With 11 novels now published, I've learned about character development the hard way, through more re-writes than I care to dwell on and lessons learned through teaching and forcing myself to follow the rules. These are a few of the things I've learned along the way, which might help you as you work out your characters.
Do I need to know everything about a character?
Not always, not right at the start. Sometimes a character fleshes out as you write. They may surprise you as they take charge of the process and ‘write’ their story. The author may find themselves as wrong-footed as the reader when the character reveals a facet of their nature that is of their making and never part of the original plan. My character, Logan Du Rose began as a nice-looking teacher who stopped Hana making the mistake of falling for Gwynne Jeffs, the media studies teacher who was ready to offer her a steady, safe existence. He was always going to be the strong, silent type, but he revealed his history to me over the course of the first three novels. If I had kept him on the path that I had intended, the series wouldn’t have had half the flair that it does. Logan Du Rose has become the draw card. What woman wouldn’t want to throw herself at him, dark brooding Mafia boss turned English teacher, father and doting husband? It is a good idea to keep notes as you go though, because as the character develops, an astute reader will pick up when you make an error, be it a name, a place or a plot trigger. Let your characters frame their own story but keep a very tight hold on the details!
The pros and cons of planning.
Plans should be loose and flexible enough to drop if the need arises. I heard someone say a wise thing recently and I can’t remember where it came from, but it was along the lines of ‘if your story is going wrong in the middle, it’s because it already went wrong at the start.’ Plans shouldn’t be so rigid as to force characters and plot down a set track, when it isn’t working. But a decent outline can prevent needless waffle and threads that seem to go nowhere because the writer forgot about them. A series can be different though. Any one of those loose threads can be picked up in subsequent storylines and will work because the groundwork was already laid. The reader picked up a hint, which was there one minute and gone the next but in three books time they will smile smugly and think, ‘I knew that was coming.’ So beware, series and stand alone novels can proceed very differently.
If your main character has nothing going for them, the reader is going to dump the book before the plot has a chance to move forward. I read something recently where the main character was absolutely odious. I just couldn’t get on with them. It could be argued that the book was wrong for me and maybe it was. But how come I can avidly read a Jack Reacher novel from cover to cover, despite being a delicate woman in my mid-forties who knows nothing about guns, army life, strategically hitting people or how to hide a dead body? It’s because I like Jack Reacher. He grabs my interest and keeps it. I don’t need to know any of that stuff because he does. I’ve bought into the character that Childs has created and am willing to follow him wherever he goes. Buy in is not a guarantee just because you’ve created someone and like them yourself. I’ve created characters that I absolutely adore and respect and others that I just want to slap. I love Hana Du Rose but if I spend too long in Hana-world, I start to lose my grip on reality. She overthinks and second-guesses everything. Her conscience is much bigger than mine and thinking like her can wear me out. Ultimately she’s gorgeous and readers tell me that they love her and that’s great because they don’t have to live with her in their head. I do.
My father says that I have a ‘butterfly mind’ which sounds rather nice until you realise that he’s saying I flit around from subject to subject and he can’t follow me. He also accused me regularly as a child of having ‘verbal diarrhoea’ but that’s another matter. When you’re asking the reader to trust you with their time, their money and their emotions, you can’t afford to be reckless with that trust. There are some authors that I have the greatest respect for, who research to the nth degree before embarking on a project. It has to be right. Demelza Carlton writes her mermaid series, Ocean’s Gift and dives and photographs and travels and researches. Dick Francis was also one of those authors. After years of being a successful jockey, he wrote the most gripping mystery novels, often set in and around racing stables. But he also wrote about male characters who had other specialities. In one of his novels, his lead character is a painter. I’m a painter and I read his novel without flinching once. I check my medical facts with medical people, my technical facts with technical people and so on. My son is ex-army and helps me with fight scenes, a doctor advises me on Logan Du Rose’s haemophilia and in Blaming the Child when Calli runs away and hides in the bush for a week...yes I camped in the bush. I hated every damn second of it, which I’m told comes across loud and clear in the novel! I’m an archivist by trade. Nothing makes me madder than a novel in which someone discovers some artifact that is hundreds of years old and stuffs it into a cardboard tube for safe keeping. I know that when they get to the other end and pull it back out, it will disintegrate into dust. I spend my life guarding elderly photographs and documents and see right through a plot line like that. Keep it real!
Find your perfect reader and write for them.
Canadian author, Amber Dalcourt taught me this. She had me profile the reader who The Hana Du Rose Mysteries were written for. I thought it would be impossible but once I got going, it was surprisingly easy. She is female, has children and reads in snatches whilst waiting in the car or riding the bus. She is looking for an escape and madly in love with Logan, whilst at the same time relates powerfully to Hana. She feels that she is Hana sometimes, prone to bouts of depression, always putting herself last and yet has a spark of some hidden passion that will rise out of her when her loved ones are threatened. She laughs at the daft moments that Hana finds herself in because she’s been in them too and when Hana is sad, so is she. Find your perfect reader and write for your audience of one. Know how they think, what they like, what makes them angry or upset and push their buttons.
Enjoy your characters.
If you hate them, then how do you expect a reader to greet them. If they are meant to be universally loathed then that’s fine, but throw the odd twist in just to keep us on our toes. As a reader, I love to be thrown a curve ball sometimes. Soap operas thrive on such character twists. We’ve all seen them arrive on the street, that family. We hate them right from the first moment we clap eyes on them, but that’s the skill of the writers - we’re meant to! After a while, they grow on us. We find that they’re not so bad and as we share in their storylines and become involved in their lives, we discover that they have hidden talents. They can invoke compassion, humour or irritation. As a writer, we are the puppet masters who direct the moment of our creations - and the gaze of our audience. Direct like a Director. If you love your characters, make your readers love them too. Show their inner workings and take time giving the reader a chance to see what makes them tick. If you hate them, then make us hate them too. But don’t be fooled by your own creation. I’ve had many a conversation with an author about their lead character and discovered that often the ones I’ve hated most, I was actually supposed to like. It’s a missed opportunity. Look from the outside periodically and check that what you’re projecting is actually what the reader is seeing. And above all, enjoy yourself and it will come through your characters.