Sunday, March 8

Day Eight: Flesh Out the Character Development

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Stage Two: Character and Point of View Issues 

Welcome to Day Eight of Fiction University’s Month-Long At-Home Revision Workshop. This second stage is all about getting our characters up to speed. We’ll be looking at ways to flesh out our story people, finding the right balance between description, backstory, and infodumping, tightening our POV, and putting the heart and soul into the novel.

Today, we’ll focus on fixing any one- and two-dimensional characters.

Your character arc analysis will come in handy here, since you’ll have a guide on how (and where) your characters need to grow to complete their arcs. Look for any notes on weak or underdeveloped characters and begin with them. You might also take a peek at any scenes with weak goals or motivations you marked as still needing a little work.

To start, ask a few hard questions about the characters in general.

1. Is This Character Believable?

Sometimes we need to take an objective look at our characters to make sure they’re believable (which means we need to make sure we’ve done our research to back them up). You don’t want to have an expert hacker who gets technical terms wrong, or a world-renowned neurosurgeon who’s only twenty-four. Readers aren’t going to buy a character who flies in the face of plausibility. If there’s anything about your characters that stretches credibility, or relies on specific knowledge, take a little time and ensure they’re believable in that role.

2. Is This Character Likable or Compelling?

Readers don’t typically enjoy reading about people they don’t like (though people do seem to enjoy watching characters they don’t like. Go figure). An unlikable character is a major reason novels don’t work, so pinpoint what it is about your main characters that will connect with readers. Give them someone readers can relate to, sympathize with, or be fascinated by.

3. What’s Missing From This Character?

If you know what’s missing from a character, then jump right into your revision session and start fleshing him or her out. I’d suggest starting with the biggest character and working your way to the smaller ones, so you’ll have a better understanding of what traits will support/conflict with your main characters.

If you’re not sure what’s missing, then start with these questions to pinpoint where a character might need fixing:
  • Is the character flawed in ways that affect her decisions in the story?
  • Does she have virtues that affect her decisions in the story?
  • Does she have contradicting beliefs?
  • Does she have a backstory that has shaped the person she is now?
  • Is that backstory relevant to the novel’s plot?
  • Are her motivations plausible?
  • Does she have motivations?
  • Does she have different approaches than the other characters toward solving problems or looking at situations?
For every question you answered no to, revise to make it a yes. Don’t forget to look at what the character does in the story (actions, choices, mistakes, goals, issues, etc.) and think about what shaped her to be the person who did those things or made those decisions. You don’t want to just flesh out “stuff,” but deepen a personality and life that adds to the novel you have.
  • Add flaws that can conflict with other characters or cause her to make a mistake or bad choice at a critical time—or look at any mistakes or bad choices she makes in the story and work backward to create a flaw that could have contributed to it.
  • Add virtues that allow her to be a moral compass or guiding force at some point in the novel. If she’s the voice of reason in the story, look for traits that would logically back up that attitude or belief.
  • Give her a few beliefs that contradict, especially if they make any of her decisions harder.
  • Add or flesh out her backstory. What were the critical moments that defined her life and the person she is now? What moments might have caused the troubles she faces? What events in her past could make what she does in the novel harder or more poignant?
  • Give her solid and plausible motives for her actions in the story. Pay particular attention to any notes where her motives are weak—how might her past have made her act that way or make that choice?
  • Give her different approaches from the other characters toward solving problems or looking at situations. This is great way to add conflict or tension to scenes that need it (check your editorial map!), and deepen a character at the same time. Having characters with different opinions will also help keep the story unpredictable, since the plot can unfold in any number of ways.

(Here are more articles on developing characters)

Does the Character Still Feel Flat?

If you have trouble with the above questions, it could be because the character needs more work for you to understand how to answer those questions. Try taking a step back and do a quick character development exercise. Ask:

What kind of person is this? Gut reaction—who is this person as you see her? If you were describing her to a friend, how would you do it?

What are her strengths? What do you admire about this person?

What are her weaknesses? What causes her problems? What are the negative aspects about her personality?

What are her flaws? Flaws can help or hinder a character, so what quirks does this person have, both good and bad?

What does she want out of life? What does this person dream about? If she wasn’t dealing with the problems of the novel, what would she be doing?

What does she fear? What keeps her up at night? What gives her nightmares? What are her self doubts?

What are the key defining moments in her past, both good and bad? Name three moments that shaped this person. Were there any childhood traumas? Great victories? Humiliating moments?

Still Not Happy With That Character?

Maybe the reason this character isn’t working yet is because you haven’t found her center, or you just don’t know her well enough. It might be worth the time to do a full character work up.

Where did the character grow up? Different regions and culture impart different morals and views.

What was the character’s childhood like? People are shaped by how they grew up, good and bad.

What was the most traumatic thing to ever happen to the character?
This could be a strong phobia or issue to her.

What was the best thing to ever happen to the character?
This could affect her level of optimism or sense that things will work out.

How did these two events shape the character’s perceptions of the world? This could help determine how she approaches and solves problems.

Who is the character’s family? We all are affected by our family, by how they shaped us and how we handle other relationships.

What was the character’s economic background? The person who struggled looks at the world differently than the one who got everything.

What was the character’s educational background? There could be things she just doesn't know, or be too ignorant or inexperienced to even think of.

What was the character’s moral or religious background? The girl raised with a strict upbringing might rebel far worse than the girl raised with lots of freedom. Or she might be doubly conservative.

What makes the character happy? The little joys can cause her to do things she might not do otherwise.

What makes the character sad? Bad feelings can cause people to act badly.

What pisses the character off? How someone handles anger says a lot about her and how she grew up.

What scares the character? Anyone can be scared of the common things, but the weird stuff that freaks us out affects us much more.

At the end of today’s session, we should have strengthened any weak or underdeveloped characters. We know who they are inside and what they want, and we know just what they’re willing to do—and not do—to get it. Next, we’ll take a look at the outside, and the physical characteristics of the characters.

Tomorrow’s Step: Tighten the Character Descriptions

New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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