Character Development

This is originally posted to Suite101 University which has been closed and is due to be demolished soon. I wanted to keep the content I’d like to read again myself.
Character Development

By Linda Orlando
IntroductionWhen I was writing my first book, I went searching for tips and techniques from more experienced writers. I wanted my book to be the best it could be. I even joined a writer’s book club and read as many books about writing as I could. I found books on plot, dialogue, even how to write a novel in thirty days. But I found little information available in the many, many writing books on point-of-view or character development. Point-of-view was covered in several books but only in a very superficial manner, just a basic definition of point-of-view and a hard-and-fast rule on which was best. Most of the books I found about character development were generally written from the perspective of character traits or personality. I even found a book that was set up like a thesaurus. It included descriptive terms for physical features, clothing and accessories.

While this type of information may be helpful once you have begun to develop your characters, it does little for you as you begin the process! I did not find ONE book that walked the novice writer through the process of determining the best point-of-view for the story or developing interesting, well-rounded, believable characters.

These two elements: point-of-view and character development are very important to the success of your story or novel! Point-of-view means the viewpoint character, the person who is telling your story. Is your main character telling your story? Is there a narrator who knows and sees everything? Options for point-of-view include: first-person single view, first-person multiple views, third-person single view, third-person multiple views, and omniscient point-of-view — and there are few stories that can be successfully told from all possible points-of-view.

In this course, we will explore these options, examine text written from each point-of-view, even experiment in writing the same passage using several different points-of-view! By the time you finish these exercises, you will be able to identify the point-of-view most effective for the story you want to tell. But you will also learn about the various character options available to you.

So, we will then proceed to character development! Compelling characters bring your story to life for the reader. If your characters are not likeable, do not keep your readers’ attention, they will not finish your story.

In order for your characters to be compelling enough to drive your story, you must know your characters intimately. This means not just knowing their physical description, but their likes / dislikes, past, present, and dreams for the future. Your characters must be human (even if you are writing about aliens from another world), and they must be believable.

Resist the urge to use cliche or stereotypical characters. This might work alright for minor secondary characters, but your main characters need to be real to your readers — complete with weaknesses and faults that cause them to fail (so the reader can identify with them).

In taking this course, your main — and lifelike — characters will be created, your protagonist (hero) and antagonist (villain)! We will develop them into believable characters, each with a life of his / her own. We will also use forms and worksheets to help you develop compelling characters. And, we’ll explore perfect names for your characters based on time period, ethnic origin, occupation, and physical description.

When you have finished this course, you will have characters ready for inclusion in a story. You will be ready to move on to the next step of plot development.

Lesson 1: Point of View

At the end of this lesson, you should be familiar with the options for point-of-view of your story, as well as be able to identify first-person, third-person, and omniscient point-of-view. The practice exercises at the end of this lesson will allow you to practice identifying, then using point-of-view. You should be able to use the information presented in order to determine which option is best for the story you want to tell.

So Many Points of View

 

Every story is told through a viewpoint character. The viewpoint may be first-person, third-person, or omniscient point-of-view. These viewpoints are defined as follows:

First-person: These are the “I” stories. Stories told from this point-of-view are limited to what the one character (normally the protagonist) senses, either through sight, touch, hearing, smell, or taste. Your character cannot be seen through someone else’s eyes, and the reader is not privy to the thoughts of other characters.

This point-of-view is not used very often and is not usually seen in mainstream or genre fiction. However, it may occasionally be used in young adult fiction, as well as in “confession” stories, and in the real-life stories published in women’s magazines.

This technique may also be used when a story or sequence of events are being seen from several first-person points-of-view. This is accomplished by either by breaking the story into sections, each told by a different character, or by having each chapter reflect a different character’s perception and description of events.

Third-person, single point-of-view: These are the “he”, “she”, “they” stories. From the single point-of-view, they are much like the first-person stories. This technique is particularly acceptable in the romance and mystery genres, since it allows for the building of suspense. The reader can only know as much as the protagonist knows. The reader does not have access to all of the clues, or the thoughts of the romantic hero. This is the most common point-of-view in use today. In romance stories, generally only the heroine’s point-of-view is used. In mysteries, often only the protagonist’s thoughts and actions are revealed to the reader.

Third-person, multiple points-of-view: These are also “he”, “she”, “they” stories. However, the multiple viewpoints add depth to the story. In a romance, the reader can see the thoughts and know the motives of both the hero and the heroine. In a mystery novel, the reader can know things that the protagonist may not know. This allows the reader to think ahead of the hero and root for him.

