The Writer’s Bag of Tricks

Character Development

I received a question last week about character development. A writer wasn’t sure if they should work out the plot first, or the characters first. My only response can be that every writer is different, and unique, and special, which means every writer’s process is different, unique, and special. Some writers start with the plot. Some writers start with the characters. Neither way is better than the other. You start where you start.

My friend Desiree Holt has written 170+ traditionally published novels in less than 10 years and is a force of nature. She amazes me with her energy, her diligence, and her creativity. She writes very fast, and she always, always, always comes up with her characters first. Desiree probably couldn’t write nearly so quickly if she had to come up with the plot first. So she writes her strengths and comes up with her characters, then she imagines what happens to those characters later as she develops the plot. Coming up with characters is easy for Desiree. It isn’t necessarily easy for anyone else. It is just Desiree’s different, unique, and special way of writing.

It is important to note that some stories are considered character driven, and some stories are considered plot driven. Character driven stories are those who have at least one unforgettable character who is interesting, flawed, and memorable. The story is less about what the character does and more about who the character is. Plot driven stories are those stories whose main focus is on what happens in the story and less on who the events happen to. The very best stories are those with dynamic characters trapped inside a plot with dramatic action. In my humble opinion, of course.

So let’s talk about some character types. This list boils down to the very basic kinds of characters you will see in any book or movie. It is a good place to start.

Protagonist: The central character, or the one whose name comes to mind when you ask the question, “Whose story is this?”

Antagonist: a.k.a. “the bad guy” or the protagonist’s opponent. Usually, the action of a story arises from some conflict between the antagonist and protagonist. Note that sometimes the antagonist is not a person.

Narrator: the fictional storyteller. Note that there are different types of narrators including first person narrators and third person narrators. Also, note that not all narrators are reliable. Sometimes the narrator lies.

Confidante: the character in whom the central character confides. The reader often learns about the central character’s personality through the confidante.

Foil: a minor character whose purpose is to provide contrasts to other characters, thus revealing the qualities of the other characters.

Spear-carriers (or extras): characters who provide some sort of view into the story world. These characters must necessarily be flat since they are rarely named or described in any detail. They tend to run in crowds. These are mostly background characters. In movies, they are the extras.

Stock character: a.k.a. stereotype characters. Actually these are a special kind of flat character who is instantly recognizable to most readers because they show up frequently in literary tradition. Stock characters can be cliché, and are key in many genres. Think absent-minded professor, bad boy, blond girl, cat lady, mad scientist…and the list goes on and on.

If you think of your characters as a type, you may find it easier to create them with more consistency, more depth, more real feeling motives, goals, and conflicts. Movies do this all the time. So do masterful writers.

Next time: more on character development.

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