How Far Do You Take Character Development?

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How far do you take character development? There are classes on just this. The writers out there know there are classes on everything. Every little aspect of writing – there’s a class for that. And a seminar. And a dozen books, at least. Writing about how to write is a big industry. Would-be authors spend more money learning their trade than most will ever make on their books. But most authors know money isn’t really the point. Writing is an art, and artists aren’t really reasonable people.

So, back to the question: How far do you take character development?

I took a class that touched on this. Actually a couple of classes that touched on this. RWA has monthly meetings/classes thing and it came up more than once when I could still go. Ideas such as interviewing your character like a talk show host, questionnaires, lists of things you should know about your character were bantered around. I understand this, and oppose it.

Here’s the thing: you’re the writer, these are your characters. All of these are just (mostly ridiculous) tools to help you connect with your characters. You have to connect with them to write their story. I bet you thought it was your story, didn’t you? Only in as much as your characters are in your head. If you take a step back in the world you’ve created, you’ll see it’s their story and you’re just discovering it and writing it down for everyone else to read. Hopefully you’ll do them justice.

Not that the character development tools are all bad, they’re just generalized and not made for you and your book. Why ask a blind character their favorite color? Or an immortal angel their birthdate? You have to pick and choose what questions are relevant.

In some cases, I know some character’s birthdays and favorite colors, but not all. I don’t feel bad about it. I have one character that doesn’t know his own birthday, so there. Of all the characters I’ve developed, even works in progress, I’ve pinpointed five birthdays. One is for a minor character. Oddly, of those characters that have a specific birthday, one was assigned years ago but hasn’t been written into a book yet. In the Lexi Frost series, Flynn’s In, I say Dev’s birthday is in April and Teri’s is the following week. Dev’s is April 22, I’ve known that a long time. Other characters have a birth month, or season, or just a note that they’re so many years younger or older than someone else. Dev has that particular birthday for a reason – I’m a little twisted. No, it’s not because I’m extraordinarily in to Jack Nicholson. It’s Oppenheimer’s birthday. Somehow that just really suits Dev. It’s also the original pinup, Bettie Page’s birthday – which is deliciously ironic.

I do keep a book and series bible for every book I write. For those not familiar with it, that’s a list of characters and their characteristics and traits, events, a timeline if needed, anything you need to know to keep things straight in the book, then the series if there is one. If a character has a favorite color (two do) I make a note of it in the series bible.

More important than the details in my series bibles for really getting to know my characters are the extra scenes I write. I write an event from their point of view. Many of these scenes get cut from the books, but that’s not the point of them. It helps me develop those characters, to bond with them. Then, when I do a revision on the book, I add depth to that character because I understand them better.

I think the best thing I’ve ever taken away from a class or book on character development is this: Every character, even the minor ones, even the villains, believe they’re the starring role of their story. From their point of view, they’re not minor, and they’re not evil or wrong. I find that if I remember that, I can remember the motive of the characters. Knowing your characters is all about understanding them so you understand their motives and their actions. That’s it right there. Even the minor characters have a goal. Just because I’m writing the story from one point of view doesn’t mean they’re living it from that same point of view, they’re not.

If you want to write a great character, slip inside their head. Every one of them. See what motivates them, what dictates their actions, then write it. Who cares about their birthday or favorite color unless it’s relevant?

 

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