Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Character development

Here’s a post at Women Writers, Women’s Books: THE IMPORTANCE OF CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

I find this post interesting because the author, Laurie Buchanan, approaches character development so very differently than I do.

Buchanan: Nailing a character’s appearance is vital.

Me: I don’t really have much of a picture of most of my characters. I have literally had editors ask for physical descriptions of the protagonist and realized, after flipping through half a finished manuscript, that I never described the protagonist in any but the vaguest possible terms. I’m questioning your use of the word “vital” here.

Buchanan: The character template is where I also note details about their childhood (good or bad), their parents (or whoever raised them), their siblings, and their childhood friends.

Me: Seriously?

Buchanan: As an author creates characters, it’s essential to ask if they’ve survived trauma, either physical or emotional. For example, are they a survivor of cancer, rape, domestic violence? Do they have PTSD—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Do they suffer from depression, an eating disorder, or anxiety? If yes, how does their experience factor into their current life? 

Me: No, wait, seriously?

Buchanan: Is the character left or right-handed? Do they smoke? Do they drink? Do they have any addictions? What’s their personality type—introvert, extrovert, or ambivert? Are they opinionated? What’s their political affiliation?

Me: You’ve got to be kidding.

Now, the difference may not be as extreme as the above makes it sound. Perhaps Buchanan lays all this out in a notebook or file and I just have it in my head. I mean, I didn’t have to make notes about, say, Carissa Hammond’s backstory to know that she definitely has issues with past trauma. But … wow. This sounds so mechanical and, I don’t know, so artificial. Doing all this stuff with childhood friends and whether someone is left-handed before the character even appears … why? Are they opinionated? Well, good heavens, you’ll find that out when the character starts talking. Sitting down and deciding that a character is irritable or impatient or relaxed about life or whatever before you even start writing the book and before the character walks on stage just seems so odd.

Thus we once again see that the experience and practice of writing are highly variable.

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7 Comments Character development

  1. SarahZ

    Is she a SFF writer? I wonder if she’s more methodical about character because that’s not the part that comes easily to her? Maybe she’s a plot-first writer or world-first, or something. This doesn’t seem to be how any of my favorite authors write, but they’re all character-first.

  2. Evelyn M. Hill

    I enjoyed Tarashana, but I confess that I would have appreciated some physical description of some of the characters. It had been a while since I read Tuyo, and while I could clearly picture Aras and Ryo, when Geras came onto the page in this story I was thrown out of the story because I couldn’t remember what he looked like. Couldn’t picture him.
    I agree, the physical description doesn’t have to be detailed, but a few hints would help me build a picture. (Tall? Thin? Young? Old? )
    But maybe that’s just me. He became more real the more he spoke. You did a good job of showing people’s character through dialogue.

  3. Mary Catelli

    I know authors who recommend interviewing characters.

    I envision that, and my characters at best start acting suspicious and end sidling for the door. (They don’t come from regions where interviewing is a thing.)

  4. Rachel

    Sarah, you made me laugh!

    Evelyn, sorry! I just don’t *think* of describing characters, especially after they’re first introduced, but I’ll try to remember to do that in the other books in the series. I don’t have a clear physical picture of Geras in my head, myself; I just know what he’s *like,* and that he’s been a professional soldier for a good while.

    Sarah, the author of that post seems to write contemporary mysteries or suspense fiction. She says she even notes down things like the character’s favorite bookstore and whatever. I feel like she has to be a plot-first writer, but who knows? Maybe this is actually a very different way of being a character-centered writer.

  5. elaine t

    I recently had a conversatio with someone who’d lost her temper after reading a reddit thread about how good the characterizations on the stargate tv show were compared to Star Wars (any iteration) . The people pushing SG were claiming better characterization because show watchers learn the habits, hobbies, etc. of the characters. My friend grumbled wtte of ‘but we don’t know if they’ll come back out of nowhere to save you as Han did Luke in the original.” That wasn’t narratively required. And it showed perhaps the most important aspect of the character. When the SG characters commit similar actions it’s narrativley required (she said – I never watched the show). So it doesn’t display character.

    Bringing this up because it capsulizes the different ways of thinking about character. The one on what the actions mean about the character, the other on the … resume, I guess, that goes to make up a character but doesn’t require any actions that affect the story.

  6. Rachel

    Elaine, I think that’s an important point! I didn’t realize this at all until I read your comment just now, but I think that’s what actually bothered me about this “Who were their childhood friends? Are they left handed?” type of character biography. Those surface elements are NOTHING compared to: “Would this person come back into peril to save you?” You can write down a thousand trivial details and still know NOTHING about your character.

  7. elaine t

    I can imagine where one’s childhood friend(s) might have a great influence on what sort of character one grows up to be – to grab a handy example, if Voldemort had had childhood friends who stuck with him, they’d have turned out rather differently than they would have if their great friend had been, oh, Aragorn. But this possibility of the friends having major impact on the character and so influencing what he actually DOES never seems to be there in articles like the OP.

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