When developing a fictional character, there are several methods that writers can use. The first thing that usually happens, however, is that writers picture a person in their minds and that first impression of a character often sticks with them throughout the story.
But this first impression is a one-dimensional view. It’s the equivalent of a cardboard cutout of a cartoon character. Layers of personality and history must be added to a character, even before starting to write the story, in order to properly develop how the character acts and moves within the written scenes.
In general, there are five aspects of a character, besides appearance, that a writer must think about before introducing a major character into a storyline.
The first is to consider personal details of the character. These include the finer aspects of the character’s appearance. The writer might imagine an older man as a protagonist, but decisions like how old, how much grey hair or any hair, glasses or no glasses, weather worn skin with wrinkles or not, or other specific physical features further define the character for the reader.
Next in consideration is the character’s background. The character’s history regarding family, childhood memories and experiences, sibling order, past schooling and special skills learned help determine how that character will react within specific scenes.
Other things to consider are the specific characteristics of your character. These are the things that drive your character to do the things you want to write about. They include good and bad habits, temperament and attitude, as well as fears and interesting secrets that make a character unique.
The next step is to decide if your character has specific likes and dislikes. We all have things we like and dislike, but a strong positive or negative view gives a character depth and helps the reader identify with the character. Consider topics such as music, sports, political affiliations and social beliefs to further define your character’s likes and dislikes.
Finally, the last aspect of your character to be considered, and possibly the most important, is your character’s current lifestyle or situation. This specific aspect becomes the general setting for your character but will also include specifics like the character’s home environment, the town in which the character resides, the involvement of a marriage or life partner and children, a special job and specific friends that influence the character.
Remember no one in real life is perfect and therefore no fictional character is either. Often, experienced writers will say that the flaws in their protagonists are what propel the story forward and help create the conflict for the story arc.
The question that remains on the table, so to speak, is this: As the story progresses, is it the protagonist or the writer who evolves as the story unfolds?
Certainly, the character evolves purposefully as the story unfolds and conflict is introduced, but does the character change decisively as the writer adds more conflict into the character’s world or is it more of an unconscious evolution?
That’s the specific question—the unconscious evolution of character development. That would insinuate that the writer is actually evolving as he or she becomes more familiar with the protagonist. Just as we become more familiar and more comfortable with a new friend as times goes on, the same is true of a writer and their characters.
As the story progresses and continues to unfold, often writers will detour from a preconceived plot or from their original outline. It may be because of an “aha” moment to refine or even redefine the plot, but this detour happens at times only because the writer begins to understand the protagonist better and is more comfortable with the character’s personality.
In a sense, the writer has finally become friends with the protagonist and the writer evolves into letting the character take charge and direct the action, simply because that’s what would be natural for the character if he or she were a real person in real life situations.
And that’s when the act of writing transitions from technique to an art form.
Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them!