The Importance of Character Development
I think characters are the most important part of a story, because without believable characters nothing else will hold together.
One of my favourite characters ever doesn’t even have a name, because she doesn’t need one. In Daphne du Maurier’s book Rebecca, the female lead’s name is never revealed to us. We come to know her as the second Mrs De Winter, but nothing more than that. That’s because her character is dependent on her being overshadowed by Maximillian De Winter’s first wife Rebecca, the story depends on us never really knowing her by her name, but by her character and her paranoia surrounding the dead wife of her bitter husband. It’s intrinsic to the story.
You can do all kinds of things when you are trying to create a believable character: you can make list after list, you can write yourself a template questionnaire which you answer for every character you make. It’s important to know your character, though. I’ve been known to catfish to develop a character, so I will make an online profile for them and then join a social media platform and interact with other people as the character. Funnily enough, you get to know your character more when other people are asking you questions, because they are things you wouldn’t necessarily think of when looking at the development yourself. This may seem unethical, and it probably is, but it has worked for me in the past. Of course, you have to be a very good storyteller and a very quick thinker.
Another thing I do is get photos of celebrities, because sometimes you have so many characters that it’s hard to hold them in your head. I put their picture on the wall with a note-card and a small bio, what their motivations are and what they are looking to achieve by the end of the story. By midway through a story I have plenty of images to keep my head together and focus on who is who. Nailing your character’s appearance is a huge part of moving forward—for me, at least—and having a vision of an actual person in your head definitely makes a difference to me.
How does your character interact with others? Are they friendly, obtuse, slutty, defensive? How? Learning that is a huge stepping stone.
What does your character want? Everyone wants something—I want something, I don’t just drift through life as a bit part to someone else’s story—even your smaller characters have motivations, hopes, desires and dreams. Obviously if your character only has a small part to play you may not want to spend too long thinking about it, but think about it nonetheless.
Perfect characters are boring, as are characters that get everything they want all the time, or lucky people. We want to see our heroes work for it, we want them to struggle and bleed for their redemption. Make your characters flawed. Everyone has flaws—I know I do. Everyone encounters obstacles in life, it’s hard to like people who don’t, and more importantly it’s hard to relate to people who don’t. We need to see our characters learn and grow. We need to be able to relate to them.
Dialogue is a topic unto itself but for the most part people speak differently. It’s a good way to distinguish characters from each other; some may talk a lot, some may be constantly sarcastic or mean, some may even be highly political or militant. There are so many ways to define character with dialogue, it’s just another tool in your arsenal. Don’t just rely on wordy descriptions of your character, show the audience who they are by what they say and do.
Most of all it’s important to give your characters dimension. Go people watching: make up stories for people you see in the street; sit in a café somewhere and observe what others do, the differences in the way they speak. Observe people. Think about your favourite characters in books or films and what it was that made them great; see if you can recreate that for your audience.
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© 2015 Katerina Diamond
Katerina is the author of the Sunday Times bestselling crime thriller ‘The Teacher’ and number 1 Kindle bestselling novel ‘The Secret’.