Today’s topic of interest is character outlining and development. Let’s dive in!
Plot is crucial to good novels, but truly great works aren’t just plot-driven, they’re character-driven. The key to a phenomenal story is richly developed and flawed characters with depth.
To create characters that evoke strong reader reactions, you must have a strong foundation for not just your protagonist, but for your entire cast of characters, even those that provide supporting roles and “background noise.” While you certainly shouldn’t info dump every piece of information you build your characters up with (using too much information and background on minor characters, for example, leads the reader to believe supporting characters are more important to the story than they really are and creates imbalance), you as the writer will intrinsically write deeper characters having a full, rounded view of their lives and pasts.
Before beginning your story, you should have a complete understanding of the following elements for each cast member:
Every character must have a weakness. Stories are about change, and change can’t occur unless there are characteristics that are flawed. Flaws facilitate, or stunt, growth, and that struggle not only makes the reader feel invested in your protagonist, antagonist and supporting characters and their journeys, but makes the story feel realistic.
Flaws in your main character can be presented as either psychological (those that hurt your protagonist) or moral (those that cause your protagonist to hurt others), or as a combination of the two. And while superficial flaws add depth (clumsiness, a bum leg, etc.), a deeper flaw should be present to move the story along and should ultimately be present in all of your characters, because they all believe they’re the protagonist of the story, anyway.
Every character should exist because they want something. That desire propels the story along, and fighting the obstacles along the way creates conflict. And because the entire cast thinks they are the hero of your story, every character has a goal. For some, that may be to protect a friend, or go on an adventure, or to eliminate a perceived foe that threatens their livelihood or beliefs.
When your characters stop having goals, they’re dead weight and their story is over.
Wants in your story should be, to your characters, the “thing that attaining their goal will fix”. However, just like in Disney’s remake of the Frog Prince, nine times out of ten your character will be dead wrong about that. Because they’re chasing their wants to fill the void in their lives, attaining their goals only leads to the realization that what they want is not, actually, what they need.
Tying it all together, the characters have interior weaknesses causing them to need healing. By chasing their wants and achieving goals that only provide a Band-Aid to the void, they discover that what they truly need is deeper, and that the only way to fully heal is to change by confronting the truth and fixing the psychological or moral issue within themselves (which should also coincide with them confronting and “winning” an external plot element). Typically, this means confronting a deep-seated fear or past, or dealing with the very thing they hate and try to avoid.
Disney’s Tiana wants to buy the restaurant. She needs to allow herself to slow down and love and be loved. This realization helps her confront her past and her current situation (characterization), and become her “true self”, and she then becomes a changed person.
A fantastic story is one that shows these moving parts in every character to varying degrees.
“And they all knew what they wanted,
What they wanted me to do,
I told ’em what they needed,
Just like I be telling you.”
-Mama Odie, The Frog Prince
Creating a character chart:
Because each character will differ from the rest in appearance, past, personality, attitude and traits, its useful to create a character chart for each. Again, not all of this information will be revealed to the reader, but it is useful to develop a good understanding of your characters that will inevitably bleed into your writing.
Useful information includes name, age, appearance (hair/eye color, skin tone, race, height, weight, build, distinguishing physical features), family information (members, relationship status and standing), childhood, fears, motivations, background information, financial status, attitude, talents, flaws, and favorite/least favorite preferences.
Don’t put your characters into a box. There is no “good guy” or “villain”, just like in reality there is seldom only black and white, but instead varying shades of gray. Character development is the process of uncovering your cast and creating a realistic environment for your readers. Define them by their personalities and them define the roles they play. Allow them to be more than two-dimensional, breathe life into them and your readers will want to follow their stories.
How do your characters stack up? What’s an area of character development you need to work on to get the most out of your stories? Comment and let us know!