With my debut novel, Shrink Rapt, in print and the first draft of my new one, Tell on You, nearing completion, I thought I might share some of the lessons I’ve learned about character development along the way. I can’t claim to have invented these insights, but I’ve come to appreciate how important – and frequently challenging – they can be. So here they are, in the form of five gifts for writers to bestow upon our characters.
1. Give them goals. What does your protagonist want badly enough to pursue in the face of all the obstacles you’re going to plant in her way? Even more importantly, as Alan Watts asks, what is your hero’s idea of what that goal will bring her? It’s the quest, usually for something unattainable, that drives our characters’ stories.
2. Turn them loose. One of the coolest discoveries I’ve made as a novelist – and heard from fellow writers – is that our characters can surprise us. They go off in directions we didn’t anticipate and even seem to take on lives of their own. I got nervous the first time this happened, afraid I was losing control of the narrative. Over time, I’ve come to welcome these unforeseen developments, which often serve to move the story forward in exciting ways.
3. Let them fight. Conflict is a page turner. Whether it’s a protagonist’s inner struggle or clashes between characters, good stories thrive on the drama of contention. Look for opportunities to play up these moments, via climactic showdowns and simmering tensions in between.
4. Make them suffer. One of the downsides of caring about my characters is a tendency to feel protective of them. I hate to see my darlings suffer, but they must get roughed up on their journeys. I have to constantly fight my squeamishness in order to beset my protagonists with the adversity and anguish needed to turn them into heroes.
5. Have them learn. Our job is to teach our protagonists to grow up. The arc of their development requires characters to discover something about themselves, their goals or the world that frees them from their limitations. Whether they end up triumphant or sadder and wiser, our heroes must transform. As must we, their creators.