Writing Tips: Character Development

Holy wow it has been a long time since my last post. Due to several reasons I won’t waste my word count on, I have been only skirting the edges of the publishing world of late, but it’s time for that era to end and another to begin.

So I thought I’d scribble up a few of these with hopefully (?) not seven months between each post.

Character development is one of those things that I adore in other authors, but address in my own books with the roughly the same finesse as an unsupervised toddler with finger paints (though perhaps only a modicum of the enthusiasm). It’s one of those things I wish I was really good at (and when I’m plot-showering, I imagine that I am good at it), but I fear that I am not. With that faith-inducing paragraph, let’s begin.

I once heard someone say that perfect character development is someone going from flawed to flawless. One of my eyebrows lifted so high it has never really returned to its normal station. Because I was seventeen at the time, and wont to do the opposite of I was told (this has never really improved since my misguided teens), I immediately flipped the meaning and decided that my favourite characters went from flawless to flawed. It’s probably the greatest writing tip I ever gave myself. Ever since then, my characters have developed fears, egos, arrogance – annoyances I would never give them before. To this day, Theresa Goodman of A Veil of Stars and Eleanora of my Soul Trilogy are my all-time favourite characters to write. Theresa is a power-driven jerk and doesn’t care who she storms over as long as the end result is worth it. Eleanora hit rock-bottom and discovered that’s where she liked to reside. I have had way too much fun writing both of these women (my beloved car, Ellie, is actually named after Eleanora, though her nick-name is Burger).

(Don’t ask.)

Flawed characters are the ones we go for. The underdogs. The broken. We want to see them healed, but at the same time we hope they won’t. Because they represent the darker side of us? Probably. I’m not going to lie, I feel like I’ve lived in Eleanora’s skin at a few points within the last couple of months (this entire post makes way more sense if you’ve read Soul Blaze). Their dry sense of humour, the tiny glimmer of hope, the small motions of caring for another human when beforehand such things seemiles matheson.pngmed beneath them… It’s what keeps me watching a show, reading a series. Though Revolution was at times misguided and cliched, I watch it almost purely for Billy Burke’s portrayal of Miles Matheson. He’s dry, witty, depressed, and broken. Watching him slowly evolve into the uncle he never wanted to be kept me glued, episode after episode. It takes skill to pull off a conflicted character – you’re constantly tip-toeing a line between annoying and engrossing.

Conflict is good – it pushes action, forces development. But it gets overused very easily, and without sufficient reason, dries out the rest of the storyline. Conflict without rhyme or reason can easily overpower the rest of the elements much the same way too much sugar drowns out the taste of good tea. You want a bit to add flavour, but not enough to make you roll your eyes and say, “Ugh,” as you tip the rest down the sink.

Your characters are M&Ms, with more hidden below the sweet, candy shell than they show the world. Start from the middle – what do they keep desperately hidden? What would unravel them if it was discovered? Everyone holds a secret that could undo their life, like a big, organic self-destruct button. Your characters aren’t so perfect that they’ve gone their entire lives without developing one.

What would surprise people about your character? What personality traits do they have that breaks them from the mold of ‘the nerdy one’, ‘the loyal one (usually for no good reason)’, ‘the bitch’? No one is a villain in their own eyes, everyone has their reasons for the actions they take. Why does your antagonist dislike your MC? What are their reasons for ‘being bad’? Explore these, flesh them out, and see if you can’t get a few people rooting for the bad guys. It’s always more fun that way.

Characters are the main players on the stage of your mind. They have to be woven, crafted, developed, before they can perform – otherwise they might as well be cardboard cut-outs. Action, storyline, plot, writing style can be present and good, but without compelling characters for us to live through, you’ve got no chance of retaining your reader.

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