Today’s blog is about character development. This is one of my favorite topics. Some people can pick up an instrument, and in 30 minutes, they can play it. Others learn a new language as easy as I learn a new card game. Some authors’ strength is developing a great story or a brilliant use of the language. For me, it’s character development. I can see them, I can smell them, I can feel them and hear their thoughts. In one of my books “When I’m Gone” it wasn’t discovered until editing that I never gave the main character a name. Who writes a book and doesn’t give the main character a name? Apparently me. As the main character attempts to communicate with his grieving wife from the afterlife, he stumbles upon the ability to enter the body of Murphy, their 8-year-old family boxer. The experience is overwhelming, but the challenge to communicate with Maria proves to be more difficult than expected. When he learns that he can change into almost anything, he is torn between his transformational experiences, and being a loyal guardian to his wife. The challenge here was staying true to the character as he morphed into a dog, a dragonfly, a fish …etc. This is a love story and an Alice in Wonderland adventure. Not all the transformations worked out like he thought they would. Some were wonderful experiences, others were nightmares. Apparently, I got so involved in developing the character as an anamorphism that I forgot to name him. It was later decided that a name added nothing to the story.
In my first book, Reckless Ambition, my character was Schizophrenic. So, he had four names and four distinct personalities. That was a challenge! Then there was book number two, In Your Dreams. This character spent two months in a coma. In his deep state of unconsciousness, he dreamt up a whole new life – new friends, new clients, and a hot new girlfriend. Imagine his confusion back in “the real world.”
Character development is the heart and soul of a good story. Notice people in your life that pique your interest … or piss you off. Pay special attention to the ones that invoke emotion. Maybe it’s the co-worker that doesn’t understand boundaries. Maybe it’s the boss that always has to strut his or her superiority. Maybe it’s the guy living on the streets that knows things about the community that you haven’t a clue exist. Characters are everywhere and so are compelling stories. Talk to people and really listen. When the right story comes along, it will take over your soul. Your fingers will struggle to keep up with your mind. That’s when the magic happens for an author.
Here are some tips for developing captivating and believable characters
Watch people, notice what they do with their facial expressions, their hands, and their body language. Notice that slight head shake back and forth when someone is totally disagreeing or disgusted with everything being said. Notice the squinted eyes or the tight lips just before retaliation. Capture the folding of the arms and the nervous sniff the boss makes after he just put you in your place in front of peers.
We all know someone with a nervous twitch, a nose pinch with a thumb and a first knuckle. One eye opened wider than the other, a shoulder roll as if plagued by an injury. Wiry hair, bull legged, feminine, stocky, old, youthful, a head that seems too small or too big for a body. These descriptions help to develop your characters. Nervously pacing the room, strung out on coffee, eyes darting from one person to the next. Help the reader to visualize and relate to your character, even if they hate him or her. I steal characters from my everyday life. Sometimes I mesh two or three people to create one more interesting character. Have fun painting the picture. If you have written a story and cannot describe the character, go back and give him or her more personality. Remember to dress them: an old stained tie-dye t-shirt with a hole under the right armpit and perspiration stains under both.
Have you ever asked a woman to describe exactly what it was about her new shoes that “made” her buy them? Listen up. Explain why the character took action. “Flats, heels, boots, ballets, sandals, clogs, platforms, wedges, strappy, buckled, lace-ups, peep-toes, I love shoes, desire, and lust after them. I feel my heart race when I look at shoes I am considering buying, feel a jolt of joy when I wear them the first time. I know that I need to have shoes like I know that I need to eat and breathe.”
Close your eyes and put your character into a mental movie. Are they nervously pinching their bottom lip, contemplating what was just said? Maybe they are pushing their chin up and out with skeptical eyes implying they are not buying your story. Maybe they just found their next pair of shoes. Have fun with your cast. They must be believable. Steal these traits from everyday life. There certainly isn’t a shortage of strange and diverse characters.
I would love to hear you describe one of your characters. You should be able to initially capture him or her in 50 to 100 words, to paint the initial picture. Just like real life, you learn more about the character as you get to know them. Don’t give it all away in one long paragraph. I like to put my characters in circumstances that are out of their comfort zone. Nothing reveals emotions, and the quirks that follow, like being put into an unfamiliar or uncomfortable circumstance. Start collecting your interesting quirks today at work, at home, watching TV or at the park. Have fun creating your own personal masterpiece.