Ask a Ghostwriter: What about character development?
Dear Friendly Ghostwriter, I have written a story about a teen who has doubts about his faith. The story takes place in a different realm. I have a complete story in about 30,000 words, but it lacks deep character development. That is my struggle. I want help developing feelings of the characters on paper. Looking forward to your response. Peace, Dan
Congratulations on the completion of your first story. That’s a wonderful accomplishment! I understand your struggles with character development; it’s tricky. As you’ve surmised, it is a quintessential part of any book, whether it’s a novel or a memoir. While description and action are key to locating a story and moving it along, what keeps readers invested are the fascinating characters that draw them in. I’d like to explore a few ways you might create characters that are well-rounded, full of life, and able to keep the reader engaged in your story.
Writing with reality
Research is a crucial component of the process, especially if you are unfamiliar with the character’s skill or condition. Let’s imagine that your main character is a fighter pilot, but that you’ve never been in a cockpit. Still, you need to write your scenes so that a seasoned pilot might identify with the character, thinking to themselves, “Yeah, that’s happened to me.”
No, you don’t have the enroll in flight school to write about an ace pilot, but you do need to roll up your sleeves and learn. Start by scouring the internet for stories about a jet jockey taking to the skies. Read a few biographies or memoirs and try to pick up a pilot’s lingo and actions, as well as his state of mind. Of course, if it’s at all possible, speak directly to a person who is passionate about flying, someone with a lot of experience. Nothing beats that one-on-one interview.
As a general rule of thumb, it helps to watch people when working to improve character development. Just go to a public place and observe how different people interact. Look for mannerisms, notice the speech patterns, etc. This will help you create character bios, which we’ll discuss later in this article. The first step is to be able to identify various traits of people in front of you.
People don’t exist in a void
Unless your book centers around one person stuck on a deserted island talking to a volleyball all day, you’ll need to create many characters for your book. Don’t just focus on the main character, the protagonist. Of course, many stories also have a “bad guy” (an antagonist), somebody bent on thwarting your hero as he attempts to achieve his goal. You’ll need to understand this person just as thoroughly as your main guy. However, don’t forget the other side characters. They contribute to the motion of the story, too, and are known as secondary characters.
Writers can make the mistake of ignoring the minor players, thinking they aren’t important enough to be fully realized. Even if the character is the barista who serves your pilot a steaming hot cappuccino with honey each morning, she deserves a little character development. Think of Gunter on the popular sitcom Friends. He had dimension and we all loved him, although he rarely said a word.
Every character needs to pop from the page; they need description, personality, and realistic dialogue. It could come from the way the barista talks. Or perhaps the way she whistles to herself as she works, a tune the protagonist can’t get out of his head for the rest of the day. When you really spend the time to create these secondary characters and create their relationship to the others in your book, they come alive and often help flesh out the protagonist as well as the story.
Create character bios
As you work to form your characters, consider creating a little bio for them. Definitely avoid stereotypes, such as the absent-minded professor or the ditzy teenager. People rarely fall into these clichés. Readers appreciate seeing their lives reflected in your book, so include lots of examples of the rich diversity of humankind in your story.
When I build a character bio, I start with the physical description: Height, weight, hair color, etc. These might never be directly discussed, but I need to know what they are. For instance, if Jeremy is 5’ 2” and Alice is nearly six foot, Jeremy will always be craning his neck up to just look at his beloved.
Now that you have these mundane details down, it’s time to focus on the aspects that make up your character’s in-depth portrait. Include his history, typical emotional state, spiritual belief, nervous tick, and anything else that makes him, him.
Quick and Easy Bio Sheet
I have a form that I use when I’m starting a new project. Here are a few elements you might consider including for each character:
- Full name and nicknames
- Birthdate (this helps you know how old each character is in each scene you write)
- The address of their current residence, as well as all the homes they ever lived in
- Any identifying marks or physical conditions, etc.
- Hobbies or interests
- Educational background
- Jobs they’ve held
- Milestone events and dates (such as graduations, marriages, birth of children, etc.)
- The names of their significant other and children, along with their birthdates
Dan, this is just a starting point, but I hope I’ve sparked some ideas to help you with character development. Creating the people of your book is truly fun! The idea is to get to know your characters on a personal level. The more real they are to you, the more identifiable they will be to your reader, and the richer your story will be.