Gloria Gawron asked me to write a post on character development, and it's about bloody time I did. The last time I wrote about that was in 2013, on non-perfect characters versus perfect stereotypes, and on how pink tutus rule (don't ask why). Well then, I present to you my newly minted wisdom (hey, it's been 3 years, and I learned a shitload since then, so shush, I'm terribly wise).
The only thing you need to accomplish in your book is to make your characters come across as real people. Sounds easy, right? Then why is it so hard to do? Because we tend to forget that there are layers to our humanity. It's easy to write the first thing that comes to mind without trying to put yourself into your character's shoes. And even if we think we do that, we simply don't know them well enough to have them come across as people made of flesh and blood, people with personal histories, fears, beliefs, behavior quirks, and so on. Keeping that in mind, you can relax and accept the fact that your first draft characters will be flat. That's where the rewrites come in.
There is, however, a technique I use when writing my characters that lets me get them as close to what I want them to be in the finished book as possible.
Think of your characters as onions. They have layers to peel, and peeling them will make you cry. But your tears will be paid off. The longer you'll work on a character, the more layers you'll be able to create/discover. Think real people. When you meet someone for the first time, you don't immediately find out all their secrets, do you? It takes time.
I use four "onion" layers as my character development structure, writing them out before I start writing the first draft.
1ST LAYER: LOOK
This is easy. Appearance is the first thing we notice in a person: their face, hair, body, special features/oddities. Beginning writers tend to focus on appearances too much, describing them at length, when a sentence or two will suffice. This is the physical appearance, then there is another appearance, certain surface behaviors or character traits that you notice right away—the way they walk, chew, cough, speak in a high agitated voice or a low drawl, wink, stare, etc. These are tricky things. Though they are apparent to anyone, they stem from the second layer—the layer underneath. And this layer will take more work than the first one (in other words, more time to think about and more rewrites).
2ND LAYER: EMOTION
Once you peel off the appearance, you glimpse the inner world of your characters, their emotions. What emotion makes them dress the way they dress? Walk with a fake limp? Truncate words? What emotion makes them interrupt everyone who tries to have a conversation with them? Or be excessively quiet? You can guess it at first (pride, self-pity, anger, fear), but later on, once you start writing, you should be able to tell specific reasons behind these emotions. Why do your characters feel them? Where do those feelings come from? If you won't know it, the reader will sense it and won't believe you. Hence, your book will be set aside. So, how do you find out? Peel off another layer.
3RD LAYER: ACTION
Depending on your writing method, you can either throw your characters into an action scene to see how they react (if you're a pantser) or dig deeper for the character's personality traits that will be revealed under pressure (if you're a plotter). What will they do when faced with a death threat? When witnessing a child being a abducted? A dog kicked? A house set on fire? An alien ship spew green ugly specimen in their backyard? A gun pressed to their temple? This layer is the core of your character, the true stuff they're made of, the stuff they hide in the routine of the everyday life under the first layer (look) and the second layer (emotion). This is what your character do when the ground is kicked out from under their feet. The next question you have to answer is, why do they do these things under pressure? What drives their true selves?
4TH LAYER: HISTORY
Here we come to the history, or backstory. It's the backstory that drives choices made under pressure: the inner demons, the conflicts, the worldview and goals and motivations. Again, if you're a pantser, the backstory won't come to you right away. It will take you several drafts to develop it. If you're a plotter, you've got to write the history of every character. When and where were they born, to what parents, how did they grow up, where did they go to school, who was their first love, and so on. How detailed you want to be is up to you. Some writers write very long documents, some only jot down the highlights. Whatever you do, avoid the danger of getting stuck in writing histories and never getting to the actual novel writing. The only way to know when to stop is to practice: find what works for you.
STRENGTHS AND FLAWS
There is another thing I do, added to the four layers above. I assign each character strengths and flaws. No character should be just good or just bad. That's the recipe for them being flat and forgettable. Every villain has an admirable strength or two, and every hero has a flaw, often a whole lot of them. The general rule I use is this: the more flawed the character, the better. We read because we want to play the game of order. Life is chaos. Chaos is tiring. Books give us life repackaged in stories that have order and predictable patterns. It's a relief from our daily battles with chaos. And so because we're imperfect and sometimes have no idea how to keep on living, the best characters are imperfect too—they show us how monsters can be conquered by some regular schmuck without the first clue in the world on how to fight or hold a sword or use magic or swear at said monster with gusto. Think Superman. Who is he in his ordinary life? A shy bespectacled clerk. Think Lisbeth Salander. Who is she in her ordinary world? An anti-social hacker prone to violence. Harry Potter? An unassuming gullible boy. Anna Karenina? An indecisive paranoid lover. I can go on forever. The point is, we love these characters precisely for their misgivings because we recognize in them our own weaknesses and see that we can still win, despite all odds.
If you make your characters just plain strong, we won't root for them unless you show us the other side of the coin. Then we will know they're human. Then we will fear for them. Then we will laugh and cry and believe that your characters are blood and flesh and bones.
More than anything, make sure you live with your characters long enough so that YOU start believing they're real. Because if you believe it, the reader will believe it too. If you don't, the reader won't either. The best thing you can do is trust your gut and write and read every day. No matter what I tell you here, you'll develop your own method that works for you. But if the onion analogy works, please steal it. Draw it on a piece of paper and stick it on the wall over your computer. That's what I do. When I find a trick that works for me, I copy it, post it over my laptop and glance at it while writing. It gives me assurance until I forget to glance at it because I feel I have found something that works for me.
Good luck! And happy nightmares. Yes, you will have them. Because if you develop your characters well enough, they'll come to you to say hi. I tell you, it's freaky. Happened to me several times, and every time I woke up there was an unborn scream stuffed in my mouth, frozen in fear.