Your plot is ready to go. You have a protagonist, an antagonist, a secondary character, an old mentor, a love interest, a traitor, an opposed parent, a jealous sibling, and an intelligent talking horse named Phillip. Hopefully, by the time you sit down to start writing the first chapter of your first draft, you have a general idea of what your cast of characters is like. Well at least you’ll know the gender of your main character. Ideally.
I believe the most important thing that will help you achieve a well developed story is a well developed cast of characters; the story is about those characters, after all. Probably the most crucial question to ask when developing a character is “what are the character’s motives?” The protagonist’s motives alone will drive the plot forward, but when you add the antagonist’s desires, the traitor’s secrets, the mentor’s wishes, along with the protagonist’s motives, the story will automatically become so much more detailed and complex. And complexity is a good thing. Not only will it make the reader think, but it will make each character believable: all their trials, emotions, fails, and triumphs will be real, thus drawing the reader into a deeper level of identifying with each of them. It may be scary at first to think that strangers who happen to be reading your story will connect with your babies if you do a good job, but if your readers don’t connect, what is your story worth? Without a developed cast of characters, it will be hard to connect with them, thus we will feel nothing at their fails, triumphs, or emotions, and thus the message or theme of the story you want to convey through your characters will never be understood by your readers.
All that to say: Character development is much more important than you think. I have to remind myself of that very often. My WIP is four years old now, and not even my MC is as developed as I think he should be. So, on to those tips that I hope you’ll benefit from just as much as I have.
1) Asking your characters questions are key to understanding their motives. Even seemingly unnecessary questions will help you get to know them better, and I talked about this more in my last post. Author-and-character bonding starts with questions, like all other relationships.
2) Build relationships between each character. When you develop deep, complex relationships between each and every one of the members of your cast, the possibilities for plot twists become endless. If your MC gets in a fight with the mentor, who knows what will happen as a result of that fight? If he/she kills the love interest, what will the reactions of the rest of the characters be? Does this raise an opportunity for the antagonist to jump? But what if the love interest was the villain’s spy, and so his/her death made his whole plan go downhill, unbeknownst to your MC and his band of good guys? You see? Relationships between each and every character creates this intricate web of potential occurrences resulting in the next scene or chapter or climax.
3) Discover parallels between your hero and villain. What are the things they both have in common? Where do they both fall short? Where do they both find meaning in life? Was your villain seeking after the same goal as your MC is ten years ago? Find similarities, not just differences. Give yourself just a few minutes to answer these questions and bask in the endless possibilities that enter your mind (along with the never ending stream of plot bunnies). Or, rather than trying to come up with similarities, just develop your plot and the characters of your hero and villain, and such commonalities will just show up in the storyline that you never even placed there on purpose. This is what happened to me when I discovered the parallels between my protagonist and antagonist that I never knew of before, and it was a heavenly revelation. I guarantee you you’ll feel the same way.
4) Find your character’s MBTI and use that to make their personality unique. MBTI is just a generality to help better understand why we think, feel, or do things. It’s just the beginning to understanding each of our personalities, because the truth is, we are all so unique. When you figure out, for example, that your MC is an INTP, don’t make them an INTP stereotype; no one on Earth is stereotypical. So why should your characters be? Well developed personalities have contradictions. Introverts will have some extroverted traits, just as extroverts also have introverted traits. Logic-wired mathematician geniuses know what it’s like to feel deep, complex emotions. Sherlock has friends, despite what Sergeant Sally may say. Developing your characters’ MBTIs is only the first step to understanding each of their personalities.
5) Each character should have a secret. Fight scenes aren’t the only ways to build suspense and anticipation; when your reader understands that characters have secrets that aren’t going the way they want them to, things immediately start getting interesting. There are so many different kinds of secrets as well that you can play around with, and these affect the plot big time. Developing secrets between yourself and your readers can also be played out in your characters. Think of how excited a reader would feel when they discover a secret that the hero doesn’t even know about himself yet. Secrets help build not only development in general, but they also affect relationships between characters, as well as adding more complexity to the plot.
6) Don’t box your character in; give each of them room to surprise you. Just like making sure you don’t box your character into a specific MBTI type, but to give them unique traits and contradictions outside of the box, also ensure that you don’t develop your character to the point of exhaustion when you find that you know them better than you even know yourself. I’m not saying that happens a lot (at least I hope not), but it’s important to leave a few holes in development. Obviously fill in the important spots, but it’s when you don’t completely understand your character that they are given the ability to surprise you. They might come out and do something unexpected as you are writing. Let your characters speak to you; they know themselves better than you and will give you information about themselves; all you need to do is ask.
7) Understand each of their goals. Make each of them feel like they are loved by you and ask where they hope to see themselves at the end of the book. Who are they with? Where are they? What have they accomplished? What does an ideal life look like to each of them? To make things more interesting, have a few of their goals contradict each other; obviously this is true between your protagonist and antagonist, but maybe your mentor’s intention can’t happen if a secondary character’s goal is met. Maybe your traitor’s ambitions belie those of the villain or the hero or whoever he works for. Complexity equals intrigue, which results in a realistic arrangement.
Remember also that not every character’s goals must be displayed in the story; developing expectations and ideals for each character, main or minor, will give each of them a sense of purpose and personality.
8) Place each of your characters in the same situation and see how each of them react in different ways. All of their reactions must be unique. If two of them think and do things the same way, you need to focus on the development of each of them. Sure, similarities are important; that’s where friendships blossom. But differences make each of them unique.
9) Research certain mental illnesses or trauma that your characters experience to be realistic. I think the best example of a well done cast of characters who suffered trauma and reacted to it realistically is in the Hunger Games series. Katniss, for instance, has undergone severe trauma and in the third book she explains how dead she feels inside and how that affects her reactions, her emotions, and morale. Collins made it clear that Katniss was suffering PTSD without saying it outright; instead, this was expressed through what the character said, thought, felt, and the therapy she was given to help heal from the trauma. There are so many, so many books and movies where the character would realistically be suffering from trauma and mental illness that they supposedly have or experienced, but it never actually shows. This is where Hunger Games excels; the depression and sorrow I felt came from the realization that the experiences and results were realistic. And that made all the difference.
10) Develop your antagonist even more. There are so many stories I’ve read (and written) where the villain is hardly developed at all. All he or she wants to do is simply be bad and kill the hero. BOH-ring. We’ve seen it all before. We want to know why. This is when we need to discover the antagonist’s history, who he was before he suddenly became so evil. As I’ve said before, finding the parallels between the protagonist and antagonist help reveal so much about each of their characters and the overall story, but building such parallels for the sake of developing the character of the villain is just as important. There is a reason behind every villain’s evil; just remember that and you’ll be pretty well off.
11) Create character arcs. Remember when I talked about discovering the motives and goals for each character and how important that is to driving the plot? The motives each character starts out with in the beginning of your story will change along with the arc. A character arc is, by definition, “the transformation or inner journey of a character over the course of a story. If a story has a character arc, the character begins as one sort of person and gradually transforms into a different sort of person in response to changing developments in the story.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.) Character arcs and motives go hand in hand; as one changes, so does the other. In terms of a protagonist, perhaps he or she starts out with selfish, narrow-minded motives. As the story progresses, and as the protagonist experiences certain situations in which fate-changing decisions must be made, those motives will change for the better; he or she will learn from their past mistakes, and grow mature as the character arc steps up higher and higher.
Which tips sound helpful? Which ones sound like you’ve been there and done that more times than you care to count? Feedback is welcome, as well as any advice for character development you’ve come across. I’m always open to hearing more ideas!