Developing Your Character

I find I get a lot of questions from authors about how they should develop their characters. It is an interesting question. One I usually answer with this question: what are you writing?

It’s a valid question. One that often stops the author. They tend to give me a rundown on the plot or the ending or some such thing. I stop them and ask them again. What are you writing? When they pause, I ask them if it is a short story, a piece of flash fiction, or an article for a blogpost? Is it a novella or novel or full out epic? Is it a series?

Let’s think about this for a minute. Why even talk about character development? Why not let the character develop as you write the story?

In my experience, writers and authors fall into two distinct groups. There are those who sit down in front of a computer and write. They don’t have a clue where their story is going. They simply need to get it out of their heads. Then there are those who know exactly where their story is going. They have it chartered out in a list of scenes and chapters and each character in the story has a biography attached.

Most writers fall somewhere in between.  Or they have done both with mixed results. The truth is both apply to character development if the story needs it. That is where the real question lies. Does your character need to be developed during the course of the story?

If it is an epic, then of course it does. All your characters when writing epics or series need to be developed. Often, you need to write a biography on the character so you are fully aware of who they are or what they are. It becomes incredibly important that you know their birthdays, where they grew up, how they were as children, as young adults, and as older adults.

Face it, we change with time. When I was sixteen, I was nothing like I was just two years earlier at fourteen. At twenty I was a completely different person and so on at thirty, at forty, at fifty. My life has been a complex series of choices, decisions, and events which shaped how I turned out. The same can be said for the characters in your story.

Here’s how I feel about it. If you are planning on writing a series of books, then write the first one. Look at who your characters are and how they behave. Turn the book over to someone to critique your characters. And remember, locations can be characters as well.

Once you have a working first draft, then settle down and get ready to work. It took Tolkien ten years to finish his first book. Longer to develop the characters in his stories. Others do it much quicker, but if they are writing longer stories, they will do it.

Once you have your critiques, use them as guidelines to see how they are viewed versus how you thought they would be received. From here you can craft biographies about your characters. This is where you get into the real details. Details that might not make it into the books, but give you a perspective on your character as you write them.

Are their eyes blue or brown or green? What is their hair color, their height, their skin color? How do they perceive themselves? What do they like to wear, watch, eat? Do they scare easily or are they fearless?

Be thorough. Give them birthdates and a complete backstory. It truly helps to understand your own characters. You are creating them, so it is essential that you know them the best. Once you have a biography created, craft their purpose in the book or books. Create the links where they will appear and what they will do in each book. Give them a purpose.

When I write, I love to free write. I love sitting down and letting the story write itself. This is a wonderful method to getting everything down you want for a story. Unfortunately, it also leaves out quite a bit when you are done. Fortunately, first drafts often suck which is why we write them. They are the foundation we use to craft the final story.

You can free write for longer novels and epics and even series, but it doesn’t work very well. When you write in such lengths you need the details you often forget but the readers never do. If your character is twenty-five in the first book and forty five in the second, but you have your dates wrong, the reader will know. The reader always knows. One of those items I do when I polish a book is fact find and check to eliminate these issues.

I encourage you to write in whatever manner that works for you. This is important. A writer must be able to write freely and without judgement when they first start a story. After they are done, they must also be able to endure the harsh criticisms they will endure over their creations.

Everyone gets hit hard by critics. By bad reviews. It is inevitable. What isn’t is that your story has a solid base. You wrote it, you reviewed it. You checked to see your plot went where you wanted it. Checked to see your characters remained true to who they are. The story flows from scene to scene. It is well written, and the plot is well crafted. If these are true, then critics can blow smoke up someone else’s skirt.

Remember, J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected by multiple publishers and yet she has some of the best character development you will ever read. Exceptional character development over seven books. Think about it, can you write characters as they progress from the age of eleven to eighteen? Characters that are both male and female?

Write your book I beg you. Everyone has a story that can become a book. Others have stories which are best told as a series of books. Some only work great if they are short stories. Whatever you choose to write, do it. The best way I know to learn anything is to simply do it. As you continue you will get better and your characters will develop as you want them to.

I look forward to reading your work.

I’m Ross, the Editor-in-Chief at The Pyrateheart Press and I’m out.

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