(Silverdale, Washington; Oct. 6, 2019) – There is a moment in the Disney version of Pinocchio in which the titular character characters declares, “I’m a real boy!”
The moment marks his transformation from being an enchanted wooden puppet to a flesh-and-blood human being. The whole story of Pinocchio is, effectively, of an inanimate object being developed into a character.
Character development is a very hard and very easy part of storytelling, but it is a critical part if you wish your readers to actually give a damn about the people they’re reading about. A lack of developed characters will sink your story faster than the iceberg sank the Titanic.
I said character development is very hard and very easy because it is a conflict. It is a duality that all writers must contend with. Let’s deal with the easy part first, and then move on to the challenging part.
Your characters’ physical appearance is easy. A man might be tall, bearing a steel-gray beard and wearing a red plaid flannel shirt over a barrel-chested frame, making him look for all the world like a corporate icon used to sell paper towels.
Your character might be a matronly, plump, late-middle aged woman with fly-away gray hair who looks like she’d be at home baking cookies for the grand kids…until the badge on her navy blouse and the gun on her red-skirt reveal her to be a federal agent who brings the heat, not uses it.
Your protagonist’s hobbies and interests are another easy aspect. Your protagonist is your best friend, and you are going to get to know him or her very well. It’ll be easy to slide in small details that round him or her out, revealing him to be a closet “Bugs Bunny” fanatic or, using a small stack of automotive magazines, unveil her interest in monster truck rallies. These small details can be subtly presented while other characters are in the protagonist’s home or office.
However…how do you flesh out the other characters? What if you have more than one protagonist—a partner to your primary protagonist? How do you make them feel as real to your reader as the primary protagonist? This kind of character is critical to the story because he or she is a partner, a near equal to the primary protagonist, and will be the gravitational center of much of the story’s action. If you reveal your primary protagonist to be a cultured, learned, and erudite critter, but you offer the reader nothing more about your secondary protagonist than their job, you have failed. You’ve created on very real character, and one very flat literary unicycle. This “unicycle” will be nothing more than a vehicle for exposition, and your readers will notice.
The secondary protagonist can be developed just as richly as the primary protagonist with a bit of clever verbal variety and even some linguistic legerdemain.
Once your draft is complete, read it over. Find small spaces where you can slip in a sentence of dialogue here or there that hint at the broader life of your secondary protagonist. If he or she is a legitimate partner / near equal to the primary protagonist, then this kind of banter will seem natural. We all do it in real life. We all have small side-bar conversations with our friends and co-workers that deviate from the main topic. It’s a normal part of human intercourse. Throw in a question about a musical project the second protagonist is working on and…BINGO! You just gave your audience a look into their life beyond the novel’s plot. They’re a musician in addition to being a crack federal special agent! You can then build on this subtly and gently during the course of the story.
This is the kind of item you need to take for action if you want all your characters to truly feel real to the reader, but don’t let it bog you down during the drafting stage. Get the main plot down on paper first, then go back and start weaving these little asides in to flesh out your secondary protagonist and other characters. Over time, you’ll become better versed in the art and will find yourself beginning to insert these glimpses into the characters’ humanity as you develop the draft.
Fleshing out your character is critical. Think about that very phrase—fleshing out. The characters’ appearance and jobs are but skeletons. The small details, even those merely hinted at with subtle flair, these small details ensure that meat and muscles and skin wrap that skeleton into a proper person. This proper person is someone who will entice your readers to get into your books, and stay there.
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