Every writer, whether published or not, has heard of the concept of character development until his ears are willing to fall off. Yes, your story has some protagonist. Yes, he looks a certain way. Yes, he’s supposed to behave a certain way. So why make all that fuss about something that’s so obvious?
The fuss stems from the very often seen lack of depth in character development. The characters of your book, like the real people in your life, live in a world that cannot be looked at in black and white. They all live in a world coloured with various shades of grey. Like reality, their reactions to situations, their manner of speaking and every little aspect of their behaviour is a result of the circumstances around them and more importantly, the circumstances they’ve come from. It’s not necessary that your readers know their entire background story; it’s necessary that you know their entire background story. Your readers can piece together the background story from little references that crop up occasionally and the character’s reactions and behaviour. I read an interview by Gabe Robinson recently (he used to be an editor with HarperCollins and runs his own editorial services now so he probably knows what he’s talking about). He said that authors tend to spend a whole lot of words and pages on giving a narrative description of one of their characters upon entry of said character. If you write a book and, in it, tell me that your protagonist is tall with blue eyes, black hair and an amazing build, I’ll believe you. You go ahead to tell me he’s an insanely calm person until you say something not-so-nice about his wife or family, I’ll believe that too. If you go further to explain his entire back story and more or less, all the major incidents in his life that made him the way he is, I’ll believe you again. But the point is I’m not necessarily going to enjoy reading it. Robinson says that sometimes, a brief initial description coupled with instances that come up as the story progresses where the character reacts in certain ways paints a better character picture than an all out description.
I could go on and on about how characters can be depicted. In the end, you will have your preferred method; what matters is that the character stays the way he or she is. Some story lines require that characters change, but if the change itself is out of character, the story is going to falter. Sure there’s an instigating factor that causes a change – but that change cannot be one that is dramatically different form everything the character is.
Ensuring that your characters react like anyone would in reality is easy – bring your characters to life, at least in your mind. When I wrote my first manuscript, I was practically living with my characters. I spoke of them as if they were real people (it confused the heck out of people who overheard my conversations – I was talking about murderers after all), but my friends were supportive and listened patiently, often offering advice if a reaction seemed out of character. Make their world real, make their pain real, make their appearances real – and you’ll think they’re real. Without you believing in their existence, your readers won’t. Your readers feel what you make them feel. So feel your character’s pain and anger and you’ll be able to pen it down so vividly that your reader feels like he’s known them all his life.
You can write about your character’s stories or let the reader find it out for himself as the story progresses and he can piece together pieces of the character’s life that he picks up through the progression. But technicalities aside, you need to think of your characters as living and breathing human beings. Daniel Davis (author of Wind River) recently mentioned why he loved Stephen King – because the man could portray characters so aptly that you see them reacting in a way you would have and then some. That is what most authors aim for and some attain.
You can read all you want about making your characters real, but the question remains – how does one do that? My method is simple, and I think it’s one that a lot of authors consciously or unconsciously use. My characters are based on the people I know – some eye colour here, some hair colour there, some temper issues here and some agony aunt behaviour there. I don’t mean I know people who are murderers and private detectives with a hidden agenda that borders on vigilante, I mean I know someone with eyes and a temper that suit my protagonist. Little bits of character thrown in, some from people I know, others from my imagination, and I get a believable character that I can associate with easily because of that element of reality.
Let me end this post on character development (another among so many by almost every writer) by saying just this – your characters make your story. If you create live characters that you can believe in, your readers will believe in them too; and if your readers believe in your characters, they’ll believe in the story that marks their endeavours, failures and triumphs.