As a school counselor, I talk a lot about character. Respect, empathy, and citizenship are just a few traits I try to instill upon my students. However, as we all know as writers, character development is crucial when writing a story. If your characters are flat, then readers aren't going to want to follow their journeys.
Both Quita and I try our best to add layers to our characters, yet we also have room for growth. That's why I sat in on the Character 101 panel at the James River Writers Conference. Speakers included: Michelle Young-Stone (author, The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors), Clifford Garstang (author, In an Uncharted Country), and Paul Whitlatch (assistant editor at Scribner, a Simon & Schuster imprint). Here are some highlights:
How Much Character Development is Needed Before the Story?
Ms. Young-Stone actually kept blogs for her two main characters in The Handbook... However, this book began as the female protagonist's story, and the male voice came in around page 70. She was mad at him at first, but then realized that his story had to be told, too. Sometimes it's helpful to start a story first, and then go back and create character profiles for each lead (and sometimes supporting characters, too).
What Strikes Editors about Characters?
Mr. Whitlatch believes in literary fiction, the more explosive the character, the better. However, in commercial fiction, editors will respond better to characters that remind them of ones in successful novels. He also notes that over-characterization can be detrimental and can pull away from the plot.
Mr. Garstang loves bad characters because he feels no one is perfect. Readers want to see these characters learn from their flaws. Writers should try to give bad characters some kind of redeeming quality, even if it's something really minor (i.e., maybe villain has a soft spot for cats).
How to Write Characters Without Stereotypes?
Mr. Garstang likes to "pump up"stereotypes in the first draft and then scale them back on revisions. He really enjoys writing about characters completely different from him (such as the POVs of a middle-aged Black woman, or a gay teenager) because he feels that he shares similar emotions with these characters.
What are Common Mistakes in Characterization?
Mr. Whitatch has seen writers become so fixated on lead characters that it pulls away from the story. He advises writers to include smaller characters and details to create a whole world. On the flip side, in historical fiction, writers are so focused on the history that they never develop characters.
Mr. Garstang also edits a magazine, and sees many flat, one-dimensional characters. If you're writing about a bad mother, make her more nuanced--give her moments aside from spewing negative comments to her children. Does she have a weight problem? Is she unhappy in her marriage?
Tips for New Writers
Ms. Young-Stone advises writers to not limit themselves. Don't be afraid to show where characters come from, even if you edit this information out later. The more you know about a character's background, the more developed this character will be.
Mr. Garstang creates a file and biography for each characters. In this file, he has a list of questions such as likes and dislikes, religious and political beliefs, and turn-ons and turn-offs. He starts writing first to get to know the characters and then creates these bios.
Mr. Whitlatch notices that new writers are reluctant to let bad things happen to their characters. Breathe--it's okay! Our lives don't go the way we plan in real life, so this should be reflected in fiction, as well.
Tons of helpful info! I'm curious, how do you all develop your characters? Do you create character worksheets? Journals? Blogs even? I'd like to pick up some new ideas. :)