7 Realities When Developing Characters
Just like genres, there are things we take for granted when developing stories. It’s probably that modern-day mentality—even more so if you’re American. We assume that when we write a story, the literary elements just happen, fleshing out more and more as we revise.
Well, yeah. Practice makes perfect.
Oh. Honey. You still believe that lie? You’re so cute! Nothing can be perfect—no matter how much you practice. Practice makes progress. But, that doesn’t mean you’ll get to the final goal, just that you’ll move toward it.
With that in mind, when you’re developing your characters, you have to realize that everything you’ve read and been taught may not be the best way to write. Everyone has a preference, every generation has a trend. And, unless you write to publish—instead of to tell a story—you’ll find that it’s not all strawberries and shortcake with whipped cream on top.
Some things are just plain wrong, cliche, and/or naive. Like trying to eliminate carbs from your diet. Wrong, just wrong, I say!
Anyway, when you’re developing your characters, keep these 7 things in mind.
Stereotypes and cliches come from somewhere, and are okay.
I’m sure your teachers and parents lied to you growing up, saying stereotypes are wrong, right? Well, hate to break it to ya, but stereotypes are very real. After we experience/witness something habitually, we start to form an association between the two. If enough teenagers create problems in town, you assume that teens are problems. If enough girls obsess about makeup, you assume that girls obsess about makeup. That’s where our cliches come from.
Literary “cliches” form when stereotypes are used too much by artists. The jock and cheerleader, a common occurrence at high schools, even now. Not the only combo, though. The stereotypes we learn fill in gaps about characters that aren’t described. Authors depend on that reality, and that’s why it’s a problem. Cliches are perfectly acceptable as long as the development implies more to the character than our past assumptions.
ge and gender perceptions will make or break your character.
If you are involved in any kind of real authorship, you’ve heard too many times that it’s all about the reader. When you want to publish, you’re writing for others, not yourself at that point. It’s so true. So, when you’re revising your work (because you just want to focus on writing during the initial draft), take into consideration that ideal reader. And, even then, know that no matter how empathetic you try to make your character as his or her major identifier (woman, man, teacher, hero, teen, etc), who’s reading the story will determine how effective that is. Your male protagonist can be the man every woman has dreamed she’s wanted since she was 6; that is, except for all the grandmothers who see him as a little b*tch when they’re reading it to share a conversation with her granddaughter.
And, I can tell you now: if the character with who we spend the most time in the story is not relatable, we won’t like the book—period. It doesn’t matter how awesome the book is. Example: can’t stand Katniss, so I didn’t really grasp onto the Hunger Games like everyone else. The story itself is great if the girl was actually a human.
Speaking of which, that’s my advice. Don’t make your character a relatable -blank-; make him/her a relatable human who has identifiers. No matter who we are, there are basic experiences that we all have as humans. Expound on that.
If you bring in a character, develop him or walk him out.
There are so many examples of random characters that are introduced in a story only to fade in the background and be forgotten until the end of the story. Take Gale from the Hunger Games. He’s only really present in the beginning and we assume so much will happen with him and Katniss in the story. But, it doesn’t. She goes for Peeta instead–who is really flat, as well. They both develop more in the series, but before it was a series, it was a poorly written book with characters created purely to fill in plot holes and to create conflicts.
Don’t do that. When you bring in a character, fully develop him/her so they are part of the story, as well. Any character that gets involved with the conflict should be reader-relatable. If not, you need to phase them out. Not just kill them off after two scenes–that’s just lazy writing–but create a probable exit. But, in any case, don’t have too many characters unless you plan on developing a personality and conflict relationship for EVERY. one. of. them.
Anyone mentioned more than once is now a character in need of development.
Many mess up with this one. They’ll mention a character just to fill in a gap, but forget that they ever did. Two kids mention a childhood friend. That’s fine. Then, they mention the same character about two more times. Okay, obviously this character is someone to them and that’s why they keep mentioning him/her on multiple separate occasions. (S)he is now a character part of the story–at least a minor one. And, (s)he will either help develop the other characters, the story conflicts, or the setting.
More characters means more poorly written ones.
Let’s face it: writing a good character is not exactly the easiest thing to do. Better storytelling tells us that there are four main things that we need to address when developing our characters. So, if it takes 4+ articles to help you with one character, imagine doing that for each and every character that you throw in. If you think it’s not that bad, you probably have plenty of poorly written characters who are barely hanging onto their role as relevant to the storyline. Don’t let your characters just roam around and fill in one role each. Consolidate some roles into just a few characters. People can be quite versatile, you know.
Is your story about the setting, the conflict, or the character?
Sometimes, people get so caught up on building a world or developing a conflict that they completely neglect their characters. Even more so, they completely ignore the fact that characters are what drive conflicts and make settings relevant. How you develop your protagonist is what will help us feel for them and their conflict–not the other way around (contrary to popular belief). We read to travel to new places, to understand new perspectives, but it’s as these characters that perceive it all, as them, through their eyes…we need them!
Your character may not be special.
We like to believe that each of our characters are just as unique as we actual humans. But instead, just like humans, they aren’t. Most of them are carbon copies in different settings. Now, that may not necessarily be bad in certain contexts. But, in interest of originality, having original characters are key to help the readers see a new perspective we wouldn’t understand otherwise. So, keep in mind, though your characters is your baby, (s)he just might be everyone else’s, too.
So sorry to break so many hearts, but you deserve to know it. By knowing what’s wrong, you can work on how to make it right. Let your characters be better people than we are. That’s why we fall in love with them and their worlds.
So, what else should we keep in mind when developing our story characters? Anything you can think of?
Let us know in the comments below, and on social media, of course. Not to mention, signing up for some Writer’s Wisdom will behoove you in this topic. Just saying…