The Importance of Character Development

From Women Writers, Women’s Books:

Most fiction readers fall in love with a book because of the characters. I’m no exception. As a person who reads an average of seventy-five books per year, it’s my experience that characters are the most important element in a story. Without believable characters, nothing else holds together.

Think of Gollum, for instance. There aren’t many of us who don’t immediately picture a wizened old man with a few wispy strands of hair on his head, wearing a loincloth, rubbing his hands together, and whispering, “My Precious.” When it comes to character development, JRR Tolkien had the Midas touch.

There are primary characters (main characters), secondary characters (characters who get a decent amount of page time but aren’t the main characters), and peripheral characters (mail carrier, doctor, neighbor). All three types of characters are vital because it lends diversity and contrast to the storyline. And with that, we get non-plot-specific conflict.

Regarding diversity, the Sean McPherson novels take place at a fictional writing retreat in the Pacific Northwest called Pines & Quill. One of the four writer-in-residence cottages is wheelchair-friendly. One way I take care not to offend a sometimes stereotyped demographic—differently abled people—is to use a sensitivity reader to ensure that I write accurately on behalf of those characters.

Writers, myself included, jump through many hoops when creating well-rounded, believable characters. For instance, nailing a character’s appearance is vital. Once I establish what they look like in my mind’s eye, I transfer that idea to a “character template” that I developed. I use that tool to play God and fully flesh them out as human beings—people readers relate with and want to learn more about.

I note physical characteristics such as height, weight, hair color, and eye color in my character template. Then comes their nationality. For example, in the Sean McPherson novels, the protagonist is Irish.

The character template is where I also note details about their childhood (good or bad), their parents (or whoever raised them), their siblings, and their childhood friends. I also note if they have any allergies. Why? As a suspense/thriller writer, I might be able to use this to their disadvantage.

As an author creates characters, it’s essential to ask if they’ve survived trauma, either physical or emotional. For example, are they a survivor of cancer, rape, domestic violence? Do they have PTSD—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Do they suffer from depression, an eating disorder, or anxiety? If yes, how does their experience factor into their current life? Realism adds to the storyline making it much more convincing because readers can relate.

Link to the rest at Women Writers, Women’s Books

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Character Development”

  1. i guess, for some people that sort of mapping things out works. That OP reminded me of a discussion I had a while back with a woman who was grumbling about people claiming to really know characters on other person’s favorite tv show (Stargate) and the proposition that everyone in Star Wars was flat and you don’t really know the. After we thrashed out what was bothering her, we concluded that StarWars had better characterization because although we don’t know what Hans Solo drinks or does in down time, we know he’s the sort who’ll come back into danger to help a friend, and we DON’T get that about the characters in that other property (which neither of us watch, so we were going on what the original person ahd to say about them. it was all about liking old movies and other … tick marks of characterization but nothing that led to action by them. If this makes sense to you guys?

    • Ah, Stargate, the oft-forgotten franchise.
      Probably the only property of real value MGM still owns.

      STARGATE TV is more watcheable and sophisticated than the STAR WARS movies. Mostly because it has two decades of coordinated mythology rather than a handful of scattered episodes.

      The STARGATE movie only has one character with believable motivation, the guy with the death wish. The Director didn’t really understand what he had to work with and was only interested in a two hour action flick. He actually tried to do a sequel recently, ignoring all the TV shows. He got pushback of biblical proportions and the money guys rethought tbe idea. 😉

      The TV show producers understood they were building a large scale, enduring Science Fiction mythology and worked hard to make it self-consistent and give their characters as much personality as possible in one hour episodes. The series lasted enough that most of the characters got proper development arcs. Many characters started out as walking resumes but evolved into fully developed people with personalities and foibles resembling real humans. Good stuff.

      In the context of character development, the last and shortest series did the best job because it was designed to conform to the new narrative standards of the “peak TV” era. A cut above the typical SYFY channel fare.

      TL:DR – In the Stargate universe the discovery of an interstellar network of portals brings present day Earth into the center of galactic politics and wars. Most of the explorer teams (SG1, SG2, etc) are tbe best of the best, intepid, smart, fearless hero-archetypes. Those are NOT the protagonists of STARGATE UNIVERSE. That one deals with the discovery of a primal transgalactic portal and a bunch of second stringers and support personnel trapped hundreds of millions of light years away on an automated ship from a dead civilization seeding other galaxies with portals for the network. They are the wrong guys in the wrong place at the wrong time.,extraterrestrial%20races%20on%20their%20travels%20through%20the%20Stargate.

      All the three series are highly recommended but STARGATE UNIVERSE is less demanding and more character driven so it’s a good place to sample the universe.

      If willing to commit to some twenty seasons, working through SG-1 and Atlantis can be rewarding. The animated series can be ignored. It probably isn’t canon.


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