"I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way."
- Stephen King, On Writing
One of my YT viewers, minnie day, recently asked me about approaches to character development. I have long wanted to comment on this subject, but I hardly know where to begin. I pondered whether to address the nuts-and-bolts side of the argument, or the side that favors the mysticism of a character's control of a narrative, but I have never really been able to perceive the distinction between the two. So I will outline the governing principles of both. It should be noted that this post is on character development, not character initiation. If you need help coming up with a character to begin with, that is a matter of researching inspiration. I will post some advice and resources on inspiration in the future.
Characters are stylized people, just as dialogue is stylized speech. So in order to understand characters, you must understand people.
In all my years of writing fiction, the most accurate statement I could make about the condition of any society is that people are complicated. We like to say that life is complicated; life is rife with conflict and non-linear experiences. But the fact is that life is actually quite simple, just as the life of any animal is simple. Maybe not pleasant, but simple.
So life is simple and people are complicated. Conflict in your story may come from within or without; these options are often described as "character-driven or plot-driven fiction." Character and plot are, in fact, equally important. But the root of conflict ultimately comes from within, that is, in characters. This comes back to the stylization thing.
If a character is a stylized person, what does it mean to stylize something? Stylizing something is simplifying it. Not by taking away what makes it rich, but by enhancing it through a process of distillation and concentration of the qualities that best represent it.
Think of someone you know and without any other details, answer the following questions:
- What does he or she want?
- What or who is he or she afraid of? Why?
- What experience have you had with them that best represents their personality?
If you think of that person only within the scope of the answers to those questions, you have stylized them. What you are thinking of is less of a person and closer to being a character.
I'm NOT suggesting that you actually stylize real people in this way to make characters. This is my way of showing how characters and people are different, so that you have a place to begin when placing characters in your story.
So alright, you're thinking, I get it-full-cognisant. But how do I develop my characters?
Now that you understand what a character is compared to a person, you can easily develop your characters based on one of my primary governing principles in any type of writing: work backwards.
Let me guess: you know you have a character because you've imagined them, or you've heard them, or you have some sense of something that they want or fear or a mistake that they've made. But all these things are answers to the questions above. What you know about your character to begin with is already distilled and stylized. It's a handful of powerful impressions that represent what is most intense about them.
Most writers will advise that in order to make a character more real, you should push them into being as detailed and complex as real people. That you should ask yourself the same questions I wrote above without any other information; even though, as I am insisting now, you already have those answers to some capacity. What ends of up happening is that inexperienced writers end up stylizing their characters into charicatures, and their early drafts become sheer melodramas. That's okay, but if you really want to develop your characters, don't try to find out what's more interesting about them than what you know; find out what's less interesting.
Everything is made more three dimensional by the parts that you don't see. You know that your character is in love, let's say, that he is bankrupt, that he made a scene in a department store because stress pushed him into a mental breakdown. If you know all those things, don't try to impose more seriousness into the mix. Giving him a dead sibling doesn't make him more real.
Level with your character. Speak to them person to person. Pay attention to the way he scratches his nose. Does he let his teeth hit the fork when he eats? You don't have to plan space for these details in your story, in fact, you shouldn't. Those details are for the moments in between moments. They are a tiny nod from the character to the reader and back. And if there is something more serious going on, your character will let you know. Because they are stylized and it is their nature to live and act as representations of their internal conflicts all the time. It's the kind of integrity that is rare in actual people. And when it is there, we know that one friend will turn to the other and say, "isn't he such a character?"
How did I figure out that Alan Cope wanted to be kidnapped? It's hardly something he knew himself, especially since Cope Syndrome has a focus on psychological discrepancies. But I figured it out because Alan went to bed wearing duct tape for near a hundred nights. Because I noticed he was frusterated by the attention paid to his brother. Because he was abused at home and perhaps too naive to know what it could mean to be taken away. I noticed those things, and in what space did I see them? It's a space that requires an abstract infrastructure to support interaction and ideas without scrutiny. An inspiration playground, if you will. But more on that later.
Fiction is trial and error. Understanding your character requires an active dialogue and trust to the quick slip of vulnerability. So write letters to your character. Interview them. Let them form your relationship to them. (Quick life tip: don't ever do that with a real person).
Now you know
- What it means to stylize something
- A character is a stylized person
- Taking a character as a stylized person up front can allow you to learn the details that make them more like people
- How to work backwards with character development
As you begin to notice things with your character, it will help to have an "abstract infrastructure" like I mentioned before. It is the cornerstone of Novelism and is based on research, experience and insight into how creative thinking works. Some of you may have started in on it already and not even realized it. I've spent a long time trying to figure out how to teach it, but I will be able to share what I've learned soon. Keep an eye out ;)
Quick shout out to Vending Machine Press , an online literary magazine that's gaining some traction. They sent me the nicest rejection I've ever received in a decade of submitting pieces.
Like a name, a character is a unified impression, an affect-as-noun, a symbol of an existing, concrete complexity. You look at meanings and pick what sounds right.