Post 24 Character Development – Keeping notes.
My first bit of advice about character development is simple – keep notes. Especially if you want to write a story laden with multiple characters it’s very important to strive for consistency in characterization.
I know, I know… we’ve all read and seen stories where the coward suddenly overcomes his or her fears and bravely saves the day (so much for consistency, you say), but that’s a cliché unless it’s done very carefully. Consider Han Solo in the original (1977) Star Wars movie. He’s a rogue, a scoundrel, but not a coward. Somehow you know he’s struggling with his inner demons when he decides to leave, and deep down you know he’s going to come back at the very last minute to save the day. I always think of these as the Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane moments, where a character struggles with accepting his or her fate, with doing what they deep down know they have to do. You can probably picture Solo sitting in the Millennium Falcon, arguing with himself, before veering off to rejoin the fight. But based on the character you followed through the movie, you accept that he would do the right thing (the redemption of Darth Vader, on the other hand…well, I don’t want to get into an argument with Star Wars fans). As a counterpoint consider Gollum from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Throughout his interaction with Frodo we’re watching a battle for Gollum’s soul – will it be redemption or damnation? While you may hope Gollum succeeds, you understand how much he’s been terribly damaged by the Ring and have to recognize that he’s losing the battle. If LOTR had been a tv script Gollum would probably have appeared at the Cracks of Doom as Frodo claimed the Ring for himself, taken it from Frodo and tossed it into the fire before rescuing the two hobbits. Happy ending all around! Luckily, JRRT was a much better writer than that.
So how do you avoid the cliché? Like I said at the beginning – take notes. Understand your characters. What motivates them? You should have a well developed backstory for each major character. In many cases you may never include much of this information in your book, but you should know it like the back of your hand nonetheless. (BTW this also holds for world building. You may never explain things, you may never delve into your world’s history, but you should know it as well as if you were a historian living there. China Miéville never explains the origin of the world where Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council take place, but I know he knew it, because – while I may be wrong – I think I had a sense of that origin after reading The Scar.)
This all comes down to having a profile (on your computer, or in a notebook (paper or electronic), or even a set of old fashioned index cards) for each character. List the physical attributes (height, build, hair color, eye color, complexion, etc.), a brief psychological description (confident, ill-at-ease in crowds, narcissistic, etc.) and important aspects of their life history. For major characters you might end up with a few pages of notes (or more), while for minor characters a single paragraph may suffice.
Once you’ve worked with a character for a good amount of time you’ll find yourself referring to your notes less and less because you will know them so well. But until that time notes rule!
Next time (coming eventually): Where do you get ideas for your characters?