The process of character development is the centerpiece of stories that will hold a reader’s attention and can bring them back to your works over and over. In many ways the characters in a book are more important than the plot. There are only seven basic plots. There can be a myriad of characters.
In most cases, but certainly not all, the characters in a story are people. Regardless of whether they are human or not, the reader must be able to relate to them in a human manner. Human, alien, animal, or machine, humanity is our only frame of reference.
Do not over-describe your characters. Of course the reader needs to be able to identify one cast member from another. But, if you get overly descriptive, you limit the reader’s imagination. Think about when you read a book. The content manifests itself as images in your head - a movie in your brain, as it were. The beauty of books over motion pictures is that the reader is not bound by the director’s interpretation of the script or the cinematographer’s vision of events. Give the reader some freedom.
Your characters are people. When you meet someone new, you have a first impression of that person. Even with that first impression, you must spend time with them to come to understand something as simple as what they really look like. Don’t hold the reader back. Give him time to know the people in your story.
Do not give your entire description of a character away all at once. Allow the reader’s perception of the character to evolve as the story does. That brings us back to first impressions. It takes time to get to know someone well enough to understand their flaws, their fears, their joys, their strengths and their weaknesses. If you allow your reader time to grow with your characters, he will come to relate to them in a more intimate manner. When that happens, the reader becomes involved in the story you’re telling.
Try not to over-populate your book. Little is more frustrating than having to stop reading, back up several pages, and search paragraphs to find out who a character is, or what their motivation was, or how they got to where they are. Many readers will abandon a book that needs to be “sorted out’ from time to time. And they should. Population control is vital.
Even if a character is just a walk-on, try to make something about that individual stand out. That’s life. Refer to your internal camera. Mention details. Maybe the girl at the front desk of your lead character’s hotel chews gum or wears too much eyeliner. Perhaps the parking attendant has dirt in the creases of his neck or glasses that keep slipping down his nose. Since we notice these things in the real world, let your reader notice them in your world. Often it’s the little things that hold our attention between the big things. Those of us that write are playing God. They say that God is in the details.
Listen to how people talk and adjust your character’s dialogue accordingly. “Do you think it might rain today, Bill?” is no more easily understood than “Think it’s gonna rain?” Simple, to the point, and real.
Dialect can be very effective also, but be careful and don’t take it too far. “Jeet?” might be difficult for the reader to determine as “did you eat?” Make sure the dialect remains consistent for each character. Just as a writer should have his own voice, so must they.
At the end of your book you should know your characters much better than when you started. Go back and see if who they’ve become balances well with who they were at the beginning. If not, fix ‘em.
When you have a cast assembled that you know well, that you’ve worked with, suffered with, and with whom you can identify, you’re on your way to creating something enjoyable. . . theatre of the mind.
At least, that’s how it seems to me.
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