A Writer’s Gameplan: Character Development

I begin a new series this week focused on helping out other writers. For about twenty-two years I have been writing, teaching, and editing and over the course of those years I have picked up a few things that I know will be beneficial. What follows is not the book on writing, but I do believe there are some pretty good points in here that will help out any writer who hasn’t mastered his or her craft yet. 

One of the most important aspects of any short story is its characters. You can have a good plot, but a good plot without a good character is like a romantic dinner date without a date. You can have the best plan in the world, but the flavor and romance and excitement is brought in by the character.

The most important thing to note about characters is that they are often the vehicle by which a reader enjoys the story. For example, when you read The Lord of the Rings, you are taken to Middle-earth and experience it through Frodo. Frodo, as a character, sees, hears, smells, touches, and tastes the world of Middle-earth and you do too by what Tolkein reveals of those events. Now these sensory details are going to be discussed in a later week on “showing,” but it is necessary to understand that Frodo’s perception of these events is what makes his character. Trees are green everywhere, the mountains are high, and the water is blue. There is no flavor there. But if Frodo hates the smell of fresh corn and new mushrooms and dusts himself off in disgust after every tumble in the dirt and hesitates to climb onto any horse because of the flies and faintly barnish smell, now we have a strong sense of what kind of hobbit he is and how he should act in certain situations and the world of Middle-earth has a bit of flavor. 

In any book or short story, there is a point of view by which the author unveils the events of his or her work. That point of view might be first person, where you get right in the characters head and see and feel everything, their intentions, their hopes, how they felt about the girl picking her teeth with a sharpened knife. Or the work might be third person which can be a little more distant, a little more standoffish. Still, good characters will reveal the story through their thoughts and feelings and reactions. When the only candle in the house gets snuffed just after hearing a loud crash downstairs, they respond in some way. Some characters might respond in fear, some in excitement. This tells the reader something about their makeup, their life history, their expectations and when well done, the reader feels what the character is feeling too. Makes sense right. Haven’t you felt a bit chilly when reading Call of the Wild?

Character flaws are also important, and every character should have one. Even Superman had a weakness: kryptonite. Character flaws make a story interesting because they make it dangerous for the character as the plot progresses (Superman), or exciting (perhaps an American spy in World War II Germany has a weakness for boos and blondes.), or exhilarating (a boy walks out of the house to see the world at age 15 during the Industrial Revolution because his father has beaten him once too many times) or sad (a terminally ill mother loses her baby during pregnancy because of blood deficiencies). Character flaws give any story kinetic energy. A character flaw creates struggle and thrusts the plot forward, and hopefully pulls the reader along too to find out what will happen.

The last thing we will deal with in this article is relationships. Readers get caught up in stories where they identify with the main character in some way. Most people in the world have lost a loved one. The experience is deeply emotional. In Tuesdays With Morrie, by Mitch Albom, Mitch experiences the slow loss of one of his mentors. People can identify with Mitch and the struggle he goes through. Maybe for a while they are reminded of their own loved one, of the deep feelings they had and how much they miss that person. That identification is satisfying, rewarding, and maybe even motivating.

These realizations will help improve your stories. You may know many of them, or they may just make sense to you. But take a look at your stories and see if these aspects are in your stories. Even short stories need these elements, not just novels. If yours don’t, then right there you have a good place to start improving them. Did you build a character the reader could see the world from? Did you give them character traits that flavored how they saw that world? Did you give them a flaw that made the plot surge forward? Did you give them a human element that readers could identify with? How well you apply or adhere to these tips will determine how strong your characters are and how strong your story is.

© Seth Crossman

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