As we were developing this masterclass in September 2018 we had an excellent comment from a regular reader: "One of the most important issues in writing stories in this genre: character development. Too often the characters, particularly in shorter stories, neither grow nor change." This is a solid and excellent place to start.
As you read this section searching for mechanisms to create and develop your characters, keep one thing in your mind. Your key players are the ones who need to be present in three dimensions. Other players can be two dimensional. Some aren't even significant enough to be more than ciphers, transient characters created for their utility in allowing you to tell your story.
Your characters need to demonstrate that they gain life experience even if your tale is short. They need to grow as they grow in life.
As this segment develops we anticipate an increasing portfolio of ideas on how you can achieve this.
What do you know about your next door neighbor? Your best friend? Your own family?
Everything you know about the people in your life, you learned over time, by simple experience. Developing a character in a story is very much like getting to know someone new. As in real life, this process often is two-part, beginning with the quick first impression, followed by a lengthier and deeper development of the character as the story progresses.
There are details that we all observe when we meet new people, which very quickly paints a picture of what we think they might be like. We can tell a lot about them right off from the way they dress, how they speak, how they move, whether they smile or not, or seem confident or not, and how they react to meeting us. These first impressions are the base upon which we build a more complete understanding of who this person is as time passes. Sometimes we later find that our initial impression was correct; while at other times we find that we have misjudged the person entirely.
What we cannot tell by immediate observation is what is going on more deeply, within this person's mind and heart. These are the things that are revealed to us more slowly, over time, either by inference or the sharing of thoughts or circumstances as we get to know the person. Learning to know someone closely is an intimate process, and it takes more time.
Friendly people seem open and invite us in; unfriendly people are closed and hold us at arm's length. But just because someone is guarded doesn't make them a person we don't want to know, and a friendly smile can just as easily disguise a plotting heart. Everyone has a background, a life full of things that has made them who they are. Some lives hold more trauma than others, and produce barriers that can interfere with people getting to know us. Other lives can be tough, or even twisted, and produce people that smile at us while considering exactly where to thrust the knife. So in some cases, what you see is what you get, while in others, you never do quite know what lurks within. Creating characters in this way makes them interesting, as most readers enjoy figuring out the characters as the story moves along.
I am always a little bit delighted to learn that a character I took a quick dislike to actually has a good heart hidden inside, or other things going on that I like or find redeeming. Conversely, I am always a little shocked when a good guy turns out to be a bad one. Sometimes an author will telegraph that fact, and it's no surprise; but I have been caught out more than once by a really well-disguised baddie. So first impressions in a story, just as in life, are not always an accurate portrayal of what a character is about.
Some authors introduce characters and immediately offer a bio, either brief or lengthy. I can take a little bit of this, if it's offered because I need to know quickly the basis for the way a character is acting in the story. But in general, I prefer for a character to be revealed over time, just like we learn the ways of new friends we meet.
Giving too much, too soon, not only overburdens the reader with facts to remember, but destroys some of the mystery of who the character is and where he or she is going in life. Leaving new things about a character to discover as the story progresses establishes a more intimate bond that makes the character interesting and not completely predictable.
I prefer for readers to learn about how a character thinks and feels by actions and words. Conversations are great revealers of the inner workings of people, and the things you have your characters say, and even the way those things are said, can be revelatory of your character's thoughts and emotions, and strengths and weaknesses. So how a character reacts to things, what he or she says, and the things they think as the story moves along, are a much better way to get to know them than by simply stating their backgrounds outright.
People also evolve as they move through life, and story characters should, too. The experiences of our lives change the way we view things, and for a character in a story to develop, he or she needs to respond and adapt to events within the story just as a real person would respond to events in real life. Everyone has doubts, everyone has fears, everyone has strong feelings about people or ideas that push them to respond in certain ways. Showing your characters responses as they deal with their lives within the story is how the readers see them grow and change.
My general rule is that all characters that have an active part in the story deserve some level of development as people. We don't need to know the lives of the people we pass in the hallway each day at work; but if there is one we stop to talk to, or in any way interact with more personally, they deserve some bit of recognition as a character. As a person. So don't forget the small parts while focusing on the big ones.
Bad guys have as much right to a history as good guys, though sometimes it is not possible to reveal too much of why a bad guy acts like he or she does. But again, an awful lot can be conveyed in conversation and action. Evil characters are tough to love, but even they often have subtle things about them that show that they are at war with their own needs and motivations.
