Character Development

Into the Flames when it was just a creative writing assignment.

Ever since I presented my first draft of Into the Flames to my creative writing class in college, I’ve received multiple comments on how developed my characters are. And the funny thing was, everybody seemed surprised by this fact! I suppose this is because they thought that I had just made up these characters for the purpose of the class. Maybe they expected them to be stereotypes and caricatures of what was to come after I had worked on my story a bit longer. What my classmates and professor didn’t know was that I had already written (and finished, no less!) Born to Fly, which stars the secondary characters of Into the Flames. Rahab’s conception wasn’t long after I first started working on Born to Fly in 2004.

Before I first penned the very first sentence of my novel, Rahab had been alive on paper and in my mind for many years. By the time I had typed up “Rahab was almost sixteen years old before she convinced her parents that the best way to solve her problems was to run away from them,” Rahab’s appearance and attitude had changed drastically and many times. I wrote the first two pages of Into the Flames at least five time before I even got to one I was happy with. Each opening scene showed Rahab exerting different reactions to her situation at school. In one, she was completely nonchalant and didn’t want to go to Grover Cleveland. In another, she decided to give up swim team but continue swimming in her personal time. In yet another, she turned to her brothers, Mark and Luke, for support and comfort. In one draft her brothers were even young enough to accompany her to Grover Cleveland! And this was even before I got around to introducing her to Scout and Hawkins!

just a few of the trees that have died for Rahab's cause.

This picture shows three notebooks and multiple loose sheaves of paper. (If you’re wondering what they say, you can click to enlarge.) One notebook has Rahab and Bracken’s humble beginnings. The large binder is all of my assignments from Creative Writing (fifteen weeks of writing and editing the major scenes of Into the Flames). The five-subject notebook is my scratch pad for timelines, character ideas, maps, and plot twists. The loose sheets of paper are my character sheets, which I am constantly revising and referring back to. And after I took this picture I realized that I had forgotten to include my green notebook, which contains the entire first draft of Born to Fly!

What I’m trying to say is, creating memorable, three dimensional characters takes a lot of time and effort. When I was a teenager and my mom was intent on getting me to actually finish a novel rather than just start a million of them, she bought me How to Write the Novel Way. Since I was homeschooled, I was even allowed to call it English class and get credit for it. The book had a lot of new ideas as well as some tips that I was already familiar with, but by far the most valuable thing in that entire book was the character development worksheets. I have taken the questions, pared down the ones that aren’t relevant to me, added some of my own, and duplicated the sheet for every character in my story. I use my character sheets constantly. If I didn’t have them, I wouldn’t have forced myself to think about more obscure parts of my character’s natures, and they wouldn’t be nearly as deep as they are now.

One of my favorite questions on the sheet is one of the last: “What are your character’s hopes and dreams?” I thought at first that it was just a silly, obvious question. Aren’t their hopes always something like, “Make it to the end of the book alive” or “Have good things always happen to me”? But as I looked at the way I had answered the questions for Rahab, Scout, Hawkins, and Bracken, I realized that it revealed the essence of each person’s character. Each of them responds to their abilities in drastically different ways. And because of that, writing the four of them interacting together is So Much Fun! The dynamic it creates is awesome, and most of the time I feel more like I’m recording conversations rather than creating dialogue. But I never would have gotten this comfortable with my Fantastic Four if it weren’t for many, many hours of hard work and the sacrifice many, many dead trees.

So there you have it. It’s hard, but it’s so very worth it. Maybe you don’t need to spend years and years on your characters like I did for these, but the more time you dedicate to figuring out who these people are can only benefit you. Try to think of them not only as characters but as people. If they were your friends, how would they react to the situations you find yourself in daily? What is their outlook on life? What do they want to be when they grow up? What is the most defining moment of their childhood? After you get these kinds of questions answered, you might find that your characters are leading you through the story, rather than you trying to mash their personalities into the plot you have devised for them. It will come off sounding more natural and less contrived.

How do you flesh out your charaters’ personalitles? How do you keep them from being flat stereotypes on the page? What’s your favorite part about getting to know your characters?

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2 Responses to Character Development

  1. R. Michener says:

    Wow. You expressed so much of what successful author (and one of my favorites) Vince Flynn said in the forward of his last book with protagonist Mitch Rapp. After several novels in which Rapp develops and matures, we, the readers, have really come to know him on so many levels. Flynn then wrote his last novel as a prequel to all the previous ones, and in it, Flynn weaves a rich story of how Mitch became the Mitch we all know and love. Its almost as if Flynn’s first novels were his character sheets, and his last prequel novel the real deal. Flynn admits that it was THE most enjoyable writing experience of his life. I think, like you, he really knew his character by then, and penning the last story was more like “recording a conversation” than writing dialog. He didn’t say that, you did, but I think he would have if he had thought of it.

    • jessie says:

      That’s pretty cool, Dad. Thanks for sharing. I think I’m even now still getting to know my characters. This last draft has more depth than the previous ones, and my characters continually surprise me. But I think that’s a good thing. Characters, like people, are things that you can know who they are just with one read-through, or through just one book. I don’t recognize the name Vince Flynn from your shelves, but if you have one of his books I wouldn’t mind picking it up.

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