I’m on several writer’s forums, and so I know a lot of beginning writers. I know writers who haven’t finished a novel, and writer’s who’ve finished a dozen. On each of these forums, there’s a subforum/board for “character development” topics. For people who are stuck in their character development, who can’t decide on certain aspects of their characters or just want help or ideas. There’s places for “character lounges” (as they’re called) where writers act like they’re playing some sort of RPG, where they are their character in a given situation and they use those to see how their character reacts in certain situations.
Myself, I’ve never found those things helpful. The answers people offer in development topics are ones that I could come up with just as easily with five minutes of thought (I’m not suggesting that people who use those kinds of topics are lazy thinkers, it’s just a thing). Whatever is gained by me in lounges is lost in the time I spent doing that, rather than writing.
I’m not saying those things are wrong, not by any means. If those are helpful to other people, good on them. They can knock themselves out.
However, I’ve noticed a few common ideas that are created in these topics that I’d like to refute in this post, as well as suggest the six basic areas of character development, and their relative importance.
The Kiddy Pool
[As a disclaimer, I came up with one pool-related heading that worked well and so had to spend way longer than I meant to coming up with similar headings for the rest.]
What is the first thing you do when you develop a character? You probably come up with their name, right? If not that, then their appearance. How tall they are, their eye color, the length of their hair and the size of their hands. If you’re one of those “criminal record” style writers, then you give their height in exact inches along with their weight, exact age, gender, full name, and so forth. If you’re a pinterest junkie, then you have a board dedicated to pictures of each character in your story, and so you know exactly which celebrities and which stock photo people your character looks like.
Now, if this was all the development you did, would that character be real? Could you write them in such a way that your reader feels connected to this person?
You could try, but the answer is no.
Even if you tried, you’d end up subconsciously developing more than those things. Why? Because appearance and physical facts are frivolous details. They’re a bunch of adjectives that point to your character. In computer programming, there’s this idea of “referencing”. It’s when one part of your code points to another part. The referencing piece of code is nothing by itself. If you take away what it references, it becomes meaningless and void and will return all sorts of errors. So it is with outer appearance of your character. These things are modifiers. They’re references. If you change one, your character won’t have to change their entire being to accommodate for it.
These pieces of development are important, in some ways. You do need to be able to describe your character. Your reader does need to know what they look like. But this aspect is just like the kiddy pool. It’s necessary, so the little kids can splash around without needing someone to hold them above water, but that’s where its true usefulness ends. The big kids hate the kiddy pool. If they try to use it, all the water sloshes out and you’re left with disgruntled kids scrunched into a pool half their size.
You need something bigger. You need the real pool.
Well, we’ve arrived. It’s the big pool, with the three-foot end and the twelve-foot end. It’s big enough that the big kids won’t splash all the water out and they can bring their friends if they want.
In character development, the shallow end is the next part of character development everyone does. I do it, too. Actually, I do all of these but that’s beside the point.
Anyway, the next thing in development is what most writers call the character’s “personality”, even though that’s a bit of an exaggeration.
I like to call it the outer personality: it’s the pieces of the character that reader and the other characters see. It’s the bit that comes out in the dialogue and seeps into the narrative style. It’s that list of basic human attributes that are assigned to this character: humor, a quicksilver temper, a formal stiffness or a casual calmness. Characters are easily frightened or very stoic, they’re loud or quiet, quick witted or slow, lazy or energetic, and the list goes on.
These things are more important that physical appearance for one simple reason: they’re present through the whole manuscript. You’ll describe each character twice, maybe three times in the whole novel. But their “personality”? That will come out through the whole book, through every word they speak and every thought they inject into the narrative.
If you change these things, your character will change a little bit. You’ll have to rewrite passages of sarcastic ranting to accommodate to the change to being a quiet person. But that’s about it. Your character won’t drastically change their identity and being.
The Diving Board
Before we actually jump in, let’s consider what we’re jumping off of. The good pools have diving boards, and the higher the better. It hangs over the deep end and a lot of people chicken out after five minutes of standing there shaking.
In character development, the third area of development is similar to the diving board. Both of these aspects are better when they’re higher, more daunting, more impressive.
This area, of course, is the area of oddities. Collectively, I like to call these things the oddities because that’s what they are. They’re unique traits that your character actively brings to the table. Habits, quirks, slang, dialect, and thoughts on norms are all oddities. They’re actions (or active opinions) that come in a combination that only that character has.