The key to the third-person, multiple point-of-view, is to make it clear who is speaking, or whose thoughts are being revealed. Using clear section or chapter breaks makes this point-of-view easier to manage.

Omniscient point-of-view: The reader can experience the story from many different perspectives. However, as with third-person, multiple points-of-view, it is important for the reader to know who is speaking, or whose thoughts are being revealed. Chapter breaks would be the preferred method of making the viewpoint character clear to the reader.

Keep in mind that points-of-view other than the first-person and the third-person, single point-of-view take practice to master. The exercises that follow will help you develop these viewpoint techniques.

Lesson 1: Point of View

Practice: Reading Passages and Identifying Point of View

 

YOUR TURN

Exercise 1

Now, read the following passages and determine whether each is first-person, third-person, or omniscient point-of-view.

1. I knew something was wrong before I even went into the house. My uncle’s truck was parked in the driveway. He never left work this early. The front door was already open. My mother was in the kitchen, sitting at the table with my uncle. Neither of them looked up. Neither of them spoke. ________________________

2. Carolyn looked across the room at Mike. He was so handsome, so perfect. She wished she had the courage to approach him. But someone like him would never be interested in someone like her. ________________________

3. “I don’t know what you expect from me?” Eileen shrieked at her mother. Her mother was always getting on her case over nothing. “You don’t know what I expect?” her mother yelled back. How could Eileen stand there looking so misunderstood. She knew it was wrong to leave her younger brother and sister home alone. But she had done it anyway. ________________________

For more examples of the various points of view, I would recommend the following books:

First person, single point-of-view:

Levitin, Sonia. Yesterday’s Child. Aladdin Paperbacks:NY, NY. 1997

First person, multiple point-of-view:

Tamar, Erika. Fair Game. Harcourt: NY,NY. 1993.

Third-person:

Orlando, Linda. Guesthouse. Awe-Struck.net: 2000.

Lesson 1: Point of View

Practice: Writing Passages from Different Points of iew

 

Exercise 2:

Read the following details. Use the scenario given to write a short paragraph from 1. first-person, 2. third-person, and 3. omniscient point-of-view.

 

Scenario 1: James, age 22, has just had a car accident on his way home from work. No one was injured, but his mother’s car was totalled. He arrives home to tell his mother what happened.

Scenario 2: Kathi has just encountered her high school boyfriend at their ten-year reunion.

Scenario 3: Tom is making a presentation in front of his boss and his rival, who also wants the promotion Tom is hoping for.

Lesson 2: Character Development: Do you know your main character?

After reading the material in this lesson and completing the Character Profile Form (physical description and background and personality), you will know who your main character is, understand why he or she behaves the way he/she does, and how he/she will react in any given situation. This will make it much easier to write your character’s story. If you are having trouble figuring out your character’s personality and behavior, The Writer’s Guide to Character Traits, published by Writer’s Digest Books, will help get you moving in the right direction.

Creating Compelling Characters

 

Compelling characters bring your story to life and involve your readers. Your readers must care about your characters, or they will not care about finishing your story. Regardless of the kind of story you are telling, your main character must be someone your reader can root for, someone they can identify with. That doesn’t mean your character must be perfect. Your character must be believable, must be human to your readers. That means your character must struggle, must try and occasionally fail, must have flaws.

How do you create believable characters that will keep your readers intrigued until the end of the story?

1. Name your characters carefully.

2. Create vivid descriptions of your characters, making them as human and believable as possible.

3. Know your character’s background, know why he/she would act/react in a certain way

4. Reveal your characters through narrative, dialogue, introspection, and plot action.

Lesson 2: Character Development: Do you know your main character?

Character Profile Form (Physical Description)

 

YOUR TURN

The most important person in your story is your main character. In order for your main character to be believable to your readers, he or she must be real to you. You must know all there is to know about your main character, know how he or she will react, but more importantly know why he or she will react in that way. You must spend some time thinking about who your character is, where he or she came from, and what he or she believes in. The best way to do this is to complete a Character Profile Form.

