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LESSON # 5: DEVELOPING CHARACTERS
Plot-Driven Stories vs. Character-Driven Stories
(Plot, remember is basically the action – problem/conflict, attempts to resolve problem, climax, resolution)
Plot-Driven stories focus on the action. However, great-selling authors also develop their characters with care and detail. The most popular action novels generally have a large following because the readers can identify with the hero/heroine. It is hard to identify with characters that have no depth – are only one-dimensional. This problem is the biggest hazard of writing plot-driven literature. You must resist the tendency to let characters remain as one-dimensional beings who are obviously just manipulated by the author to fit the action.
Stories with no character development can entertain for the short-term but generally have no lasting quality.
Character-Driven stories give the reader someone to identify with. But those characters have to be “real, and they have to be living, changing, growing. (Unless your bent is focused on degeneration. Then they need to degenerate.) Every single character may not change significantly, but certainly your hero/herione will, and his changes will normally affect changes in other characters as well.
How Does Your Reader Get To Know Your Characters?
All great stories reveal and develop each individual character through use of three basic tools:
1. Pointedly describing the characters – physically, psychologically, emotionally. Giving your reader the details of the characters’ physical appearance or his psychological bent works well up to a point. But this tool needs to be used sparingly. It leads to just “telling” the reader about the character instead of letting the reader himself get to know that person the way he would get to know any person in real life.
2. Revealing a character’s speech, thoughts, and behavior. “A picture is worth a thousand words” is a quote often used to praise photography over verbal descriptions. But the truth of it applies to writing stories even when photographs or illustrations are not used. When an author uses his words carefully enough to show the reader what a character is like, rather than explaining through narration, the reader gets a much better handle on that character. It’s when the reader can discover for himself what a character is like that he more fully connects with him.
3. Describing opinions and reactions of other characters to that character. What the other members of the cast of your story feel and say about each character – and how they react to him — reveals that character in light of relationships within the story. That aspect of characterization adds much more depth to the story as a whole.
What About Your Hero/Heroine?
Hero/heroine: The principal figure in an action, event, or story. This person will obviously be the central focus of your story, and it is his development – his learning, changing, experiencing epiphanies, maturing, growing, becoming better, stronger, wiser, healthier, etc. that will give the story its meaning and satisfy your reader. It is the hero – along with the help of the other characters – who is the driving force behind the action.
All other characters need good development as well. Having a well-developed hero with no one to interact with except one-dimensional, cardboard characters will stifle the hero’s development as well.
The Hero/Herione’s Progression:
Most good stories will take that hero through about 6 main stages as the story moves along:
1. Hero is introduced: You need to know how and why he is the center of your book.
Why will this guy – instead of someone else — do the job of making this book a great read?
2. The hero has experienced – or is experiencing – a certain amount of preparation for what he will do in the story. Let the reader see that he is a certain type of person and that he has had experiences that will eventually lead him to specific action or reactions later in the story. His actions and reactions need to seem real.
This process can include some involved background – if you have a long enough story to work with – and it can be added a little at a time as the action ensues. Or it can be a well-placed couple of sentences that use exact descriptive words. In a novel, you may tell the reader a little of the character’s background, but then let the rest come out through conversations with other characters, or a situation that causes the character to remember events in his past, etc. You may even introduce a separate character who reveals some of the main character’s past that lets the reader know what caused the hero to be the person he is today. Even in a short story, try to avoid just telling the facts. Let them come to light through as much natural action and interaction between characters as possible.
3. The hero moves into his journey – his quest – his effort to reach his goal – his effort to defeat an enemy. This aspect of the story will involve a series of battles or conflicts that come against him, and he must decide whether to go forward or pull back. His nature – that you have developed well – will determine that decision. (Now your reader may still be learning about his nature, and these decisions will give that reader a clearer and clearer picture of who this guy is. But YOU should already know his character well-enough to know what he will do and WHY.
(Occasionally, authors will find themselves in the middle of a scene, and suddenly feel the character pulling to go an unexpected direction. That situation can lead to a whole new aspect for the story that makes it better. However, it can also sidetrack a good story that’s well underway. So if this happens, take a little time to re-evaluate and determine if what this character seems to WANT to do really has value. You may even pull up a new document page and allow yourself to write the alternative scene with the character acting “out of character,” but don’t delete the original plan unless you are totally convinced that plan number two is much better.)
*** Keep double checking your story to make sure that every sentence is actually moving the story forward and not just filling up space on the page. ***
4. The hero/herione will eventually come head-to-head with the main antagonist. You must decide how soon that takes place. They may have met very early in the story, but their battle for the climax of the story will not take place until your character development and your action is ready for it.
Who is that antagonist? He will be the killer, the rival lover, the mean banker ready to foreclose, the evil totalitarian government system that is taking over a free nation, a killer storm raging across the country, destructive beings from another planet, some mysterious disease that can’t be stopped by drugs, the devil himself. Whatever mask the antagonist wears, he is the embodiment of evil as opposed to the hero who is the embodiment of good. He, too, must be well-developed prior to this climaxing battle.
Note: Modern novels have had a tendency to produce heroes who are so imperfect and fallible that they offer no “higher level” of character or lifestyle to which the reader can aspire. That is certainly acceptable, of course, but the greatest novels of all time – those that have outlasted the millions that see bookstore shelves for 3 months and then dwindle away – are those with heroes or heroines who have something above and beyond the “average” or the mundane in their make-up. And in spite of the fact that people say they want “realism” in their books and movies, the truth is that almost every human being secretly wants a role model that is just a little “bigger than life” to identify with – and wants a level of life that is just a little bit better/higher/freer/more successful/more loving than what he is experiencing now.
So while you may not want to write a book that is particularly positive in theme or that has a “happy ending,” you may still want to be sure that your hero/heroine offers the reader something “better” than ordinary to identify with and aspire to.
By the time the hero enters into the decisive battle with the main antagonist, you must have made him so believable and reliable that your reader will know what to expect in his actions and reactions.
5. The hero will win the battle with the main antagonist. This action – whether physical, spiritual, or mental, will be the end of the climax of the story.
6. The hero will be changed/transformed by the end of the story. He will be different in some way. He may have learned something, found new qualities in himself he didn’t know were there, realized he’s capable of giving/loving/creating more, etc, etc. Also, as he moves into and enjoys these changes, they transfer to the reader, and the reader benefits from them as well.
This kind of strong identification makes for memorable, lasting stories – and also builds a strong base for any sequels or series that you want to create.
Needless to say, the other characters in the story will undergo their own changes, and these will be important to your reader as well. But the process of developing the hero and moving him through his 6-step process works the same way for each character. For the most part, you need to create each character with as much care as you do your hero. The “realness” of the other characters can make or break the story as well.
These basic rules of good character development apply equally in children’s literature — whether the characters are children or animals. The principles are still the same, and the readers respond to characters pretty much the same way at all levels.
So take time to get to know your characters personally. Write out a checklist that will clarify the basics aspects of their personalities, experiences, and relationships. Even writing up a complete character sketch on each one is never a waste of time. Everything you can do to make sure those characters are “real” will give your story that much better chance to find a special place in the hearts of readers for generations to come.