Today marks the beginning of my new column, Creating Great Characters. As one might expect, these articles will explore different ways to develop characters. I've structured the column like a very informal class, so every article will include an exercise designed to develop a character. But first, I'd like to explain how to make the most of this column.
You see, I know how the writer brain works. I know you want to write that darn book, and you want to do it quickly so you can share your brilliance with the world. You want to make the best book possible while expending the minimum amount of effort required.
So you're probably thinking that you'll do each of these exercises for your main character, your antagonist, maybe the love interest, and dive into your novel.
This may seem like the easy route, but it creates more work for you in the end, especially if you're trying to write a quality novel. You need to do these exercises for all of your important secondary characters.
Why? Well, I could go on for days, but it really comes down to three key things:
1) Your secondary characters' backgrounds inform how they interact with your main character
We are shaped by our experiences. Our education, religion, family life, early friendships, all of these things impact our personality. Knowing even a few basic things about each aspect of your side characters' life helps you ensure that every decision they make actually fits their character.
If the secondary character has known your main character for a long time, you also want to know the general arc of their relationship. Have they always been friends? Enemies? Lovers? The longer they've known each other, the more their relationship will have grown. You need to be aware of that growth, because it will influence how they communicate.
Knowing these things brings your characters to life for you, and that allows you to bring them fully to life for the reader.
2) The little details are what truly bring the world to life
You've probably heard this before about worldbuilding, at least if you write science fiction or fantasy. It's the little details, things like the ancient songs your characters hear in pubs, that truly bring a world to life for the readers.
Properly developed side characters are just as important for bringing your story to life. In the real world everyone's life is multifaceted, and it should be clear to your readers that every character in your book also has a multifaceted life. They exist outside of the context of your plot.
I should probably clarify here that I don't mean you need to create individual character profiles and lives for every soldier in both armies if you're writing a war story. When I say side characters, I'm talking about anyone who comes in direct contact with one of your POV characters more than once.
Even this might seem excessive, but I promise you, it's worth it. I've spent 11 years working on Moonshadow's Guardian, a fantasy novel I plan to release next year, in large part because I didn't do this kind of planning before I started. Trust me, you want to do it now rather than in revision.
3) Your side characters' backstories might be more interesting than you expect
If you follow me on social media, you've probably seen me talking about the fantasy series I'm working on that "seems to grow a new book every time I look at it". This growth is because several of my side characters have been so interesting that I've developed entire novel arcs for them.
Writing series is the best way to build a career as an author, and you have a lot more freedom if your series is simply a group of books set in the same world rather than a massive continued arc. Developing your side characters gives you these opportunities in spades.
If you're currently planning your first novel the idea of planning your second may sound crazy, but here's the thing: you can write down a few notes for a second book and hide them away. Then the idea has the entire time you spend on your first book to ferment in the back of your mind. When you get back to it, you'll likely find it easy to expand upon and improve, because some part of your brain is always thinking about these things.
The Bottom Line
Every character in your story matters. If your goal is to be a great writer, take the time to develop them. I'll be back here once a month to share a character exercise you can walk them through, all designed to get maximum development with minimum effort. By the end, you might even be writing novels about some of them!
Dianna Gunn is author of YA fantasy novella Keeper of the Dawn and columnist at Writer's Corner, writing both Professional Interaction for Authors and Creating Great Characters. She also blogs about creativity, life and books at The Dabbler.
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