 

NAME __________________________SEX_________

BIRTHDATE____________________AGE__________

HAIR_______________________EYES_____________

HAIRSTYLE:__________________________________

FACE SHAPE:_________________________________

SCARS/BIRTHMARKS?___________________________

HEIGHT____________ WEIGHT____________

BODY SHAPE:___________________________

IN GOOD PHYSICAL SHAPE: ______________

EXERCISES REGULARLY:__________________

ADJECTIVES DESCRIBING PHYSICAL APPEARANCE:

__________________________________________

__________________________________________

NOTE: IF YOU ARE A VERY “VISUAL” PERSON, YOU MIGHT TRY GOING THROUGH MAGAZINES OR CATALOGS IN ORDER TO FIND THE PERFECT CHARACTER, THEN USE THIS FORM TO PUT THE PICTURE INTO WORDS.

Lesson 2: Character Development: Do you know your main character?

Character Profile Form (Background and Personality)

 

MARITAL/FAMILY INFORMATION:

MARRIED/DIVORCED/SINGLE/WIDOWED/ENGAGED

INFO ABOUT SPOUSE/SIGNIFICANT OTHER:

 

CHILDREN: YES/NO

IF YES, NAMES/AGES__________________________

______________________________________________

PARENTS_____________________________________

BROTHERS/SISTERS___________________________

LIKES AND DISLIKES:

FAVORITE COLOR?____________________________

FAVORITE SONG?_____________________________

FAVORITE FOOD?_____________________________

ALLERGIES?__________________________________

FAVORITE MOVIE?____________________________

FAVORITE TV SHOW?__________________________

FAVORITE BOOK?______________________________

PETS?_________________________________________

FONDEST MEMORY____________________________

_______________________________________________

LIKES_________________________________________

DISLIKES______________________________________

 

EDUCATION:

HIGH SCHOOL________________________________

COLLEGE_____________________________________

FAVORITE SUBJECT___________________________

FAVORITE TEACHER___________________________

BEST FRIEND__________________________________

EXTRACURRICULAR ACTIVITIES?_______________

EMPLOYMENT:

DOES YOUR CHARACTER HAVE A JOB? YES/NO

IF YES, OCCUPATION:________________________

DOES HE/SHE LIKE THE JOB___________________

WHAT WOULD SHE/HE LIKE TO BE DOING:______

______________________________________________

 

FEARS?_______________________________________

HOPES/DREAMS_______________________________

______________________________________________

GREATEST CHALLENGE________________________

_______________________________________________

 

PERSONALITY:

CIRCLE THOSE THAT APPLY, THEN ADD YOUR OWN:

AMBITIOUS, COLD, COMPASSIONATE,

CONSIDERATE, FRIENDLY, FUNNY, HAPPY, KIND,

LAZY, LOUD, MISCHIEVOUS, MYSTERIOUS, OUTGOING,

OUTSPOKEN, PLAIN, POLITE, QUIET, RUDE, SELFISH,

SEXY, SHY, SWEET, TIMID, WILD, WORRIED

WHEN YOU HAVE FINISHED THIS SECTION, YOU SHOULD HAVE A GOOD IDEA OF WHO YOUR MAIN CHARACTER IS (YOUR PROTAGONIST). YOU CAN USE THIS SAME FORM TO DEVELOP YOUR HERO’S NEMESIS (YOUR ANTAGONIST). COMPLETE YOUR CHARACTER’S PROFILE BEFORE MOVING ON TO THE NEXT LESSON. YOU WILL NEED TO KNOW SOME BASIC INFORMATION ABOUT YOUR MAIN CHARACTER BEFORE YOU CAN COMPLETE LESSON 4.

Lesson 3: Character Development: What’s in a Name?

Your character’s name is your reader’s first introduction to him or her. The perfect name gives the reader information on time period, ethnic origin, occupation, and physical characteristics. After completing this lesson, you will have the information you need to find the perfect name for your character. For character naming ideas, refer to The Writer’s Digest Sourcebook Building Believable Characters. This book includes a section devoted entirely to names of different ethnic origin.

Does the Name Fit Your Character?

 

Your character’s name is the first introduction the reader usually has to him or her. The name should identify your character, should create an image in the reader’s mind. There should be no confusion as to the character’s sex. The name should be appropriate to your story’s time period and locale. For example, your readers probably wouldn’t expect to find an “Amber” or “Kyra” in Victorian England or Colonial America, or “Rachel” or “Sarah” waitressing in a southern diner. Stereotypes, whether accurate or not, tend to be widely held in society. Take this into consideration when naming your characters.

