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As a reader, it is incredibly frustrating to immerse yourself within a book with underdeveloped characters; as a writer, this flop is devastating. It is with frustration I must confess that there is no exact formula to create developed characters. Advice on the subject is varied and often contradicts itself, so this article will focus on two parts: advice and inspiration.
Kate Grenville (an Australian author) wrote a fantastic book titled The Writing Book. Grenville made an interesting point that contradicts what some writers’ say: “one important thing about characters is that they’re not the same as people. People are in life: characters are in fiction.” Some people assume the term character and human are interchangeable—they are not—characters can be lifelike or intentionally unnatural. “Write what you know” is a proverb every writer has come across, whilst drawing inspiration from real life people can help develop characters. There are also downfalls to this technique since some people are unable to move away from the person and create the character.
Points to consider when creating your characters:
- Characters should not always be consistent. Whilst writing, it is good to know what your characters will do next, but try to move away from this consistency once in awhile; however, there should be certain aspects of their decision-making that is consistent.
- Characters can be surprising or predictable. A point that completely contradicts itself: there is no formula. Characters can do something completely shocking or be consistent. There are always times when we surprise people. Know what it would take for your character to do something inconsistent and make sure that you reflect that in the story e.g. a person who is always thoughtful in their responses may suddenly become very impulsive due to a particular topic that is important to them.
- Characters should be fully described and explained. Don’t slap down a massive paragraph describing your character from the get-go. Isn’t the joy in reading about discovering the character? Allow your readers to become acquainted with your character. When you first meet someone, you wouldn’t give him or her a full background story and a physical description of yourself. Consider this when you first introduce a character.
- Characters must have motivation. True and not true. You do not necessarily need to know what your characters will do but you need to make their actions convincing.
- Be selective using adjectives and adverbs to describe your character. Consider this: a dinner scene. People pushing their food around, uncomfortable after a fight, but one character eats with gusto after arranging their food into colour groups and eating one group after the other. The small detail on several characters pushing their food around shows their discomfort; however, the character that eats with precision and gusto is not uncomfortable. Selective adjectives and adverbs influence your work and can add a deeper meaning.
It is not always easy to create developed characters. Read on to discover three fantastic developed characters in fiction:
- The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson: Mr Utterson. “Mr Utterson the lawyer was a man of rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow loveable.” Mr Utterson is initially described in a negative manner; however, despite all of the unattractive traits he possesses he is somehow loveable. This small twist changes the previous description of him as unappealing to endearing. Attempt to write a character introduction like Stevenson by creating a small twist that undoes the initial description of your character!
- The Easter Parade by Richard Yates: Pookie. “Esther Grimes, or Pookie, was a small, active woman whose life seemed pledged to achieving and sustaining an elusive quality she called ‘flair.’ She pored over fashion magazines, dressed tastefully and tried many ways of fixing her hair, but her eyes remained bewildered and she never quite learned to keep her lipstick within the borders of her mouth, which gave her an air of dazed and vulnerable uncertainty.” Yates’ introduction to the matriarch of his story captures Pookie’s ideals and attempts to capture what she cannot achieve: class, style, and confidence. She is a woman who longs to be admired. Yates is not direct in revealing Pookie’s ideals and dreams but shows them through her actions. Attempt to write a character introduction like Yates by revealing your characters goals, dreams, and/or flaws.
- “To Room Nineteen” by Doris Lessing: the Rawlings. “This is a story, I suppose, about a failure in intelligence: the Rawlings’s marriage was grounded in intelligence.” Lessing’s short story opening exposes the Rawlings from the start. The couple are branded as intelligent, which is supported by their academically inclined careers—this is revealed later in the story—but by labelling the couple as failing their intelligence is immediately questionable. As you read on and discover their past, which leads up to the present moment in the story, you cannot help but question their intelligence. Attempt to write a character introduction like Lessing by creating a persistent question that haunts the reader as they delve deeper into your story.
Remember, there is no correct way to write a character. Most writing rules contradict each other! If you are stuck, give the activities listed with the literary examples a go; you never know what you will stumble upon.