Hey there, everyone. I've been brainstorming lately due to several emails filled with wonderfully insightful questions from all of you. Many of you have been curious as to how I write my books and what tips I might share in order to help you write your own.
Hooray! I hope that any authors or aspiring authors will find this post and others useful. Now down to the first question that has sparked some heavy discussion between several of you awesome authors.
How do you approach character development?
I think that this is going to be personal and unique for each and every author. My methods might not work for you. Planners and pantser-those who outline like the very devil and those who sit down and simply wing it-will have different methods that bring out those creative juices. For me, I have to have a firm picture in my head of who my characters are before I can begin to write their stories. I think whether you're a pantser or a planner you will find that taking that extra week or two to map out the nuances of your protagonist, antagonist and secondary characters will save you so much time in the end.
The first thing you need to do is consider which heros and heroines you've become attached to in the past and why? What encourages you continue to cheer for that character or what forces you put the book down and choose something else to read?
We tend to stick with characters we like or admire, characters we can relate to, characters we aspire to be like or even those that are the underdogs in their stories. Everyone likes a good underdog success story. Simply put, we want our heroes to win. This gives us an emotional attachment to them and makes their story matter to us. This attachment needs to happen within the first few pages of your book so that your reader is invested enough in the character to see this thing through.
Assigning heroic qualities to your character is helpful, but giving them a few flaws they have to overcome makes them someone you can relate to so long as they are able to overcome those flaws and weaknesses by the end of the book.
In other words, nobody wants to read pages upon pages of inner dialogue filled with nothing but self-pity, doubt, or hopelessness. You never want to give your reader a reason to become fed up with your characters. They can and should be flawed so long as they are resilient and rally, rising to the occasion, overcoming obstacles etc. Those personality traits can only be discovered through character development.
I want to give you an example of this with a book I recently read. Off Balance by Terez Mertes Rose is the story of Alice, a professional ballet dancer who suffers an injury during a performance that essentially ends her ballet career. Take a look at this passage right here to see if you can pick up on why readers might cheer for her.
"On Saturday night Alice Willoughby's world, her glittering soloist's career, came apart with a single misstep executed in front of 2000 spectators at San Fransico's California Civic Theater. Rendered careless by fatigue, she'd prepped wrong and the next step into an arabesque en pointe proved to be her last. A curious pop sounded, her knee gave out and she fell to the black, slip-resistant marley floor. She heaved herself to sitting, her adrenaline surging through her, stunned by the realization that she couldn't get up any further. Her left knee simply wouldn't cooperate. The pain was like an explosion, obscuring everything but the mantra drummed into her after twenty years of ballet.
The show must go on.
Without breaking character."
Okay, so Alice is performing in front of two thousand people and is injured despite the fact that she is a professional. Who hasn't fallen and hurt themselves in one form or another? She's someone we can relate to. She's in pain, fatigued and people are watching. An obstacle has been presented which we will talk about in more detail in subsequent posts, but more importantly, she is now the underdog, incapable of finishing her performance with an injury that doesn't even allow her to walk. She should give up, right? She should wait for someone to pick her up and sweep her off the stage.
Within the first paragraph Terez Mertes Rose has us chewing our fingernails, hoping and praying that Alice can somehow overcome this injury and finish the dance number. We are cheering for her, we are concerned about her welfare, but most importantly we want her to succeed. In the first paragraph we begin to care for Alice Willoughby.
Now let's see what happens next.
"Ben, her partner that night, immediately caught on to the situation. He made his way over to her, via a series of grand-jete leaps to give the illusion that they were still dancing, that her fall had merely been part of the ballet.
Time slowed to a psychotropic-hued crawl. She seemed to be watching herself, her brain whirring uselessly, her limbs dumbly splayed out...
He swooped behind Alice and helped her rise from a sitting position onto her good leg. Somehow, in spite of the state of shock she'd descended into, she managed to shift her back leg behind her and strike a pose, swaying like a drunken corps de ballet dancer, yet raising her arms to a grace-laden fourth arabesque position, arms at ninety degrees...
They improvised through the last minute of their pas de deux variation, the third-to-last movement of the ballet, Ben murmuring cues to her every time his back was to the audience. He'd lift Alice lyrically and set her down a few steps later. She'd hold the pose as he executed a series of movements, here a stylized lunge, there a few steps into a sharp, clean, triple pirouette. Gone for her, the fast-paced choreography, but she still had full control of her upper-body presentation, employing expressive hand and arm movements until Ben returned to haul her to another part of the stage.
"Can you do the big lift?" he panted in her ear thirty seconds later.
She was trembling with spent adrenaline, losing energy fast.
"Have to," she said through gritted teeth, never dropping her serene stage smile. It was their final departure from the stage, the last thing the audience would remember. It couldn't be half-assed.
"Okay, hang tight," he murmured. Placing one hand on her right hip and the other under the thigh of her bad leg, he hoisted her high above him.
The pain of it took her breath away. Sweat, and now tears, stung her eyes as she arched her back, gaze high, arms in high fifth. She pressed her good leg up against the maimed one, as a human splint. She knew she must be cutting a sorry figure, and yet even this seemed to encompass the mood of the ballet.
Tomorrow's Lament was its name. Fitting, that.
She kept her expression regal, her arms high, as Ben wafted her offstage. The conductor of the orchestra, alerted to the plan change, allowed the music to grow softer before subsiding, thirty-two measures early, on a haunting note.
Perfect silence as the stage faded to black.
The audience seemed to take one great collective inhale before they burst into applause, cheers and calls of 'brava,' which grew louder as Ben eased her down backstage...
Ben returned from his solo curtain call as the audience roared their approval, "Alice, they want you," he said, half-laughing, half-crying."
This is an important moment for our heroine who must show enough bravery and fortitude to get through an impossible situation and turn it into a triumph. We learn several things about Alice at this point. She is strong, resilient, hard-working, determined and courageous, pasting on a brave face and behaving like a professional despite the awful pain she is in. These are all heroic qualities that bond us to her character. The audience couldn't help but cheer for such a spectacular performance, such an unmitigated triumph, and neither can the reader.
Now that you have an idea of what qualities draw us to a character, it is your turn to consider the protagonist in your novel and decide if he or she has any inherent heroic qualities. Think of someone you admire in your life. What makes them heroic? If it fits your story, assign those qualities to your character. Just one will do for now.
On the flip side, not all protagonists will display heroic qualities at first and many shouldn't, due to their circumstances. It just wouldn't make sense, but how do you illustrate those character flaws without turning off your readers? We'll go into that in the next post.
I hope this has been helpful for you. It was a good review for me so thanks for all of your questions.
If you would like a character development template to get you started on fleshing out your characters you can go to this link here.
It is incredibly detailed so just fill out the areas that you feel are applicable to your character and don't allow yourself to get overwhelmed by it.
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