At a recent event I was asked about developing characters beyond the typical Q&A worksheet. If any of you have a book recommendation or website that does an especially good job of developing character, post in the comments.
I touched on the basics of character in the post So You Think You Want To Write a Novel.1 where there are links to character development sheets. Also, I noted my way of getting to know my characters: I write short stories as backstory to pinpoint how my character has evolved as a person. This helps me discover their flaws, and how and why they act and react.
Is your storytelling driven by the kind of plot you want to tell, or the character you have in mind? The difference is, are you an external storyteller coming at it from how outside influences act upon the characters, ie, what if an earthquake strikes at the crucial moment of a brain surgery? Or, are you inclined to relate the internal aspects of stories ie, what if a mother suffers brain damage during brain surgery and does not recognize her children? See, NY Book Editors on plot versus character driven.
Either way, your story will have both internal and external aspects, but how you approach the telling of it gives you a point of reference for the genre you are writing in.
I tend to tell stories with an internal approach, character driven stories. If you’ve read my previous posts you might recognize this as being one of the three internal genres: Worldview, Status, or Morality. Whereas, an external storyteller falls more in the external genres, such as Western, Love, Thriller, Horror, Action.
Storygrid address the issue of “plot driven” versus “character driven”
“The truth though is that it just doesn’t matter what kind of “What if?” you dream of exploring. The best “plot driven” Stories have compelling protagonists who chase subconscious internal objects of desire while they are also trying to get the President of the United States out of the U.N. before the tidal wave hits. And “character driven” Stories also require compelling quests for conscious external objects of desire, remission from cancer for example, while the lead character struggles with deep subconscious internal objects of desire like the need to attain some kind of meaningfulness before death.”
Let’s assume you have a story premise and that you’ve done a basic profile of your main characters. Knowing your genre gives you the conventions and obligatory scenes that accompany it. Using that criteria, you can delve into how your character needs to meet them, and what potential flaws or nuances in character can be used to drive the story.
Every story evolves around the change a character goes through from beginning to end, even if it is a plot driven story. It is a character’s flaws that readers connect to, and why they become invested in reading your story. That human connection draws them in.
Your character must have something to over come personally, an internal need to satisfy, in striving to be whole and happy. Whether they succeed or not, they have to struggled along the way in an attempt to get there. The obstacles and conflicts they encounter along the way are what they act against, it is how they handle them that shows us who they are.
If you are beginning a new story, look closely at your character’s beginning mindset, and where you would like them to end up, that difference is their arc. What flaws can you give them that will create the biggest, most interesting transformation in keeping with your genre’s expectations?
I believe that is how you develop characters that your readers will respond to, be invested in, and want to share with others. And ultimately, that is what makes a good a story. No character sheet or standardized questionnaire will flesh out a character for you.
For more on Character Development…
Libby Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants
John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story
On Reddit there’s an interesting post, Books With The Best Character Development