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Effective Character Development

We don’t need to know about every ice cream cone they ate as a child or every heartbreak they experienced as an adolescent, but we do need to be able to connect and engage with the characters in a book we are reading. In this post, I will provide you with some ideas on how to develop rich and relatable characters.

For the most part, plot-driven books have become a thing of the past. Most readers and publishers are now looking for character-driven stories that still have a solid plot behind them. To illustrate the difference between the two, consider the old Twilight Zone episodes; although we were introduced to different characters, the show itself was very plot-driven with new concepts highlighted in each episode. Conversely, a soap opera is very character-driven; we care less about the underlying plot than we do about what is going to happen to Luke or Laura (yes, that reference dates me, but you get the point).

In order to write a good, well-rounded character, you, as the author, must metaphorically walk in their shoes. You have to imagine what it must feel like for them to go through the situations you present and credibly convey those feelings to the reader. If you tell a great story with bland and unrelatable characters, very few people will read it.

So, how do you create rich and relatable characters? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Establish a backstory.

Again, you don’t want to give every boring detail of their lives here, but you do want your reader to get to know them and to understand where they are coming from. Use details that are going to directly contribute to your story. For example, if we know a woman was abused by a man in her youth, we won’t be surprised when she strikes out a man who becomes a little too free with his hands later in the book. Keep it simple, but make it relevant – birthplace, lifestyle, major moments, or influences.

2. Be honest.

If you’re trying to paint a character as all good or all evil, you’re destined to fail. There is good and evil in all of us; show that conflict in your characters. Keep them both honest to reality and to their own personalities and experiences. To use the same example from above, it wouldn’t be believable to turn the abused woman into a serial rapist later in the novel. That said, there’s no reason you shouldn’t highlight some of her flaws to illustrate the good and evil in us all. Perhaps at some point, she kills an innocent man that she saw as being an aggressor.

3. Be descriptive but not pedantic.

It is okay to mention minor details here and there, but don’t go overboard. Good: “She had hunter green eyes that reminded him of the forest on a sunny day.” Bad: “She had bright green eyes surrounded by glossy white sclera behind the wrinkled eyelids that come with age.”

4. Stay consistent!

If he’s a black man, then he is a black man throughout. If she is an Asian woman, then she stays an Asian woman. Without a written reason for the change, this applies to even the smallest of details – hair and eye color, weight and height, birthplace, age, etc. I wrote an entire blog on this subject (consistency), so check it out if you want further detail.

5. Give us a reason to care.

It’s not that you are just trying to get your readers to relate to and care about your characters, you need to give them a reason to care. What role do they play in your book? Have you developed them in a way that supports that role? If you have, then the reader will empathize when they face adversity or achieve victory.

Below I’ll include links to a few good sources that will help you better understand how to develop realistic and engaging characters.

As always, thanks for reading and see you soon…

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