At a book festival this week, I was on a panel about characters and how to develop them. One of the audience members had a fantastic question that was basically: How have your characters (and the way you develop them) changed from your first book to your latest book?
I went from the first book I wrote, rather than the first book I published, because the first book I published was actually the seventeenth book I wrote and I learned . . . a bit . . . through writing those other sixteen books.
1. Time spent considering choices.
Early on, I had characters going around doing stuff I wanted them to do. They served the plot. While they didn’t necessarily act out of character — a kind character wouldn’t do something cruel solely because I wanted her to — their actions didn’t always make sense. The characters served the plot, rather than driving the plot.
Now, I spend a lot more time thinking about different choices my characters could make. I consider why they choose to do something (or not do it), and I draw from other choices they made elsewhere in the book. I look at their backstory and consider how that informs their current choices. Now, the decisions they make drive their end of the plot.
I used to focus mostly on the characters’ lives right now. I mean, I knew their basic history. A princess grew up like a princess. But as I grew as a writer, I began searching for more defining moments. A princess grew up as a princess, sure, but maybe her father said something hurtful that changed the way she saw him, or she almost died because of an illness that killed hundreds of others and she survived only because her family could afford the medicine. They can be large or small events, but either way, they change the way the character views the world and inform life choices.
In the same way characters used to do what I needed the to do, they said what I needed them to say. Now, I am a lot more deliberate in my word choices, especially when it comes to their dialogue. Some characters speak a lot more casually or excitedly than others. Some have more of a sense of humor than others. Those things all need to be reflected in their dialogue.
I can also show relationships between characters in their dialogue and word choices. Characters who have been best friends for years will have inside jokes, ways of speaking with each other, and even body language. Characters who’ve only just met might be more reserved with each other (or not, and that, too, shows something about the characters).
There’s a lot more I could say here, but it’s already getting long and I’m late posting this (sorry!), so I’ll just end with asking you: how has your character-development process evolved over the years? What have you learned that has helped make your characters feel real?