Sunday, November 6, 2011

Character Development

Or Developing Character.

My blog has been bare lately because I had a core brain unload after the overload of conference information and it has refused to reboot back up….. that or because I have been held captive by large groups of marauding dust bunnies and have just now escaped. Or both. That makes a real character out of you believe me. Don’t believe me, look at your lurking dust bunnies sometime and see how big they can get and form while you are off doing other things and being busy. Just be sure to inform someone of your whereabouts for rescue purposes. And I’m getting ready to do battle again so if I am gone too long send in the calvary. Or a couple of Dyson vacuum cleaners.

Luckily for you the Super Wonderful Troy Howell is stepping in to guest blog about his great information on character development that he had sent to me when we did a session on Character Development for the recent James River Writers Conference with Belle Boggs and Derome Scott Smith.

Check out Troy’s book ‘The Dragon of Cripple Creek’ - he has a great take on dragons and dragon lore, and check out his blog and site, great illustrations of course - and a lot of Troy’s interesting and inspirational thoughts and writings.

Thanks Troy for coming to my rescue.

On character development / my reference notes for the James River Writer’s panel discussion, with a few additions /

by Troy Howell

The ultimate goal is to convey characters in such a way that the reader relates enough to hear their stories. As you develop your characters, ask, Why should the reader care? Empathy or sympathy, at the least, curiosity. Whatever occurs that is greater than that—bringing tears, laughter, enlightenment—is a wonderful gift.

Each character has a function that is natural to the story premise and plot. I was recently asked by a reading group discussing my Dragon of Cripple Creek (Amulet, 2011) what my inspiration was for Dillon. Though my dragon, Ye, was pure inspiration gotten from that nebulous place where ideas drift in whispers, Dillon was the result of a need. When I created my protagonist, Kat, for the book, I felt she needed someone within her own age range to relate with outside the adult realm, someone who would eventually help her balance her thoughts and actions, and through whom more information would come. A girlfriend was not the answer, since her time is spent on a family road trip due to a job change for her dad. A sibling was a natural choice. A sister would pose the risk of being competitive, so a brother was the solution—an older brother, because a younger one would not add the necessary understanding. Hence, Dillon.

As in life, each person wants something, has a motive. Every word and action is affected by that motive. Each person has a core flaw or weakness, a vulnerability. Each person has a core strength. Need is the underlying cause for these weaknesses and strengths. Need is not equivalent to want, but usually determines want.

"Every character is sufficiently vivid and interesting for his function.” —John Gardner

Avoid stereotype: Every character, no matter how minor, should be unique and unpredictable. Sometimes, the first action or response from a character that comes to your mind is not unique; consider choosing something quirky or even opposite of who they seemingly are—surprise and delight us. My police chief, Chief Huffman, was initially stoic and steely, until I gave him a stutter that surfaces when he’s facing the public. In the movie, Meet Joe Black, Death is a golden-haired young man who loves peanut butter.

Be sure you step into their shoes, their feet, their souls. Look into their mirrors, sleep in their beds, have their dreams. Know each one as thoroughly as you can—each one has a history.

Much depends on POV.

Much depends on situation, setting, and environment.

The character should fit the scene naturally, unless, by intent, he doesn't fit at all.

A few details can convey much: A man who frequently says, “My goodness.” A cat whose fur is the careless color of chalk. A woman who wears a coat, size FITS ALL HOMELESS.

“Although characters may be complex, the details of their complexity are often blurred,

as if by time." –JG

Contrast, and a contrasting cast of characters. Contrast adds balance, richness, intensity, conflict.

Names are important—select the right one.

The reader should sense that each character has all the senses—sight, smell, touch, hearing, taste (except, of course, in cases of disability). We should also get a sense of how they sound and how they smell, besides how they look and feel. By feel I mean texture, not emotion. Emotion is a subject of its own, though the two can be, and usually are, related. Would her fingers be cool if she touched you? My dragon, Ye, smelled of “fortune and ashes, spices and earth.” It hurt Kat to smell him and soothed her, too. Each character should breathe.

Convey character through action and dialogue; show more than tell.

Psychic range: You should be able to see them from both a distance and close up.

So, to restate what I believe are the essentials of character development: Get the reader to care. Each character has a function, a basic need, and a want. Live your characters. Be unique; be succinct.

Thank you, Shawna, for being the perfect moderator on the panel, and for the opportunity to be a guest on your blog.

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