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The Nine Ingredients Of Character Development

"I'm a Thriller" Book Talker

“I’m a Thriller” Book Talker (Photo credit: Enokson)

The 9 Ingredients of Character Development

Today’s guest newsletter comes from the Guide to Literary Agents blog and is written by Tom Pawlik. Taken from Writer’s Digest, 2nd April 2013

I remember back when cameras had something inside them called film that you had to get developed. For those of you college-aged or younger, that’s where a technician would treat the film with some chemicals inside a mysterious darkened room, and an image would magically appear on the special paper. But if the process went awry, you could end up with an underdeveloped image that was dark or fuzzy, or one that was over-exposed and therefore too washed out to see clearly. The key to getting a crisp clear photograph largely depended on how the technician developed the film.

If we want readers to have a vibrant mental image of our characters, we have to spend some time in the dark room. And that is what’s called a metaphor

WHAT IS A CHARACTER-DRIVEN  NOVEL ANYWAY?

I don’t write character-driven novels. Heck, I’m not even sure what the term means. I used to think it was when an author spent hundreds of pages muddling around inside a character’s head just to fill the gaps between a couple paragraphs of action.

I prefer to write plot-driven suspense thrillers. But how does the low-brow thriller writer create good characters? I’m still a novice on the subject so this is by no means a definitive exposition, just 9 ingredients I jotted down to make a clever acrostic: CHARACTER.

(Look here for a list of thriller agents.)

1. Communication style: How does your character talk? Does she favor certain words or phrases that make her distinct and interesting? What about the sound of her voice? Much of our personality comes through our speech, so think about the way your character is going to talk. Her style of communication should be distinctive and unique.

2. History: Where does your character come from? Think out his childhood and adolescence. What events shaped his personality? What did his father do for a living? How about his mother? How many siblings does he have? Was it a loving family or an abusive, dysfunctional one? What events led him to the career choices he made? You may not need to provide all this background to your reader, but it’s good to know as the writer. It helps give him substance in your mind as well.

3. Appearance: What does she look like? This may be the least important ingredient to make your character a person to the reader, but you should still know it in your own mind. Not every character needs to be drop-dead gorgeous, by the way. Most people aren’t.

(Learn why an agent will stop reading your Chapter 1.)

4. Relationships: What kind of friends and family does he have? How does he relate to them? Is he very social or reclusive, or somewhere in between? People can be defined by the company they keep, so this can be a good way to define your character.

5. Ambition: Just as this is the central letter of the acrostic, so too this concept is absolutely central to your character and plot. What is her passion in life? What goal is she trying to accomplish through your story? What is her unrecognized, internal need and how will she meet it?

6. Character defect: Everyone has some personality trait that irritates his friends or family. Is he too self-centered? Too competitive? Too lazy? Too compliant? Too demanding of others? Don’t go overboard on this. After all, you want your reader to like the character. But he’ll feel more real if he has some flaw. This is usually connected to his unrecognized need (see Ambition) and often gets resolved through his character arch.

7. Thoughts: What kind of internal dialogue does your character have? How does she think through her problems and dilemmas? Is her internal voice the same as her external? If not, does this create internal conflict for her? In real life we don’t have the benefit of knowing someone’s innermost thoughts, but a novel allows us to do just that, so use it to your advantage.

(How do you follow up with an agent or editor who hasn’t replied to your query?)

8. Everyman-ness: How relatable is your character? While James Bond is fun to watch on screen, most of us aren’t uber-trained special agent-assassins so it’s a little hard to relate to him on a personal level. On the other hand, Kurt Russell’s character in the movie Breakdown was far more ordinary and relatable, creating a more visceral experience. Be careful not to make your character too elite or he may be too difficult to live vicariously through. And that, after all, is the key to suspense.

9. Restrictions: More than a personality flaw, what physical or mental weakness must your character overcome through her arch? After all, even Superman had Kryptonite. This helps humanize your character, making her more sympathetic and relatable.

The goal is to make your readers feel something for your character. The more they care about them, the more emotion they’ll invest in your story. And maybe that’s the secret.

Maybe every novel is character-driven after all.

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