Tuesday, November 22, 2011

(Character) Development--It's All His Fault!

This counts as “D, ” right? ;) I was actually going to write about deadlines, but as I started thinking about deadlines, I started thinking about the pressure of meeting them and the paralysis it sometimes causes. I’ve got a self-imposed deadline for editing my current WIP and I realize that one of the problems I’m having with meeting that deadline is not actually the pressure of that deadline, because really, self-imposed means I can change it (who’s gonna tell?), but rather the development of my character. In other words, it’s not my fault, it’s HIS!

I’ve got a hero who would be wonderful, if only I’d paid attention to that one detail, character development (for the purposes of this blog, this week, it will be referred to from here on in as “development”). Like a lot of my characters, this one is based, very loosely, on an actor I saw on TV. I liked the actor’s looks—not too perfect, but still good looking; approachable; great eyes; and based on the character he portrays on TV, a nice personality. The problem is, he’s pretty bland, especially if that’s all I’ve got.

I hear the mantra, “know your characters” all the time, but when it came time to actually developing him (his name is Nathaniel, by the way), I think I may have skimped a bit. Sure, I have character traits on my outline—I know he’s a single dad, he’s new to congregation (the story is a romance with a Jewish theme), he’s divorced, he likes Sam Adams beer and the author Dan Brown, he has slate-blue eyes, he’s a lawyer and he lives on the Upper East Side of New York. But that’s not enough.

I need to know why he does what he does. He doesn’t like being the object of gossip—why not? He doesn’t confide in people easily—why not? What are his hopes and dreams? What are his desires for his daughter? Does he like being a lawyer? Why did he get divorced? What attracted him to his first wife originally? What attracts him to the heroine now?

Without knowing those things, and more, I can’t possibly develop him into a fully rounded, three dimensional character that readers can respond to, relate to and about whom they can care. And without knowing my hero, I can’t possibly make my heroine someone he’d want to be with and give them the happily ever after they deserve, and readers want. Without developing him further, I can’t move the action along because I don’t truly understand how he’d react or, for that matter, what actions he’d cause.

So, instead of looking at my word count and going, “Uh oh, what other scenes can I add?”, I need to sit down and have a conversation with Nathaniel. Maybe invite him to Thanksgiving dinner to get to know him better. As long as he doesn’t eat the apple pie—I’m NOT sharing!


  1. Great post, Jen. Funny and painful at the same time. You could do a standup routine at Nationals.
    I'm finishing up a romance screenplay writing class. Sally Walker has a nice 36-point character development worksheet. I'll share if anyone wants it.

  2. Hi Ana, I don't think I'm as funny in person, but thank you! And I'd love to see that worksheet.

  3. You'll find out his character soon enough if you deprive him of that apple pie!
    Seriously, I agree that characters have to have depth, otherwise they are simply cardboard cut-outs. I find I get to know my characters as I write them (or rather as they write themselves) - rather like you get to know people in real life. You don't know everything about them to begin with, and they can sometimes surprise you!

  4. Yeah,for some reason, this WIP is less organic than others and I'm having to throw them up against the wall and demand they talk to me. Kind of like recalcitrant relatives. ;)

  5. Characters do need the background traits you describe, but yes, it needs to go further than that.

    A story needs well-rounded characters, and consistent characters, to work.

    One of the changes I'm making on a mss rewrite is to keep my heroine more consistent. I had her a bit wishy-washy to make a plot point work, but the end result was the story didn't work well.

  6. Debra, while I think you have to remain true to your characters, I think it's possible for a character to behave in unexpected ways and still have the story work. People don't always behave consistently in real life, and while we don't necessarily want our romances to mirror real life, we can make sure our characters show depth and breadth in their development.