Paper thin Characters

Ever watched a film or read something that had you feeling scammed? The characters are flat and lifeless, situations are unlikely, there’s a lack of continuity and the characters have absolutely no personality at all. They are pretty to look at and that’s about it. Everything that comes out of their mouths is insipid drivel.

I’ve been an avid fan of The Walking Dead for the past seven seasons. It is superb with never a dull moment, based on the comic book series created by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore. It follows a group of people who have to survive in a broken down society in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse for those of you who don’t know. The characters are complex and develop as individuals during each season. For better or for worse.

When watching, you identify with them, although the situation is bizarre, you wonder how you would react under the same circumstances. You develop a hate for some of the antagonists,  you admire the immense courage of some of the individuals, root for their survival and you cry when they die.

I believe each and every one of us would love to be a hero, to rise above adversity, to be the very best version of ourselves, and yet we seldom get the opportunity to prove that we can. Yet by becoming immersed in The Walking Dead, we can, if only for a moment share in their glory and triumph as well as their pain and their losses. Kudos to Angela Kang and the rest of the writing team.

As a writer, character development is one of the most crucial aspects of writing, if not the most important aspect. You can have the most spectacular plot, scenes and ideas, but if you don’t have the flesh, guts and soul to carry your story to fruition, it will fall flat, become exactly what it is, paper people, inanimate and reclining on their one-dimensional butts.

Something that gave me a great deal of help, in the beginning, were Character Development or Profiling Templates. There are numerous templates to be found on the internet, some better than others. Download and print it out. Fill in your character traits and file. This is invaluable when it comes to keeping track and consistency with regard to character development.

The other side effect of character development sheets or templates is that they force you to think about your characters in various contexts, which leads to more story or theme ideas. So, in essence, the process of creating the world they live in through milieu maps or mood boards creates a more comprehensive view in the writer or artist’s mind and this inextricably leads to better concept development.

When I first start off with my character development, I like to see myself as a sort of puppet master, taking all the various bits and pieces, nuts and bolts and lovingly polishing all the different components and creating my very own puppet. I like imagining the role he/she is to play in my story. Will he/she be brave, a coward, a hero? And so you go about profiling each and every character in your story.

Your character needs to be as lifelike as possible so that people can relate to him/her. The reader doesn’t necessarily have to like the character to relate. However, the character mustn’t be tedious to the reader or the book will get stuffed in a bookshelf to gather dust and fish moths.

Character development comprises a number of components. Your character must have personality, and all that entails, allowing them to interact with other characters, their environment, a conflict both within and without. They can be likeable or hateful, but never ever boring.

Your character must be alive, never passive. Participating in the story playing out around them. As is the case with every real live person, your character will have to make decisions, react to certain situations, must also control their own futures, be the captains of their own ships. All characters (like people) must have motivation. We all want things, love, acceptance, security etc it’s a part of human nature. Whether or not a character chooses to or not, these incentives may play a role in how he/she reacts in certain situations.

All people have some sort of inner conflict, whether we are aware of it or not. Attributing this sense of inner conflict, of the emotional, intellectual and psychological dilemmas they must face, make them more accessible to the reader, after all, these are universal aspects of humanity. All people respond well to a character in whom we see a little of ourselves.

Your character needs to have interactions with other characters. This doesn’t necessarily have to be pleasant, but it does give the reader insight into a part of the nature of the character they may never have seen before. For example, anger from a relatively peaceful character or total submissiveness from a character you assumed was stronger.

Your characters need to be complex. It shouldn’t be too easy to predict what they are about to do next. We all have both good and bad inside us, and at the end of the day, it’s the one you feed the most that triumphs.

Everyone likes reading about a character with strength. This isn’t limited to brute strength, but also skills, talents, intellectual ability, emotional strength, humour, the list is endless. However, too much of a good thing is not good and you need to incorporate some flaws to add symmetry. It makes for interesting reading, adds an element of unpredictability as you don’t know how the character is going to react in any given situation. Even the bravest of characters fears something, we all do. It’s how we react in spite of that fear that counts.

Critical aspects to consider when developing your character are aspects such as vernacular. Each character has their own way of expressing themselves and it’s important to remember this and not get confused. If for example, one of your characters is gruff and inclined to expletives and suddenly describes a patch of flowers in sweet, poetic tones, it becomes confusing and you lose credibility. The reader should not be confused as to who is saying what.

Vital aspects of character development start at a base level and will help you to fill out your characters.

Regardless of whether your protagonist is female or male, it is incredibly valuable to develop a history and reference framework for them. It makes up a huge part of who they are, and where they come from, no matter how young they may be. It would, in essence, influence everything they have become at the point where they enter the story.

Ask yourself where they came from, did they receive an education. Are they loners or do they have a family and friends?

Physical characteristics are significant aspects too, helping you flesh out your character, giving your reader a visual reference to the personality at play. Consider attributes such as whether they are light skinned or dark skinned? What colour is their hair and eyes?

Are they short or tall, athletic or large? Do they have distinguishing features, piercing eyes or a hooked nose for example, perhaps a scar?

How do they dress, this could give you clues about both their personalities and what they do for a living.

Add interesting touches like certain quirky mannerisms or, favourite sayings. We all have flaws, so what are theirs?

Create redeeming qualities for them. Intelligence, quick wit and strength of character for example. Give them goals and dreams to aspire to. Are they self-aware and how do others perceive them?

Are your protagonists emotional? Are they extroverts or introverts? Are they easily angered and does this impact on the way they deal with conflict.

What is their belief system and does that impact on their lives and the way they see the world around them.

If you apply all these different principles, you will be able to develop an immensely strong character with the ability to grow as an individual throughout the story’s progression. In the process, you will have created a being with a life of its own. You may have made them from your bits and pieces and now you can watch them walk off into the world you have created and truly live out their destiny. And what could be more satisfying than that?

Author: Nanieve Groenewald

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