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.

Key to the Craft – Writing Character Backgrounds

I do not know, but have often wondered, whether visual artists ever do personality sketches of their subjects before creating the visual image. Does the paint or pencil artist consider the history and psychological make-up of the subject about to be painted or drawn? I would like to know.

Meanwhile most fiction writers spend some sort of time outlining backgrounds, histories, and family lineages before ever sitting down to write an actual story. But many amateurs skip this step, assuming that the words inside their head will do the work that sketches and outlines might otherwise cover. For my part I have written plenty of stories without drafting character histories. You have never read any of them, however, because none of them are any good . . .

I suspect there are a few reasons that beginning writers don’t draft character histories. For one thing it seems like a lot of work that no one is ever going to see. It’s a lot of time spent making up useless information that goes to waste. The joy, we tell ourselves, is in the discovery of writing the story.

But writing character histories is an important part of the story writing process (and it really is a lot of fun). Consider how much time you have spent sitting idly at your computer, or with pad of paper in hand, not sure of what to say because, frankly, you don’t have any idea who your character is. Knowing a character’s intimate thoughts, their passions and desires, fears, issues, mental health status, physical ailments, love life, place in the hierarchy of their family, position at work, type of job, mode of transport, favorite dessert, etc. adds up in the creative subconscious so that once you do sit to write that story, the wealth of their background is at your immediate disposal. With the work all done up front (in terms of knowing your subject) you are free to draft the story you were meant to write.

If you have never tried to write a character history consider the following exercise. Write your own history as if you were a character in a work of fiction. The details of your life, which you know better than anyone, are the exact sort of things you would imagine for a completely fictional character. Every interesting and sordid detail should be there. Not each and every day of a life lived, but rather the curious points. As you examine your life from the outside you begin to see things that excite your senses, rev the pulse, and when you come across those things you know you’re getting it right. Write about the things you don’t like about yourself as much as the things you do like. Remember that writing is about truth and honesty, and by getting down to the gritty things you are walking that razor’s edge that you hope will appear later in your fiction. My bet is that a single afternoon spent sketching out your life as a character will open the floodgates for future character sketches in all of your stories for the rest of your career. And while you will never use every detail in the sketch, you will have the confidence in knowing that the full palette is there for you, like a painter, to add and mix any color, in any shade, for just the right image.

Here, for example, are some character notes I wrote for Jillian – a character in one of my first novels:

Jillian Marie Kircher (Barnes) – 31
Pastor’s Wife – Mother (Kylie Jean – 4)
“The Faithless” “The Ghost”

She is the most difficult to write about.

You want to demonize her. Cheater, unfaithful, adulteress. Do you understand what motivates her? Jillian’s parents divorced when she was ten. The event left her stoic and emotionally unbalanced. At her worst she is suspicious, moody, depressed. But she has her bright side. She is kind to others. She dotes on Kylie. Let’s go back to her earliest years, before she was ten . . . Jillian is a complaisant child. You can tell already looking at her in her crib. She’s quiet. Of course, she is asleep, but see her awake. She looks around, but is quiet. When she cries at all it’s the hoarse rasp of a sick child. Nothing shrill, nothing red-faced and bloody murder. Her expression is wide-eyed; she looks shocked. She does not readily smile. She watches. It’s as if she knows, over and over again, there will be disasters in her life.

This is not the whole sketch. It goes on into her adulthood, into her marriage and the birth of her child. It also covers the day her mother killed her father, the realization of the disaster she had always sensed from the earliest days. In the sketch a psychological profile emerges.

The entire sketch of Jillian is fourteen pages long. Handwritten in a composition book as one of six (one for each of the primary characters) I wrote before starting the novel. The first try of the book took three years and ultimately wasn’t the book I wanted to write, but the sketches remain, and I will write a new version one day, prepared as I am with all of the characters detailed and standing by.

I encourage all fiction writers to write up character sketches. Whether an entire life or just the details of what is going on at the time of the story, the things we learn through this process are the things we need to know to create memorable stories. Character, after all, is key. Character is really all that we care about.