Writing Mini-Lessons: Ways to Develop a Character
“My characters always take shape first;
they wander around my mind looking for something to do.”
~ S. E. Hinton
A fictional narrative’s introduction and development of the main character is crucial. Yet, how do you create and flesh out someone who does not exist? Writers of fiction use a variety of strategies to do just this: they invent characters—people who seem so real that it is as if they truly exist—and show what these characters are like.
The opening paragraphs and/or pages of your piece are critical to the overall success of your fictional narrative. This is your opportunity to get a character up and walking around, breathing, living. This is your chance to convince readers—and yourself—that your character lives, allowing readers to accompany a real person through the events of a story, not view from a distance as a cardboard cutout or paper doll gets picked up and moved from point A to point B. Build people. Listen to how they sound. Observe how they think and behave. Understand them.
Do not skip this part. Do not imagine that you can come back later and scatter some thoughts or give your character a sense of humor, a past, a daydream, an attitude, a yearning, a personality, after the fact. Invest right from the start in the details of character: collect a person. Then as you develop the chosen problem and move toward the climax, the events of your story and your character’s reactions to them can grow in an organically from the seeds of personality you planned at the beginning of your piece.
As you write your character to life, remember to include all of these ways to develop your character:
Whether the narrative voice is first (I) or third (he or she), tell often and everywhere what your character is thinking and feeling: the best, most essential way to create a life is to start and end with an inner life.
Get your character talking as a way to reveal himself or herself. (“I don’t have a very clear idea of who the characters are until they start talking.” ~ Joan Didion
Get your character up and moving around, doing things both little and big that show what he or she is like.
Recall events from the past that show why your character is behaving as he or she does today.
Show how your character responds to the actions, words, and ideas of another character.
- Other Characters:
Compare and contrast your character’s actions, reactions, beliefs, or values with those of friends, family members, classmates, etc. How is he or she like the others? Shaped by the others? Different from the others?
Imagine the habits, interests, skills, hobbies, goals, fears, tastes and preferences, daydreams, and nightmares that will flesh out your character as a living, breathing person.
- Intimate Setting:
Create your character’s bedroom and fill it with the stuff of his or her life that reveals parts of the past and present.
- Beloved Object or Pet:
Give your character something to love that reveals his or her private self or previous history. Maybe even have your character speak to the pet or comfort object.
- Letters, Email Exchanges, or Diary Entries:
Illustrate what’s on your character’s mind through pieces of his or her writing.