Some questions to ask yourself about your character’s name are: Does the name you have selected tell the reader anything about the character’s background or personality? Does the name you have chosen for your hero or heroine present a positive, attractive image? Does your character’s name have an ethnic connotation? The name and ethnic origin wouldn’t connect, if your Latino female character’s name was “Inga” or “Gretchen”. Neither would your character seem believable or “in-character” is your Swedish ski instructor was named “Bertha” or “Harvey”.

Where can you find the perfect name for your character?

You can find the perfect name for your character in the same place expectant parents find the perfect name for their new baby: a book of baby names. These books have thousands of names, along with the meaning of each. Exercise the same care that parents use when naming their baby. Think about how the first and last names sound together.

Lesson 3: Character Development: What’s in a Name?

Character Naming Tips

 

TIPS FROM EXPERIENCE

Do not name your characters with names starting with the same letter or sound. For example, naming your three male characters Donald, David and Dannie would only confuse your readers. The characters’ names should make them stand out, define them as individuals for your readers. Likewise, Sally, Susie, and Sandy are not good choices for your three female characters.

 

Rhyming names are also not a good idea. Think about Rick and Vic, Ted and Fred, Kyle and Lyle, or Sammy and Tammy. These names, and others like them, could easily confuse your readers, making it difficult to remember who did what.

Do not name your characters with names ending in “s”. It is very awkward to use the plural of “Chris” or “James”. I have also found it somewhat awkward to use the plural of names ending in “s-e”, i.e, Jesse’s, Casey’s, Susie’s.

If you are having a hard time visualizing your character, try clipping photos from a magazine or catalog. Use these photos as skeletons for your characters.

tice Character-Naming

 

YOUR TURN

 

Read the following character descriptions and time period, then select an appropriate name for the character:

Character description/time period:

1. manual laborer in the early 1900’s

2. young professional woman in the 1990’s

3. wealthy socialite in the 1980’s

4. professional man in the 1950’s

5. exotic dancer(female) in the 1970’s

6. young, urban housewife in the 1950’s

Lesson 4: Character Development: SHOWING not TELLING

Once you have completed this lesson, you will know how to reveal your characters to your readers through narrative description, dialogue, introspection, and plot action. You will practice SHOWING not TELLING your reader about your character in the final exercise of this course. For tips on creating compelling characters, on SHOWING rather than TELLING, from six different published writers, read the first section of The Writer’s Digest Sourcebook for Building Believable Characters.

Using Narrative Description

 

There are many ways to let your reader get to know your character. The most obvious way would be to provide some narrative description. Keep in mind however, that this method should be used sparingly. Narrative description slows the progression of your story, and if used excessively, your readers may lose interest. When using narrative description, try to do it in combination with some action, no matter how small. An example of narrative description would be:

 

His dark hair fell forward into his handsome face. His puppy-dog eyes peeked from beneath the strands of chestnut. He leaned against the door, staring down the hall… waiting for the sound of her footsteps, like a four-footed best friend.

Lesson 4: Character Development: SHOWING not TELLING

Dialogue and Introspection

 

Another method of revealing your character is through dialogue. Dialogue can reveal how your characters think, act, and relate to others, as well as their use of language and manner of speaking. An example of using dialogue would be as follows:

 

“I don’t care!” Melissa screeched. “I don’t have to do what you say! This is a free country!” she added, as she stormed up the stairs and slammed the door.

 

Character traits and personality can also be revealed by introspection(the character’s unspoken thoughts).

 

 

It didn’t matter what my mother said. I was going to go to the party, anyway. All my friends were going to be there, and they would think I was a geek if I didn’t show up. I was just beginning to fit in with the cool crowd, and I wasn’t going to let her ruin it.

Lesson 4: Character Development: SHOWING not TELLING

Plot Action

 

The final method of revealing your character to your reader is through plot action. This is where your character’s behavior reveals something about his or her attitude, personality or background. Remember: It is very important that your characters remain “in-character”. Their actions should be in keeping with the personality that you have developed for them. If your characters do something that is totally “out of character”, it is very important that you explain or demonstrate the reason why they did so.

 

Sharon paced back and forth. Finally she opened the door and almost ran to her car. Though she wasn’t certain exactly where she was going, she knew she had to find Trey.

 

YOUR TURN

 

Use the character(s) you developed in the previous lessons. Write a paragraph using each of the following methods: (1) narrative description, (2) dialogue, (3) introspection, and (4) plot action. Refer back to yourCharacter Profile Form as necessary.

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