Giving a bad guy lots of traits that people love to hate makes them powerful; but adding in a startling thing or two that is likeable will make them more memorable. Remember that no one is uniformly good, or uniformly evil. Even the 'worst' people in history had those they loved, pets that adored them, and hobbies, appreciation for art, favorite authors, and other more positive characteristics.
Also not to be forgotten are the characters that are not strictly bad guys, but which may have relationships with the protagonist based entirely on friction. Everyone knows people that get along, but who seem not to be able to stand each other. A character that butts heads with the hero can be a lot of fun, without being a bad guy in the true villain mold. Don't be afraid to have friction between characters, without either one actually being a villain.
No one is perfect, and your characters shouldn't be perfect, either. Saving the world can be great fun, but don't be afraid to let your heroes stumble and take a fall here and there while they're doing it. A character with no flaws or weaknesses is not very fun to read about.
Just like people, your characters should be unique. The more special little ways of thinking, acting, or responding to others you give to them, the more memorable they become. I tend to base many, if not most, of my characters on people I know now or knew in the past. That gives them consistency, because I generally know how my friends and family will react to a given situation.
People can be similar in character, but no two are alike. Despite what we think sometimes that certain people or groups come across the same way, every single human on the planet is different from every single other. Treat your characters that way, and your readers will remember them.
So that's the bottom line: story characters are people. People are somewhat complex, with many factors that drive them. That's always the thing to remember as you write about them. In most cases, words and actions best convey to the reader what a character is about. I also almost always have some sort of feelings for my characters, because they are mostly based on people I know or have known. I like that, as readers sense those feelings, and respond to them.
I think the best advice I can give at the end is that if you care about the people you write about, others will, too. Sharing our hopes, our concerns, our desires and our dreams, as well as our fears, is what bonds us together as one people. Write about people, and others will want to read about them.
I hate learning about a character all in a rush. I've made the mistake of introducing some of mine that way, and I sometimes consider rewriting that part of the tale.
John is 6 foot seven inches tall, with balls the size of billiard balls and a penis like a small salami. He's the starting quarterback in the team, has a bush of black pubes, and is handsome as the day is long. Son of the mayor, John [is someone I already despise, even if he is to be our hero]
We have learned nothing about John that we like, unless we are size queens. We know some physical attributes, but we have learned nothing about him as a person, what makes him tick, what makes his salami interested, or even interesting.
In short he is not likeable.
In our story perhaps John will never be likeable, but right now he is a cipher, albeit one who has been rushed upon us. We don't care about him enough to like him, but we may be well on our way to dislike. We certainly don't identify with him.
To make most tales work we need to identify with or empathise with at least one character. And that is your job as author.
Of course you may be good enough to write a tale that entices us in with 100% hateful characters, but then you hardly need this masterclass!
What I need, and hope I create, are characters that grow on you over time, even a short time, and ones who grow with their experiences inside the story. I try to show you the world through their senses, all of them, and to show you their hopes, fears, likes, dislikes, insecurities. I try to get you to live inside their heads by using their senses.
So give me your characters gradually, Build them up. They can be ordinary or quirky, but feed them to me in bite sized chunks as your tale develops. And show me that they move forward, that they grow, as the tale, even the briefest tale, moves forwards.
And make them human, or 'real', in their outlook, even the weird SciFi ones. Even Grunk of the Arrghhh needs to have traits we recognise, even though he is a hermaphrodite lizard-like critter from the planet Azarg who copulates with his prehensile toe. Well, via it, anyway. Heck, even the Vogons in the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy had human-like traits, though awful poetry!
Paul Schroder does a great job with that in Minky's World.
In a regular universe have a look at this chapter of Nice Try!. What I'm asking you to look for is the length of time it takes to learn about Jake. His name arrives in the seventh paragraph. Those of us who know the game of Rugby Football knew he played it well before that, and we're starting to work out that he's likely to be a tough kid, physically.
We start to learn that he likes praise, but who doesn't? We also know he's ok academically. We can start to identify with him, either because we're brighter than he is, or because we're broadly the same as him, or marginally below. He's not a god, he's a boy.
And so it goes on. We learn tiny elements about Jacob's thoughts. When do we learn what he looks like? Does it matter that it's not until well into the next chapter?