How do you create a character that is so in-depth, they become part of our reality? Well, it’s all about their psychology. This is an additional post to my original, ‘Character Development 101' where I went over how to create and show your characters to the world. This one will focus on how you can build on those techniques and give your character depth.
The last thing you want is to put your readers off by characters that are flat and boring. I want characters that feel realistic and put people on edge when they’re in danger, make them cry when they’ve lost a friend, or make them happy when they realise everything’s going to be okay. I recently worked on the second book in the Statera Saga by Amy Marie and it got me thinking. What is it about Nora and Darcy that make them truly loveable characters to follow? There’s nothing different about them, nothing that stands out from the background of other fantasy characters, but they draw me in so much more than usual.
The answer to this lays in their realism. They are not perfect models of heroes, they both have their flaws and their drawbacks. Nora is slightly overreactive and doesn’t trust well, and Darcy is overprotective and and finds connecting with people difficult. These are all minor, logical flaws that can be found in real human beings. It’s all well and good including major flaws, like Lord Voldemort’s inability to love or Frodo’s inability to trust his friends, but the more prominent characters have many flaws and many attributes that make up their personality. I also find that I associate with characters whose flaws are more subtle and more ingrained in their actions throughout the story. Flaws that move the plot along or create an entire subplot are the characters I find most interesting. I can pick them apart and analyse them like real people. But how do you create a character like that?
Character-driven Stories vs Plot-driven Stories
It’s not as easy as you might think, and is usually done best over the course of a series so you can really spread out their character development. The best way of showing who your characters are is to have their personalities move the plot forward or draw it back slightly. For example, Katniss’s love for her sister is the soul reason the entire Hunger Games series exists, and that instantly connected me to her and kept me hooked from the beginning. But it’s not just their personalities that already exist that matter, it’s the aspects of their personalities that grow throughout the story. Sticking to the same example, Katniss learns to trust which creates the romantic subplot between her and Peeta. She also learns to fight back and what it means to carry the hope of people on her shoulders. That emotional experience pushes her into extreme situations and keeps us constantly interested in her journey. It’s about more than simply reading an everyday character. Readers are drawn to the extreme, the weird, and the exceptional. The entire Hunger Games book series is based on the reader-character connection and engagement. It’s a great example of deep-level character development done well. But what about characters that are not the reason for developing the plot?
There are plot-driven stories out there and their character development is just as important. I find that these books don’t always have the same depth of character exploration, but they do have developed personalities that can aid the plot. Lord of The Rings is a perfect example here, because it has a good amount of character development, but is still a plot-driven story. The key difference is that the character development is more about relationships and dialogue within the plot-driven storylines, whereas character-driven ones are more about the character’s personal development and often include more thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the main character/s. There are probably exceptions to that, as there are for everything in the world of literature, but on the whole that’s the general trend I’ve seen and worked with.
This is the most key aspect to creating a depth to your character development: show them growing as a person over time. Stories tend to be about great people doing great things, because it’s rather boring to read about normal people doing normal things. We can just watch the news for that. Showing their personalities change and alter in accordance to their experiences and relationships is beautiful. You’ll begin to feel connected to them on a much more personal level, as though they’re a best friend that’s always been there. Lyra from his Dark Materials is the best example I can think of here, as her development over the three books is staggering. She goes from a dirty, misbehaved child to a life-experienced lady ready to live a fulfilling life. She goes through a world-altering journey in the process, including love, friendship, death, learning your friends are your enemies, and learning how to trust those around her. It’s an amazing book series that manages to incorporate in-depth character development, a story-driven book series, a romantic subplot, and realm jumping in just a single trilogy! If you want a good example of quality character development, check out His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, it’s my favourite book series for a reason.
Constantly ask yourself why the character is doing this. Ask what their next logical step would be. Think about how they would react to a situation like the one you’re putting them in. Really brainstorm and think about it. I often find that weaker characters come from authors who haven’t taken the time to ask those questions during the writing process. If you start doing it now, you’ll get into the habit for good.
Relationships and Dialogue
I’m going to reiterate this point because I really want to drive it home: no-one is alone! They might feel alone, and they might have had people abandon them in the past, but everyone has someone, somewhere, even if they don’t realise it. Every relationship matters, even those that are trivial and don’t last longer than a page. The best types of characters are the ones developed around other characters. Harry Potter is a good example; we see his character in comparison to others, which means we know where he’s weak and where he’s strong. We know when he’s going to need help and when he must do it alone. The strength of a character is defined by their friends, family, teachers, bosses, lovers, and their interaction with strangers. We will never know the extent of a person’s personality if we don’t understand how they interact with the rest of humanity. So for goodness sake show them interacting with the world; place them into sticky situations and watch how they get themselves out. Challenge their weaknesses! This will make readers connect to the characters, because it’s what we do in reality when connecting with people.
Never let the reader disengage from the character’s emotional torment. Great stories are ones that capture the emotion of the character and, since we’re seeing the story from their perspective, we must understand their emotion. Get us into their head. Let us see how they think. Are they cold and calculating and pushed into a scenario they’ve never dealt with before? Are they overly sensitive and forced into a brutal, world-ending battle? Now you’ve pushed them over the edge, how are they going to react to that? Are they going to break down and cry or will the pain make them stronger and bring them up?
That’s it for today folks! I know this one is shorter than the others, but that’s because it’s the most simple to understand. It comes down to creating realism within your characters and showing that to us. Stay tuned for the next in the series: Developing the Plot!