Craft Corner: Character Development

Welcome to the Class of 2k21 Craft Corner! These posts will be dedicated to sharing writing tips and tricks we’ve picked up on our journeys to publication. Each month features a new theme with insights from members of the Class of 2k21; this month, we’re discussing character development.

Whether you are a long-time creative with too many ideas to wrangle or a beginner with no idea where to start, we hope you’ll find something you can apply to your writing journey. Let’s get started!

Payal Doshi: Character development is crucial to every story. Once I finish writing the first draft of a book, I’ll create an excel sheet to track, chapter-by-chapter, the emotions the protagonist is feeling at the start of a chapter and then at the end of the chapter. I will also make notes about what questions the protagonist/characters are grappling with at the beginning of each chapter and what questions remain or which questions have been resolved by the end of the chapter. In this manner, I ensure that not only does the plot progress from chapter to chapter but also the narrative arc and emotional growth of each of the characters. Remember, without character development your story will fall flat and not connect with readers. As much as we love reading about exciting plots, it’s the characters that keep us glued to the story for they are the ones we root for.

Joan F. Smith: In both reading and writing, I find I’m drawn to character complexities. To make people the most “human,” I think it’s a lot more interesting to have a villain who donates their time to a food bank and a protagonist who forgets to hold doors for people. For every single character in my books (no matter how large of a role they have), I list their primary qualities, their flaws, their backgrounds, and their fears; this exercise has impacted my subplots one hundred percent of the time. I borrow from real life a fair amount, too, though I often very much twist the truth in both large ways and small. I might take someone I know who does not believe in miracles and create a character who relies on them, or I might make someone afraid of spiders instead of snakes. A person in real life who has an acerbic wit might inform a character who is completely humorless. In character creation, I think a lot about likes and dislikes, what draws us to one another, fears, and eventually, physical qualities.

Sam Taylor: I’ll develop characters by thinking of their Wants and their Needs. Who are they at the beginning of the story? What emotional wounds are they currently struggling with, that warp their understanding of their world and themselves? A story begins with characters wanting something (their external journey, or the plot)--and needing something (their internal journey, or the character arc). That Need might conflict with what the characters think they Want. And sometimes characters misunderstand, or aren’t even aware, of their Need, or the ways they must develop and grow to become a stronger, better, more fulfilled person. As I plot and draft the story, every scene must show the characters proactive working toward what they Want, and must challenge their Need, until ultimately the characters understand their Need and that becomes their true priority. Not every story will end with characters’ original Wants coming true, but stories should end with characters’ Needs being addressed. Stories are most compelling when characters change and grow as a result of the plot events.

Thanks for joining us! Craft Corner will be back in April with thoughts on point of view. See you then!