A fantastically developed character is one you never forget. Even from afar you can recognize all of its memorable features. Just for a moment, stop and think of some of your favorite characters of all time from books, movies, plays, etc. They will be the ones that almost immediately pop up in your mind. Some of mine are:
- Harry Potter
- Atticus Finch
- The Mad Hatter
- Elizabeth Bennett
- Bilbo and Frodo Baggins
- Luke Skywalker
- The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
They are your favorites you know you will never forget. You memorize their lines. You study their body language. You know the sound of their voice – literary or physical. Real or fictional, they becomes some of your favorite people and you love spending time with them.
Why? Because that is exactly how their writers intended you to received them. This is why character development is so important as a writer. Writers who do not spend time turning their characters into real people that their audience can see, touch, feel and relate to turn out to be flat characters. And flat characters are a dime a dozen.
You know exactly what I’m talking about. These are the characters you don’t feel invested in and you can barely remember because they don’t seem real to you. Nothing about them sparks your interest. When they talk, you find yourself skipping past or fast forwarding through their dialogue. Nobody has time for poorly-written, underdeveloped characters. They never make the cut.
If developing strong, real and complex characters is so important, how exactly do you do that as writer? When developing a character, you can’t think of them as blank and white ink on a page, or a filler in a plot line. To develop characters that people can relate to and fall in love with (or even hate intensely…*cough* George Wickham *cough*), you have to imagine them as real, live, breathing people with all the graces and traps of humanity.
- Give them a well developed personality with some recognizable quirks. Write your characters with personalities that other people can relate to, and give them a few unique traits that make them easily recognizable. You want your readers to be able to recognize your characters long after they meet them. That means they need to have unique markers in their personality and character development that are endearing and recognizable. Harry Potter was a terrible student and an average wizard despite his fame, and he carried a scar scored by tragedy, mystery and magic. He is undeniably memorable and affectionately real.
- Guarantee that they aren’t perfect by giving them a few flaws they have to work on along the way. Nobody is perfect, and if we are real, we have a hard time relating to people who are presented as such. But flawed people intrigue us. Why? Because we are also flawed. Our flaws connect us. Elizabeth Bennett for all her intelligence carried an unconscious pride within her toward the higher classes of her society. Through the development of the story line found in Pride and Prejudice, she learns to address her prejudice, mostly by putting her own foot in her mouth and being called on the carpet for her mistakes. She is beautifully human. We all make mistakes. We all judge others when we should not. And we all stumble across weaknesses within ourselves that we realize we will have to work on, not without some margin of pain. Your characters should be the same.
- Give them a presence that does get lost in the development of the story line. Really well-developed characters never get lost in the story line, rather the story line is dependent upon their actions, their thoughts and their decisions to evolve. For example, the story of To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most influential pieces of literature of all time. Because the story is told from Scout’s perspective, most assume that the story is contingent upon her to evolve. But actually, the story is more reliant upon her father, Atticus Finch – his thoughts, his dialogue, his decisions and his actions – than it is upon Scout. Her entire world revolves around her father and her story revolves around her father’s decision to defend Tom Robinson. Atticus is no secondary character. Harper Lee made sure Atticus would live long past even her own life simply because he was never lost in the story. He is the story.
- Don’t hesitate to take your character on a difficult journey, even if it means hurting them before you heal them. Real life is hard, and good characters exemplify that truth. An excellent character is never given the easy way out. They take the road less traveled, and face all the hardships along the way. Frodo Baggins finished a journey that began with his uncle, Bilbo Baggins. And the journey took such a toll on him, that in the end it costs him everything. The reader can feel his struggles, his courage, his failure and his victory. His journey is symbolic of the hardships of life, something we can all relate to when we look within ourselves.
- Give your characters a name for themselves that will never be forgotten. When you develop your character, let them stand on their own two legs. Let them create a name for themselves that will never be forgotten. Even it makes them look mad. The Mad Hatter is one of the most memorable characters of all time – with his mercury-stained fingers, his chaotic top hat and his crazy speech and crazy eyes. Lewis Carroll did not hold back from allowing this unique character to make a name for himself. He is not a pretty character. He is not a heroic character. He is not even a conflicted character. He is what he is. He is mad, and we the readers never forget that. He will ever be known as the Mad Hatter. His name tells us exactly who he is, and we love him for it.
Developing memorable characters is not child’s play and it takes a considerable amount of patience. Many writers find that their characters evolve even as they write them. But they allow the characters the time to develop and grow and stretch and breath. They don’t rush the development process. Start with intriguingly complex characters and watch them grow. Allow them the room to come alive and maybe…just maybe…a Mad Hatter will emerge.