Ah, character development. Not the personal kind that comes via hardships and challenges, like writing a freaking novel while attempting to live a normal life (ungracefully, BTW), but the kind writers struggle with as they chase characters through their stories. It’s tempting to introduce dozens of interesting characters, but beware: you must develop each of them, understand their baggage, their motivations and desires, and why they arrived in the first place.
Wait: Is this oft-quoted writerly advice really true?
The skeptic (and lazy person) in me tried to call bullshit on this. I stayed focused on What Happens Next and hoped no one would notice I hadn’t really done my homework on my characters. When it was obvious even to me that this wasn’t working, I tried focusing on just the three main characters: Stella, Abby, and Olivia. Did I really need to know that much about Johnson? Owen? Cherie? Surely, I could skate by with cursory understanding of the ancillary characters.
I needed to know about Johnson’s marriage, Cherie’s class schedule, and Owen’s past. I had to track all the characters though the novel, manage the arc of their development – even if the details didn’t wind up in the final draft. Were they behaving appropriately? Stumbling? Failing? Growing? Changing?
How could I keep track of all these people’s personal lives??
One weekend, my writing group retreated to a rustic camp on Lake Iroquois. One of the writers brought colorful tractor feed index cards, hoping they could be useful.
Inspired, I tore off a string of twelve blue cards. Starting with June, I wrote the names of the months, one per card, then wrote Abby’s name in the upper left corner of the first card. I plotted activities across the months, e.g., for June: Stella’s funeral, moving into Stella’s house, etc. Then I plotted emotions/interior thoughts, e.g., for June: grief, frustration, incompetence, etc. I knew where I wanted Abby to end up, so I paced her activities and corresponding character development across the months – making sure what was interior was showing up appropriately in the activities. Then I did this with Olivia and Johnson.
By the time I was done, weeks later, I had cards for Cherie, Owen, even Stella, and others. This exercise forced me to understand my characters, and to demonstrate on the outside (actions) what was going on (or hiding what was going on) inside. I was able to see, quite literally, the relationships among the key characters. I even let go of a couple of characters who were not contributing enough to the narrative, not driving the story forward with the vigor to warrant a few hundred precious words. Certain actions were also cut, as it became clear they made no sense considering where these characters were coming from – places never written, but found in their history through this exercise.
If you were to outline your own development over the past year, what would it look like? What would you like to see in the year ahead?