The thing that I love about literary fiction, in its truest sense is that there is such a heavy focus on character development. The characters drive the story; they instruct it on how it should be told, if you will. Commercial fiction, or as many call it– plot-driven fiction, is just that. There is more focus on what is happening than who it is happening to.
Yet, in fact all stories should have well developed, multi-dimensional characters. When I am talking about my work to someone sometimes I am hesitant to use the word, characters to label them, because in a sense, they are people–if I’ve written the story correctly. Characterization takes the basics of what the eye can see and builds on it. In many cases the appearance is secondary and we begin to build immediately on the person. We describe what they do for a living, the choice of words they use or the amount of makeup they wear. Kathryn Stockett does this so well with The Help until you settle comfortably in the fact that it is a white woman giving voice to these Black characters. She gives authenticity without being condescending, truth, without being over the top. Here are a few points to keep in mind when developing characters:
Avoid cookie-cutter characters and stereotypes. Remember, people aren’t made using cookie-cutters; your characters should not be either. Maybe your main guy is tall, dark and… not so handsome. Or maybe she is a not-so-hot looking blonde but she thinks she’s very hot. Contradict your characters.
Add dimensions to what you already “know” about them. Start with character sketches. As you see them began to add dimensions (like putting clothes on paper dolls); layer upon layer, adding complexity and multi-dimensions. Remember characters, like people are more than just a compilation of eye, hair and skin color.
Characterization takes time. Pace your development. You don’t know a person in one fell swoop, so your characters should be developed over time likewise. As the story progresses we should, at an even pace learn more about them until we’re fully engaged and we’re saying things like: Please let Sally get away, she doesn’t deserve to die! Author Victoria Christopher Murray says, “Characters are like friends; the more time you spend with them, the better you get to know them; the better you can transfer all of their words, gestures and emotions to the page.” This is so true.
Practice, practice, practice. The next time you hit the streets pick a person, any person will do. Begin to characterize them (careful here, stalker rules do apply). Then ask yourself, where were they born and how did they get (fill in the blank for wherever you live)? Give them a voice. Using your creative juices this way is a great exercise. Continue until you feel as though you know them intimately.
As you add things your characters will begin to speak to you; some things will feel authentic and you will go with those. Others will feel forced and unrealistic and you will dismiss those. No matter what kind of fiction you write, draw your reader into the story by developing characters that keep them reading.