These are powerful bits of information that make the character come alive. From their quirks (fidgety movements or nervous habits) to their slang and dialect (the way they speak what they speak) to their habits and thoughts (repetitive actions and ideas). These things don’t greatly affect the reader, but they bring out the reality that this is an individual. They aren’t just some filled-out form, they’re real.
The Deep End
We’re all big kids, here. The shallow end isn’t enough for us, we want to get in deep, where our feet don’t touch the bottom.
Here, where the bottom sits far beneath the ripples, you find the parts of character development that reach into the darkest parts of humanity and pull out the dredges. Secrets. Fears. Flaws. Motivations. In a way, the deep end is the reality that the shallow end pretends to replicate. It’s the real parts of the personality. It’s the parts of our personality that only the closest people get to see. Sometimes, not even then.
In a character, the deep end is comprised of all the secret and hidden things. Whether those are actual secrets they’re keeping, or if it’s their fears (both small and large) or their flaws or their brokenness. And it’s always their true motivation.
Without these things, your character is only a husk. You can write a story with a husk, you can even have good husks. Most side characters (especially those who only show up two or three times or less) are husks. They have a description, they have a basic personality, they’ve got a quirk (often called a character handle), but they don’t always have these things. It’s hard to go this deep without dipping into clichés, so we avoid it. It’s hard work.
But it is dreadfully, dreadfully important. These things are vital to the character. If they lose one of these things, it changes who they are, it changes all the aspects from before (well… maybe not their appearance, unless they dye their hair) and those to come. A changing motivation results in completely new action, a new fear results in new personality, new reactions.
Without these things, your character is only a husk.
The Hot Tub
Everyone likes the hot tub. Especially the little kids who wish they could go in, but the sign says 18+ only. It’s warm and the jets are funny and you’re close to people in there. This is where you hang with close friends, or even closer close friends. It’s where you can relax, be you.
In characters, the hot tub is where everything connects. It’s the symbol of relationships. I’m not just talking about the character’s family and significant other, when I talk about relationships, I mean the ways in which the character relates to other peoples, places, and things. It’s the way your character acts in situations with people or things.
When you develop this, you have to ask yourself “how does my character relate to [this thing]?” It can be hard, because you’ll relate differently than your character. Your brain really has to think, or else be lazy and come up with lame answers.
The thing is… relations are important. Without them, your character has no contact with the world around them. They’re floating in a bubble of self-consciousness and nothing else. Relations are how they interact with the people and animals and buildings and political ideas and religion and best friends and strangers and pets and monsters and demons and lovers and fathers and daughters and tyrants and flowers and darkness and light and society and all those things they’ll ever come to see, know, and be with.
This is something you’ll often develop on the fly. It’s what comes out as you write. Rarely will you find a writer who’s successfully developed these relations before their first draft. That’s okay. It doesn’t matter when you develop it, it matters that you do develop it.
Ew why am I bringing up this it isn’t even a pool thing.
Let’s be honest, though, the Locker is the most important part. It’s where you leave everything you don’t want to get wet. It’s where the bits and pieces of you get left behind.
In character development, that collection of clothing, wallet, cell phone, tennis shoes, fedora, towel, random quarters, lint from someone else’s pocket, and that one stain on the side of the locker that looks like blood although how it got there you can’t imagine represents the complexity of being.
People are more than their fears. They’re more than what they look like, than their quirks and their outward personality. They’re more than how they relate to the world around them, they’re more than all of that.
They’re bundles of complexity that no one can possibly hope to unravel.
People are paradoxes of love and hate and peace and turmoil, of black and white and gray and a thousand unnamed colors, of joy and discontent, of dreams and nightmares, fears and braveries. Each of the first five areas connect and intertwine in ways that we can’t possibly imagine.
I’m just gonna say this: you will never be able to fully-replicate the complexity of being. Never. It would take a lifetime to do, a lifetime that you don’t have to spend on creating a character that complex. After all, you’re too busy doing it for yourself.
What can we do?
All we can do is try. We can create moments of complexity, and let the rest hang on them. People are infinitely complex, at all times, but characters can’t be. There’s not enough time to perfect that. Instead, creating a few moments in each chapter, a moment in a scene, and let the rest of the character hang on those moments. Let them cling with all their strength, and you’ll have done it.
You created a character that is real.