’s just common sense to keep a financial safety net in savings, not realizing that her goal is to never again live as her family had in her childhood, always one jump ahead of the bill collectors.
    • More emotion is generated when goal-oriented action is frustrated. Being faced with spending all of her nest egg to save her family’s home creates strong stress and emotion. 
  • Characters must feel emotion to want change; the more emotion the character feels, the more emotion the reader feels.
    • First, feel emotion yourself—recall times when you felt intense emotion.
    • Relive the experience in your mind in detail.
    • Assign the feelings and reactions you experienced to your character. The feelings are the same even if the incidents are very different.
  • Create and develop characters that readers like.
    • Readers identify with others like them— your characters must have traits and beliefs in common with the audience you’re writing for.
    • Your main character must be like your reader and more—someone who is larger than life who takes on a challenge over and beyond us.
    • Your character should be a person the reader would like to be.
    • The character must have that quality we all want: courage—the strength to fight on, win or lose.
    • Courage doesn’t have to spelled out in words; it’s revealed in action. It takes courage for a character to sacrifice her financial security to help a loved one or to stand up to evil. 
    • Build your characters through adversity.
  • Make you main characters dynamic, just like people are in real life.
    • Reveal background and character throughout the story. Beginning writers often make the mistake of thinking they have to tell everything about the character as soon as he is introduced, boring the reader and not advancing the story.
    • Actions must be consistent—in character—as the story moves, but the character should change in some way.
    • Change will be gradual. Your main character doesn’t go from being claustrophobic to having no fear instantly, but she can get a little better with each incident until the fear is gone.
    • Change will be subtle in a short story. more dramatic in a novel, but characters must change.

I hope this series on creating fictional characters has given you food for thought and some practical advice to help you in writing fiction. I’ll close with a few more resources on character creation and development.

Care about your characters and give them something to care about. Make your readers love them or hate them, but never let the readers be bored by the characters.

Creative Commons License photo credit: r.s.m.b. Sees

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