Saturday, December 15, 2012

Birth of a Novel: Character Development

IMHO, there is no other step that will make or break a novel like character development. Skimp on it and the book doesn't hold together. Become inconsistent with it and the plot falls apart as well. I write character driven as opposed to plot driven books so this step to me is crucial.

Who are these people you're going to spend several weeks to several months writing about? How do you get to know them better? What do you do when one just won't cooperate? Oh, trust me it happens. It ALWAYS happens. But it's one of the joys of writing. In a small way, watching a character blossom is similar to watching a child take its first steps. But how to get to that point?

The first thing I do is try to envision my characters--what do they look like? How do they dress? Why do they dress that way? Granted, you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but whether we want to admit it or not, the public face one chooses to present to the world sends the world a message. So what message is my character trying to send?

Now when it comes to the hero, I'm a little limited by my genre. Apparently, no one wants to read about hot monkey love with a short balding, paunchy hero. So in general I know my hero has to be tall, in good shape, a pleasant to look at. However, I can play with how he chooses to display his obvious good looks Does he try to downplay them? Is he a peacock? Is he rugged and outdoorsy? Does he prefer a slicker, more metrosexual look?

Once I've nailed down what the hero and heroine look like, I develop their backstory. That's all the stuff that I know have happened to these folks that you may or may not ever read about in the actual novel. Also, it's usually things that have gone on in the character's past.

After the emotional baggage has been doled out, it's time to get down to the particulars: What is this characters favorite food? Drink? Movie? Music? What kind of car does he/she drive? Does he/she like their car? What kind of home does he/she have? The more details you can pin down, the more realistic this person will seem. Characters preferences and why they prefer these things go a long way to telling the reader who they are.

In PINCH OF THIS, I've sketched out Jennifer and William as my heroine and hero. They are both in their mid to late forties. Jennifer is blonde with shoulder length hair. She is thin, but not naturally so, she works hard at it. She dressed in expensive, but not flashy clothing. Her favorite drink is vodka on the rocks. She was once a much freer and more open-minded person, but the demands of motherhood and her husband's corporate image pushed her into a mold she's not all that happy about. She's restless, bored with herself and her marriage. And so on and so forth. I created the same kind of profile for William.

Now that these folks are fleshed out, it's time to put them in action. This can be the tricky part. It's important to keep the characters actions consistent with the portrait you've painted. Or if they do something out of character, you have to be able to defend these developments. Or worse, characters will out and out refuse to take the path you've proscribed for them (sounds nutty, but you writers out there know what I'm talking about). When this happens, you have to resort to what you know about them and make the adjustments as needed. The better you know your characters, the easier it is to do all of this.

Next time, I'll talk about staring down the bull and jumping into those first 2000 words.



Jacqueline said...

Of course, you cannot develop a character from thin air. You can only use your own experiences of life. Your characters will inevitably contain a bit of this and a bit of that. The striking appearance of some-one you noticed in a café, the hair style of a friend, the loneliness of a man in the street. You can't invent people because your own history clouds things - but that's good. Reality comes from observing and the challenge it to get your observations down on paper.

fiona maclean said...

I actually find this online discussion of how a book is born quite fascinating!

Cindy Jacks said...

Thanks, Jacqueline and Fiona! Sorry, I'm a bit late commenting back, I've been under the weather with bronchitis. Ugh. I'm thrilled you guys are enjoying my little musings on writing fiction!

S. J. Maylee said...

Fabulous post. I always fall in love with my characters as I'm writing their story and you nailed it with your reason why. I'm looking forward to the next post in this series. Thanks, Cindy.