Writers Workshop – Character Development in Fiction

Character development in fiction is a critical part of making a story come alive.  Create great characters and readers will keep turning pages.  Create poorly developed characters and you risk your readers throwing your book away.  So what are some secrets of character development in fiction?  Books have been written on this, but let me share a few things that new authors (and unfortunately many indie authors) do that damage their stories.

Character Development in Fiction – Physical Traits

We as readers do need to know about the physical being of our characters.  It’s good to put in a bit about how a character looks, talks, smells and the like.  But don’t overdo this unless it’s critically important to the story.  I see so many indie authors describe their characters in the greatest detail, and usually all within one paragraph…but that usually doesn’t work well because you overwhelm your readers with description.  A little description goes a long ways.  Also, it’s good to sprinkle character description into the flow of the story.

Character Development in Fiction – Psychological Traits

Another thing new authors tend to do is write their characters into a psychological being, one who readers see as a list of psychological traits, but in doing so there is no growth or way for the character to react outside of that profile.  And then the reader knows what to expect out of the character and the story becomes boring.  Consider the following example:

Jane was sexually abused as a child and she withdrew into herself.  She grew into a bitter woman who distrusted all men, even her husband.  She was cold and distant to her kids.

Not only are we telling the reader about Jane (a no-no) we are also putting Jane in a corner based on her psychological profile.  We know what to expect from her for the rest of the novel, and if she acts out of that profile, it doesn’t jibe with the story or with us as readers.

Character Development in Fiction – The Emotional Connection

Our characters need to care about something.  We as indie authors should show (not tell) our readers what this is.  This helps with another thing: we want our readers to care about our characters.  The readers can love or hate, be confused by or intrigued by our characters, but the readers must not be indifferent to our characters.

Main characters should be round: a fully developed character that is capable and even does change.  Readers need to care about them.

Flat characters are one-dimensional: they are not developed as much as main characters, and they are not central to the story.  We don’t really care about them.

Your characters will be what your readers remember.  You need to keep your readers emotionally involved.  You want characters that are flawed, they grow as people, and they are unique.

Character Development in Fiction – An Example

I wrote this post in part because of my reaction to a particular character in Six Feed Under, a show that ran on HBO for five years.  Obviously TV and books are different, but the points of character development are similar.  One of the central characters, Nate Fisher, is introduced in the first season as a reasonably nice guy, at least that was my sense of him.  He’d left Los Angeles and wasn’t involved in the chaos of the family.  Sure, he’s a bit confused, but he seems to care about people.

But then his character seems to delve into some kind of psychological meltdown.  Nate bounces between women, he cheats on his girlfriends and then his wife, he smokes pot.  And on and on.  Okay, whatever, he’s a schmuck…I hate the guy.  And we would say this is good character development, right?  I as the viewer have a very strong reaction to this character.

But here’s the problem (or problems).  One, I don’t think Nate’s character is developed well.  At times, he seems to be utterly nice and caring, and then suddenly he’s snapping and acting out.  It’s too schizophrenic.  And another issue is my reaction…I’m not sure that the writers of the story meant to have viewers come to hate Nate.  I mean, I hate the guy so much that in the last episode I watched (spoiler alert), Nate dies and I thought good, get rid of him.

I don’t know, maybe that’s what the writers wanted…the point is, as an author, when you’re creating characters, fully write them so that the reader is emotionally drawn in, but in a way that the reader reacts to your characters in the way you intended.

About Renée Pawlish

Award-winning author Renée Pawlish writes the bestselling horror book, Nephilim Genesis of Evil, the Reed Ferguson mystery series, short stories and non-fiction ghost stories.
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6 Responses to Writers Workshop – Character Development in Fiction

  1. As usual I got so much from your post. Whenever I check my email, I open the blog right away. Thanks so much.

  2. Thank you for sharing this useful advice. A frequent comment I see in the reviews for my novels is “realistic characters” so I am probably doing something right! My novels tend to have several characters which can be confusing. To help the reader distinguish them and make them easier to remember, I have ascribed to each individual, unique characteristics. I do this with a spreadsheet on which I note an individual’s speach idioms, habits, mannerisms and appearence. For example, one (and only one) will say “Okay” instead of “yes” where another says “alright”. One will always twist the telephone cable around her fingers, another will rub his chin. I didn’t see the TV drama that you mentioned but it is interesting to note that in life as in TV, we tend to remember the “Bad” things we observe in people, rather than the good.

  3. Great stuff! I hear you about characters you just don’t take to. I think the trick to a villainous character you actually want to stick around is one that makes things interesting. Or you love to hate them. It also seems like there’s got to be something in the character that at least has the potential for redemption. Something we can empathize with.

    • Renée Pawlish says:

      Yes, I agree with that. What I hated about the Nate character is that there just wasn’t anything redeeming about him. Thanks for your comment!

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