Shallow Character Development Is No Lazy Way To Be

20131209_182451I envy writers who, from the beginning, appear to know their characters at a deeply intimate level. Aware of the nuances and motives of these figures, their stories come together with resonating power, under the illusion that this is a story which must be told by order of the laws of physics.

I’m not one of those writers who understands his characters quickly. In recent weeks I’ve gained more insight and true understanding of my protagonist than I had when I started writing my novel two years ago. In fact, it took walking away from the project for almost a year before I could see whom my character is and where she needs to go to be fully realized. That concerns me. I can’t afford to spend two years on every character I create before I understand them well enough to get the story right.

I think this lack of character development by young writers is why there are so many underwritten and half-finished novels in the world. Story is largely, if not entirely, about character, and without really understanding our characters we can’t expect tell a story well. It’s one thing to know about our characters, but it’s an entirely different thing to understand them.

My current novel-in-progress features a protagonist who is strong enough to voluntarily leave the sanctuary of her home in order to lead a pursuing menace away from her loved ones. In the early drafts of the story, however, she is portrayed as timid and polite, stereo-typically feminine, essentially a rag doll being thrown about by circumstances that do little more than drive the plot with no regard for the condition of the person she is supposed to be. She shows none of the strength and character of a person who is willing to leave the security of the familiar and leap into the unknown in a bold and self-sacrificing way. Only recently did I fully grasp this fact, and can finally say that I know what this story is about and how to represent this character in a way that is somewhat refreshing and not stereotypical. But this after two years of just thinking!

There is a deep-conscience thinking required to understand our characters. We have to think beyond the facts of their background and appearance, think our way to the core of their motivation and see what their actions tell us about who they are. We have to think beyond the surface. This is why writing is so hard. The thought that goes behind the story is tedious and demanding. We are required to push ourselves, over and over again, to understand concrete aspects of psychology and motive. We have to be aware of real-world mental health issues, fears, and desires. All of that takes concerted effort. If we don’t make the effort then we are being lazy, and our writing comes across as lazy, and our books become lazy and unemployed.

I’m slow in this regard. It takes a lot of effort to see through the fantasy of my characters in order to determine who they really are and how they should be portrayed. My deep thinking takes a long time to develop. So often my brain turns in circles, caught on the whirl of a wrong notion, waiting to break free into chance and chaos that leads back to something better. A long process indeed.

Maybe the place to start is with an analysis of myself. Once I understand the character within me perhaps I will more readily understand the characters in my stories. It stands to reason. In the end, we really are writing about ourselves.


3 comments on “Shallow Character Development Is No Lazy Way To Be

  1. I used to think I was good at character creation and development, but the more I learn about it and the better I think I get at it, the more I realize how much (ongoing) work it is to make a person jump up off the page.

    Not sure if this would help, but here are some questions I ask myself when writing character profiles:

    P.S. I love the LEGO minifigs image!

    • Great list of questions, David. I went through a similar process when I wrote that 650 page monster in 2010-11. I’m still not sure how well I actually knew my characters, and a real revision might tell me when I get back to that story. What I discovered with the current novel is that regardless of the answers I come up with initially (in the outline phase) I might be wrong, or use the wrong details, or misunderstand my character at first. The character I drafted in version one of my current work is nothing like who she is now – and who she is now is awesome. She wasn’t awesome before that. She jumps off the page, or at least lifts the print a little.

      I’m reading The Familiar by Mark Danielewski and I saw in an interview where he talked about the process of coming to understand what everything is about over the span of a gigantic 27 volume process. How some people get such an infinite amount of work into a finite form is beyond me. The process, it seems, works more or less the same for us all, but at a vastly differing pace.

      And thanks for the nod to the LEGOs – I owe that cleverness to my lady.

      • Oh absolutely: My characters never fail to tell me how wrong I was about them when I created my character profiles. They grow from page to page. Old assumptions are proven wrong, and new details emerge. I suppose that’s all part of the “fun.”


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