Stories are all about the main character. For some reading this, that will sound obvious, for others it might be a revelation. People, whether they realize it or not, are often reading a story for the main character, not the backdrop, no matter how cool that aspect appears.
Characters grow and change as a story progresses. They learn things. The reader is right there with them every step of the way. Making them dull is a good way to as readers to toss your book on the boring shelf and pick up another book.
Enter character development.
What is Character Development?
Character development is typically though of as the initial phase of a story. This happens between the opening line and the inciting incident.
The real-estate here is pretty sparse, so it’s important to spend as many of those words as possible with character development while setting up for that critical plot point. Both are important, but if a character isn’t compelling, it’s hard to be sucked into the story.
Character development means not only describing what the character looks like and a little about their past, but what they want and why they want it. A truly three dimensional character is going to have a personality, clear motivations, goals, dreams, hopes, fears, flaws, and more, just like a real person.
Why is Character Development Important?
More importantly, the early development should showcase, at least in part, why this character is the perfect person to lead this story.
There are so many literary examples of this. Ahab in Moby Dick was crippled by a white whale and had a fake leg made of whale ivory. Most supernatural stories involve a character with some kind of psychic skill. The character is built for the story…most of the time.
One main bullet point here: whatever the hero is going to need to overcome the final battle in the story should be baked into their character from page one. Any special skills, mannerisms, social connections, etc. This should be established early on. There should be a reason that it’s this character and not some other that is entrusted to the task that lays ahead.
How do you develop a character?
As to a play-by-play formula, I can’t give you one. But I can show you some examples of good ideas for character development and bad ideas.
The Info Dump. Don’t do this. This is where a character is introduced with telly writing that monologues their history, inclinations, appearance, and more.
I like Tom Clancy books, but I can never quite get over the way he introduces every character in the story. It’s annoying to get a bibliography of a character that might only appear in one chapter. In his defense, it’s probably the only way we would know more about some of these characters. But I don’t want to know about them. They’re minor characters.
Introducing your main character this way is generally considered unacceptable these days, unless you are writing a children’s book.
Most new authors want to write a prologue that dumps a ton of information on the reader so they can appreciate the scope of the story better. This is usually a bad idea, as it removes the possibility of opening the story with a real bang. In some cases it’s warranted, but try to avoid it unless you have a really good reason.
A Day in the Life.
Instead, show the reader your world and main character by putting the two of them together in a compelling setting at the beginning of the story.
In Viral Spark, I opened the story the same way that it was opened when it was just a short story. Robert stumbles about his morning routine (which is generally also a bit lazy) in a world where advanced technology is everywhere. His thoughts about the day tell the story of him as the machines he’s interacting with show the reader a glimpse of this future world and some of the problems it poses. The antagonist is brought into the story from the start as a glitch in the tech.
I’m not proposing to be the greatest storyteller of all time, or anything like that, but it showcases a story where this works. Another is the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where Arthur Dent stumbles around for a bit while the idea of a bulldozer laying before his front door is gradually made clear to him through the morning fog. There is some info dumping in that one as well, but as it’s a book based in encyclopedia entries, it really works.
The Backstory Opening
This is another one that’s become a sort of trope. Some event that happened a long time ago is used as the opener for a story. I won’t judge you for doing this. It’s done all the time and fairly effectively.
The problem is when it goes wrong. Again, there should be something compelling about the plot of the whole book in the opening chapter. If there isn’t, then you’re just telling a childhood story about the character.
Lots of movies open this way as well. Some do it quite well, others not so much. And of course there is a lot of grey area here.
The Flash Forward Opening
This is the opposite of starting with a backstory. Instead, the story opens quite a way in the future of the main plot, either as a reflection, or some meeting between the narrator and the main character, or something similar.
Frankenstein opens with a captain sailing in the frigid north, who encounters Victor Frankenstein and learns of his horrible tale. Braveheart opens with a boy who loses his father to the circumstances of Scotland during the time period.
Some hate this kind of opening, some love it, but I find that most are pretty indifferent. It just depends on the story you want to tell. Even a sci-fi like The Andromeda Strain can open this way, so it isn’t genre specific.
Think of this as being a replacement for a prologue. It can do the work of establishing the importance of the story rather than needing to foreshadow it. It can also give a wealth of information about the main character from another perspective.
Drop Into Action
The modern perspective on opening a story is to start right where the story starts. From a character development perspective, this is probably the toughest opening there in, most of the time.
If your character is a soldier or secret agent, then of course we can start extracting a good deal of information of them “in action.”
Yet, almost always, there is still a little time in here to introduce your character, and the way you do it must be concise.
The character should be doing something that leads directly to the initiator of the plot, while also doing it in a style that serves their habits, establishes their hopes and dreams, and perhaps showcases some of their flaws or weaknesses, all at the same time.
Sound tough? It is. Rather it can be. It all depends on the story.
As readers, we want to see your character’s true colors right from the start. We want to see their inner struggle, as well as the outer struggle. We want to get to know them. This isn’t always as hard as it seems.
Imagine the opening chapter like the first date with the person you end up marrying. We’ll assume your intent is a relationship for this example. You want to nail down the important parts of this stranger sitting across the table quickly and accurately so you can make a decision about pursuing them further or dropping them like a bad habit.
Hey, maybe the opening for your story could be the character going on a date. *wink*
Character development doesn’t have to be hard. And like anything else, elements can be added or subtracted later as needed, once you have the first draft pinned down.
But, if you really want your story to shine, then your character is on a first date with the reader of your story, and if things get boring or go south, there will be no sparks that prompt further reading.
So, find a situation that gets their best foot forward, and maybe the other foot shows up as well. Give us as much information as you can without loading up paragraphs of visual descriptions. Show us who they are, and what they are made of. And then disrupt the whole scene to drag them into an inescapable plot as fast as possible.
That, ladies and germs, is how you develop a character that will resonate.