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Character Development

By: Angelique Caffrey - Updated: 18 Jun 2013 | comments*Discuss
Character; Characters; Development;

In a compelling work of fiction, characters never remain stagnant. Instead, they experience epiphanies, change as a result of tragedies, or uncover a new way of thinking. As an author, it's up to you to take your characters on a journey that will resonate with readers while staying true to your style and plot.

What to Leave Out

But in order to gracefully develop a character, you must give your readers all pertinent information while leaving other, less critical points, to their interpretation. Thus, you have to understand what to leave out and what to state. It's a difficult balancing act: say too much and bore your readership; say too little and leave them too bewildered to focus on your story.

One of the most effective ways to begin to tackle the tightrope act of developing characters while remaining pithy is to sketch a path for your character to walk before you begin your short story or novella. You don't have to be overly detailed; a simple outline (as in the one below) will do:

  1. Joseph, a 21-year-old hunter, kills a baby deer
  2. Worried about getting caught, he buries the deer's body in the forest
  3. Each year, he visits the gravesite
  4. He begins to obsess about the need for a tombstone for the deer and buys one
  5. He starts to tend to the grass around the tombstone
  6. Joseph begins to worship the dead deer, praying at the grave regularly
  7. One day while praying, Joseph is shot by another hunter, who buries his body next to that of the baby deer
  8. The cycle starts again, with the guilty hunter visiting the grave the next year

You've not only developed the outline for a gripping tale, you've also predetermined the journey Joseph must take in order to move your story along.

Take Your Character From A to Z

Using this outline, it's apparent that you will have to take Joseph from "A" to "Z", all the while staying true to his character.You must be cautious, though; plots that are too rich become cloying. Better to say just enough than to bombard your readers with extraneous details.

For instance, take these two sentences. Which one develops the character more succinctly?

1: Joseph felt like a fool for having shot the fawn; he stared at the carcass at his feet.

2: Joseph stared intently at the death he had wrought due to one foolish action.

Though both sentences are adequate representations of the moment after Joseph shoots the baby deer, the second implicitly carries more weight about Joseph. By rearranging words and images, the reader is drawn into Joseph's mindset in a less overt way in sentence number 2. Thus, the reader can actively interpret the scene, drawing his or her own conclusions instead of being explicitly told what to think.

As the character of Joseph changes and becomes more obsessed with the gravesite, the author must ensure that Joseph's actions are believable and fit his personality. Therefore, even though he's a hunter, he should show more than an iota of sensitivity (otherwise, he wouldn't tend to the deer's grave.) You can imply that sensitivity elsewhere in the story, with Joseph kindly helping a homeless man off a bus or absentmindedly patting a puppy in the park.

Again, how you choose to develop your characters is as important as the characters themselves. Move along their emotional, psychological, and/or physical developments with well-chosen phrases that engage the reader without leaving him or her bored or confused.

And, of course, if at any point in the development of your story you're unsure whether your character has appropriately changed or if your writing has become overly flowery, have a trusted (and honest) friend, editor, or colleague read over what you've written. Use this frank feedback to help you breathe life into your creation.

Remember - you hold the key to unlocking your characters' transformations, be they overwhelming or minute. Spend some time reworking your sentences and suddenly your characters will turn from two-dimensional creations to deep, realistic persons.

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