I’ve not made a secret out of the fact that character development is something to which I’ve devoted way too much of my life. I was obsessed with character surveys. I’ve done star charts for characters–and then altered things depending on how accurate it was. I did my entire undergraduate thesis on the concept. And yet still, sometimes I have trouble carrying all of that onto the page where readers can see it. I can see the character so clearly in my mind; why isn’t that showing through?
But on the few occasions when I’ve really gotten it, I’ve been asked how I managed to do it. This is one of the few places where I’ll ever say “write what you know” and I’m totally serious.
Too many times–and I’ve done this as well–we see “write what you know” and think about plot. We think about every fantasy story we’ve ever read, and how people wrote that anyway without being that kind of fantasy person. However, my argument in that works regardless; we write the pieces of it that we know. We write the isolation, we write the emotions, we write all those pieces in a fantastical world.
For characters, there’s no difference. Remember the things you love (or hate!) in real people, and translate that into characters. This is the argument I’ve seen for saying that Umbridge is a greater (or at least more relatable) villain than Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. None of us have come across someone like Voldemort in our day to day lives. (At least, I seriously hope not.) But Umbridge…we all know someone like her. A parent, a teacher, a boss. Someone in our lives has treated us that way, and we’ve been powerless to help it. We can feel for Harry–because in many ways, we’ve been Harry in those moments.
Alternately, we have the eternal Everyman character, who so commonly exists as the main character in a plot. (Arthur Dent comes to mind, particularly.) This is someone we are supposed to absolutely be able to see ourselves as. They’re a blank slate, with some base level individuality to make them be not entirely boring.
Extend from that, and find the love interest. Something draws the main character to them. It’s easy–too easy–to just make them stunningly beautiful. Of course we think they’re beautiful; they’re the fictitious love of our lives. So what is it that draws us to them, or rather, the character? Well, take someone else you love/like/admire in the world. What’s the first thing you think about when they come to mind?
I can remember a previous love interest of mine, and my fascination with the color of his hair. I’ve used the phrase “the shade of unfinished cherry wood” before. It was something specific to him that came to mind. Eye color is often good for this as well, because if your character can describe their love’s eye color in that detail, they’ve spent a lot of time looking at them.
Other examples off the top of my head:
- The shift in Markiplier’s voice when he talks about space. I’ve seen enough videos of that guy to recognize it instantly, and it’s damned near impossible not to smile. He’s just so damn happy.
- Similarly, the way Dan Avidan laughs. It’s contagious, it’s a little silly, and it never fails to cheer me up. Dan can bring a lot of things to mind, but his laugh is a first for me. (Also probably his hair. But dear god, have you seen his hair?)
- The way someone says a word. I have a bunch of these, because really it’s anyone with an Irish accent (so the teachers I worked with, JackSepticEye, etc) but it’s the old trick of “ask an Irish person to tell you what time it is a half-hour before 4.” When the response comes back tree-turty, I know I’m back on the Emerald Isle. Related: the way Markiplier says “room” or how Ross (from Game Grumps) says Danny’s name. (Or much else. Yay Australian accent?)
I’ll stop pulling examples, but you see what I’m getting at. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Maybe it’s the way they walk across a room. Maybe it’s the way they hold their mug of coffee, or if they stick the tip of their tongue out of their mouth when they think. Do they always say one particular phrase? For example, in my latest short story, the detective character is known for saying “Stay sharp.” This leaks into the author, and then the readers. (Yes, it’s a story about an author. Shush.)
These are the things that we remember about our friends, our family, etc. They’ll be the same things we’ll remember about the characters we love.