An Internal Populace: Character Development 1

“There are a great many strange things in the world. But no matter how odd, how incredible something may be, if a human does not touch it, if a human does not see it, if a human is not involved with it, it is simply a matter that will fade with time. Humans. Mankind. Homo-sapiens. Humans are the most profoundly mysterious living things in the world!” – xxxHOLiC (by CLAMP)

Characters are quite literally the lifeblood of a novel. They are the ones who connect the reader with the story, the ones who carry the plot from the beginning to the inevitable end. Therefore a good writer creates characters who can connect with the reader, and (as Spock would say) cause them to “elicit an emotional response.” Whether you want them to succeed in their challenges, or are deeply rooting for them to be disposed of in a gruesome way, the point is that you’ve become invested in some form with that character. As Yuko says in the first volume xxxHOLiC (an awesome Japanese manga by the group CLAMP), humans are the most mysterious things of all; they are the cogs that turn the wheels of the plot – but to what end?

Characters can make or break a plot; I’m sure everyone has read a book they didn’t like because they thought the main character (or some character therein) wasn’t how they should be. That’s not to say that the writer didn’t do a good job, sometimes you just can’t understand or connect with a character because they act and think so differently from you. I myself have books I simply can’t sit down and read through because I have a hard time seeing in the character’s point of view; Lewis Carroll’s Alice leaves me wanting to bang my head against a wall. (WHY are you following a talking rabbit down a hole you might get stuck in?! You just ATE that?! Why are you TALKING to that?! etc.) Now, no one can dispute that Carroll was an amazing author (consider how popular Alice is). So that leaves me (fortunately or unfortunately) simply out of tune with Alice as a character. Once again, I’m sure everyone has felt that way at one point or another. The point is, good characters are necessary for a good story!

Most of the characters in the books we read are human. Or had once been human. Or act human-like. Even in the books that have animals as the entire cast, there is a human element about them. Why? Simple, we the readers have to connect with them in order to get into the story! And unless you the reader are not a member of the homo-sapien species (in which case, please forgive me and send me an autograph), then you are going to need a character with human traits to relate to. Even those of us who write about aliens, robots, and the like have to create human connections within them if we want them to be understood (unless the point of their presence is that they aren’t understood). If the reader can’t connect with the character at all, they won’t be likely to finish your book, and the will be even less likely to recommend it to others!

So what makes a good character? Now, there’s a can of worms. I think that really depends on the type of story being written and the sort of writer that is writing. I do feel safe in making a few general suggestions:
1. The main character should have a well-developed personality.
2. The protagonists should be developed enough to seem real in the setting, but not overwhelm the main character’s presence in the story.
3. The antagonist should also be developed, almost on par with the main character.
…Anyone see a trend?

If you’re now wondering “how do you go about developing characters?” or “why is she so into the word develop?” or “I didn’t get that at all!” Then please stay tuned for part 2 about character development!

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andy Straub-Walden
    Feb 10, 2011 @ 09:21:27

    I think the more you do anything the better you get at it, and eventually you come to understand better than you did. With me in lindy hop, I used to merely try to execute the finite number of dance moves in my repertoire until the end of the song. Eventually, I got bored with doing the same things over and over and began to look deeper into what dance and music are about. I think the same will happen with writing.
    For writing characters (or plots or stories, or character interactions), at first we write within the confines of what’s familiar to us. It’s fun for a while but eventually gets boring. That’s when we start grasping at what’s unfamiliar and unknown and reach a better understanding of what it is to be a “character” or maybe, along your trail of thought, a human.


  2. wovenstrands
    Feb 10, 2011 @ 22:16:09

    I agree, character development is what makes and breaks a story. I’m working on developing some characters of my own, and I find it easier to separate some characteristics I have, explore them to their fullest, and see what they develop into.
    I fall into the “blah” trap, where I think a character need to be more interesting, and I try to fix it by thinking of an interesting back story, that would explain why my characters has this or that type of personality.
    If you have any suggestions to avoid having a boring character I’d appreciate it 🙂
    Thanks, Hiba ❤


    • Jennifer Mandelas
      Feb 10, 2011 @ 23:53:02

      You have a good approach, so don’t second-guess yourself too much. Sometime we can feel like our characters aren’t as good as they could be, but that’s only because we’ve been with them through the whole writing process. If you really feel like they’re boring, having a friend who will give you their honest opinion read a section of your work that you feel makes your character look the worst and asking them “what do you think of this guy?” is the best alternative. I’ll be going on about characters in my blog, so I hope I’ll have something more useful to say down the road!


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