Character development is something that is somewhat talked about within writer's guilds but what do those words really mean? I’ve had authors explain it to me in various ways and I even have a book with a bunch of chapters an author wrote on how to develop your characters.
Some authors will spend years upon years writing out character backstories before they even think to start on the actual story. You know what, props to them! That is some well spent time.
But what’s so important about developing a character? It’s a valid question that every author should ask. For that, I’ll default to Shrek’s description to Donkey “…have layers.” If the characters we put in our stories do not have any layers they will simply become nothing more than names on a page.
Sally walked into a store. The aroma of freshly baked bread flooded her mind with memories. She exited the store, tears filling her eyes, and got in her vehicle.
Sally soon became boring and unrelatable to the reader and they quickly set down her story. Nobody wants to read about someone who has no layers of complexity. Why? Because whether we like to admit it or not, we are all composed of complex layers that make us who we are. And, more than anything, we want characters that we can relate to.
Sally walked into the store. The aroma of freshly baked bread pulled from the bakery oven took her back to her grandmother’s kitchen. The memories flooding her mind were more than she had prepared for. She quickly exited the store, wiped the tears from the corner of her eyes and hopped into her minivan.
Oh, poor Sally. Did she recently lose her grandmother? Wait, did something bad happen at her grandmother’s house? Is her grandmother even really her grandmother? Why is Sally crying? Will she ever be able to smell bread again?
Ok, maybe the reader won’t ask all these questions regarding Sally but they will subconsciously start deciphering whether Sally’s story is worth their time to continue.
While working on a sequel to one of my novels I ran into an issue, character development. I had never intended to write a sequel but, due to requests from readers, I decided to give it a go. In the first book, I spent no time purposefully developing my characters. There were things that they faced throughout the book and as a result of these situations their layers began to appear.
However, with the sequel, I had to spend a bit more time thinking on the layers I had created during the first book and how those layers would affect the decisions my characters were making in the second book. I had to stay true to the characters I had created. The super outgoing chatterbox couldn’t become mute in the second book, it simply wouldn’t work for the reader.
I got about 40,000 words into the story and began experiencing what some label as “writer’s block”. Upon further evaluation, I recognized that I didn’t have the same interest in my characters as I had with them while writing the first book. During the first book, I was engaged as the storyteller. I wanted to know where these characters would end up just as much as the reader wanted to know. But for this sequel, I seemed to be shuffling them through a bunch of motions just to get to THE END, literally.
As a writer or, better put, a storyteller, it is very important that your characters become as real to you as the people you interact with on a daily basis.
The audience wants to believe that this person is real. They want to know what they are feeling and why they are feeling it. The abused wife cannot suddenly find another man and live happily ever after. I mean, this can happen but let’s be real for the readers’ sake it won’t happen suddenly.
Challenge for You: Evaluate the characters in your stories. How many layers do they have? How complex are they?
As I stated in a previous blog: books don’t sell, stories sell. The same can be said about characters: flat doesn’t sell, layers sell. (Unless you’re Flat Stanley which is a perfect example of a “flat” character who isn’t super complex but still has layers.)