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Character Micro-Growth in a Series

I visualize my mystery series as on TV season. Recently, I completed the third bookin…

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As a writer, you will become a student of human nature.

The question of whether the average human being has fixed characteristics or simply acts on impulse using a string of antidotal actions sown together in a random order has long been debated. Are people born with the fixed set of characteristics that make us all societally acceptable?

The concept of human nature for most of us is traditionally imagined in one of two ways. In creating book characters, we are either attracted to unusual, abhorrent human behaviors or gravitate to “neighborhood” characteristics which are derived from specific cultures and upbringings. Most of us can’t really translate deviant behavior to written form and the latter “neighborhood” characteristics are generally called stereotypes. So where does that leave us as writers?

Before we talk about building memorable characters, let me say something about novels. Interesting stories without memorable characters are just that. Interesting. All great storylines are dependent on interactions between enduring characters. Complete characters will find a plot. By that I mean, characters that you don’t forget easily. Unforgettable characters can make a novel but plots without these characters can seldom hold up to that scrutiny.

A memorable character is one that a reader really identifies and connects with because of personality, foibles, humor, quirks or a combination of characteristics. They engage our emotions, and they make us want to keep reading.  We identify with characters, we love them, we hate them, we root for them, we get mad at them, and we sympathize with them.

So, how do writers create fascinating characters? Here are a few tips writers should use to create those awesome characters.

1. Let your characters interact with one another. Dialogue will help to demonstrate a lot about a character’s personality. Good dialogue has a purpose and builds toward an end. Your dialogue will feel empty and flat if it stays even or neutral. It evokes how we really talk. We get excited. We get sad. We speak in idioms, slang, and dialects. Conversation reveals personality, values, beliefs, and at the same time. Good dialogue is unexpected. It is punctuated by inner thoughts and character action. What it’s not, are pages of talking or ‘telling’ your story.
2. Along with believable dialogue, allow your characters to have inner monologue with their conflicts and let them contradict themselves. Introspection is the easiest and clearest way to develop your characters’ personalities. Make your characters think. Scenery and dialogue are good, but audiences want to know why? What makes a character tick? Make your characters think about their bonds and limitations; make them challenge their own thoughts, fears and feelings. We see strength and weakness of character in people every day in our regular lives. Take advantage of your knowledge and use what you know.
3. Complicate a relationship by adding another person, or putting your character in a group environment. People behave differently in groups, the most obvious and horrifying example being a mob which is capable of violence far beyond the natural inclination of most individuals. The mob serves not merely as a shield but as an excuse. The relationships between individuals in a group—whether a clique of three or an organization of thousands—are endlessly varied, shifting and fascinating.
4. Create a backstory for each character. A character does not want your audience to feel like he or she only exists in the pages of your specific book.  To give your character more dimension, let each character come with a back story to show they have a life and some level of existence other than what is apparent in the book. This will make your characters seem much more interesting and have the audience asking questions and trying to connect the dots.  Your goal as a writer in character development is to get your audience to believe that there is personality depth beneath the words on the page.
5. Know what makes your characters tick - what they want; what they will do; what they can’t help doing; why they can’t help doing it. When thinking about what makes them tick, be sure you know what his or her motivation is. To know what your character wants and what lengths he or she will go to get it is to understand what drives the character. A backstory will tell your audience a different side of them at certain points in your story. But, there is more to great characters than backstory. We don’t want details for the sake of details. Take the reader inside the head of the character. Show them what makes the character an individual. Don’t tell them.
6. As mentioned above, not only avoid stereotypes but stay away from type characters of any sort. These are the labels placed on characters such as the klutzy type, the nerdy type, the promiscuous type, etc. Type characters usually become static characters by default. That is, these characters do not change over time. They are unaffected by the events around them. However, real people are affected and sometimes changed forever by events, words, car crashes, birthdays, alcohol, drugs, and millions of other acts. We most often see this relating to secondary characters but beware of the effect stereotyped and typed characters can have on the depth of your characters.
7. Finally, make sure what you choose to tell about your characters will serve a purpose for the rest of the story. You won’t get extra credit for knowing a character’s shoe size if it has little to do with the story being told. So don’t think about your character as a list of traits or a series of boxes to check off. You don’t need to know, every little detail about your characters if they do not drive the story, for example, which is her favorite flavor of ice cream. Make that up at the counter, but you better know the character’s motivation, in a specific scene that put her on the street, passing the ice cream shop, and the reasons she entered the store.

I hope some of these tips prove of value in creating full characters that grow throughout your novel. Good luck and happy “charactering”.


by Paul Hollis  (TopShelf Columnist)

Twitter @HollowManSeries / TheHollowManSeries.com