Developing Effective Characters in Fiction

by TJ Fritts 

How do you develop effective characters in fiction?

For some, the art of writing is all about the scenery and making the reader feel as though they are walking alongside the characters through the story. I focus on the part of the story that people can relate to closest: the characters. You can have a dozen well-defined sets for your characters to walk through, however, if your readers aren’t interested in the characters walking through those sets, they have no reason to stay with your story.

Think about a classic like Herman Melville’s Moby Dick for a moment. What nation’s flag did Ahab’s ship display? What color were the bed linens on the Captain’s bed? What color dinnerware did the ship use?

Now consider Queequeg. From the moment he enters the story we’re given details about him, starting with his appearance and going from there until we know him as well as we know Ishmael. We become interested in him because he became more interesting than the background. In terms of detail, the scenery that Melville used was kept sparse but the people jumped off the page. When Queequeg bites off a mouthful of raw steak we see the savage in him. When we see him make an offering to his little effigy we see his moral nobility.

The key to character development for me is feeding details to the reader gently. If Melville had dumped the full Queequeg story on us in the first page, he’d have been uninteresting because we would have known all there was to know about him. Melville sprinkled little details about him throughout the story so that readers would get to find out things about him gradually.

A technique I like to use in my work is diminished detail—intentionally leaving the details bland, or even non-existent.

“Johnny Hatton stood just over five-feet-eleven and weighed 165 pounds on his 52nd birthday. His appearance was distinguished by a large scar on his cheek, a smaller one on his chin, and a neatly trimmed head of graying hair. His steel-gray eyes were sparkling and alive despite his aging. His nose bent awkwardly thanks to an old break.”

That’s not the worst bit of writing I’ve ever seen, but it could easily be an All-Points-Bulletin that the police put together to apprehend him.

“Hatton braced against the renegade north wind. As winter wore on, each of his twenty-three winters as a cattleman made him crave the comfort of an office. It was unfortunate that—with his looks—he would be out-of-place in an office environment. The scar on his cheek alone would frighten most delicate office workers out of their wits.”

In both examples, I use 58 words. I mention his appearance, but I didn’t shove detail down the reader’s throat like I’m describing a fugitive. From this paragraph, you know he’s an older man because he’s been in the cattle business for so long. We know he’s got a nasty scar on his cheek, and he doesn’t generally look the part of an office worker. I gave plenty of detail, but most of it is left vague so the reader can create their own mental picture for Mr. Hatton. Readers being left a little room for their own creativity is ideal because it allows them to form bonds with characters in your story. It allows them to draw the people in your work however their mind’s eye chooses. That said, you cannot assume that your readers will work harder to read your story than you did to write it. You’ve got to give detail, but I recommend giving them a few details to wind up their little clockwork mechanism and then gently nudging them along their way.

One common mistake occurs when the writer assumes that the reader must be moronic. This is a critical error which—if done severely—offends the reader beyond recovery. Your main character wears motorcycle boots, a great little detail to add that helps the reader see him. Many fail because they take the concept way too far.

“The boots he wore were like those worn by bikers. A leather boot with a slight heel, built for abuse. The boots were reinforced by leather straps around the ankle, with shining steel buckles keeping the straps taught. The buckle that sat on the inner ankle of the boot was a Texas Ranger Star motif buckle, with a roped edge motif. He never polished them, as he felt that shining boots made a bounty hunter look like some sort of phony.”

That passage is eighty words of detail bombardment, and your reader doesn’t need to know most of it! He wears motorcycle boots—I understand and can visualize motorcycle boots for myself without needing an incredible list of details. The detail about the leather support straps is like talking about a supermodel and mentioning that she’s quite attractive. At most, these boots could be described in ten words “He wore motorcycle boots, the old kind with the straps.” That’s one-eighth the fluff, and it leaves you more room to tell your story. This becomes an important advantage for the writer working with a tight word count budget.

Unless there are details about his boots that the reader needs to know, there’s no reason to make them read through a half-page of fluff. If the character wearing them has a leg issue, then you might mention that his left boot sole is worn more on the outside edge. Later, when the character can’t run very fast, the reader can connect the dots.

The other side of this is that the writer need not always mention those things which are explicitly relevant. With a character designed as a villain, you can’t just say “Derek Bradley is 24 years old, and he’s the bad guy.” Well, you could, but you shouldn’t. The easiest way to create a villain? Make him do villainy things!

“As Derek waited in the checkout line, his tenuous grip on patience evaporated. It wasn’t the grandmotherly lady’s fault that her hands didn’t work like they used to, but Derek was still annoyed.

‘Hurry up you old hag, I don’t have all day,’ he barked viciously.”

Without once stating that this is the character the reader is supposed to dislike, there’s a pretty good chance that he’s not going to be your favorite character. True, some people would be angry right alongside him, but that’s why you put in another dastardly deed of doom. Typically, you don’t have to mention that his favorite condiment is pureed puppy for people to hate the guy. Our hero character could see this behavior and let Derek know that he’s crossing lines. This would make him the hero character without ever having him flash a business card printed “Good guy”.

For me, writing is an effort in psychology. How can I make this story interesting enough for a reader to stick with me to the last punctuation mark? How do I make a reader want to read this story? What elements should I include that will accentuate the story I want to tell? All of those questions are essentially the same: “How do I convince a stranger to read past paragraph two?” I’ve found that the answer is simple—create a character that a reader will take an interest in, and make them care what happens to the character. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dastardly fan of pureed puppy, or a guy so nice that he’s nauseating. If you create him in a way that intrigues the reader to see what happens to him at the end, they’ll be with him to the end.

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