Character development is either your favorite part of writing or your worst nightmare. Maybe you enjoy it, but you don’t know how to give your characters the depth on paper that they have in your head. Here are three of the biggest character development pitfalls and how to crawl out of them.
Practically Perfect = Perfectly Awful
Every author lives out a few fantasies and nightmares through their work. It’s inescapable, but when the author entirely surrenders to that ideal fantasy, the story becomes something more appropriate for a private journal rather than a published novel. Why? Because ultimately we all want to be perfect: perfect looking, perfectly likeable, and perfectly positioned for every element of the story to revolve around our perfection. It’s human nature, but it’s terrible storytelling. Resist the lure of the Mary- and Gary-Sue.
Solution: Even Fantasy Needs Realism
Flaws are just as important as skills, and real people have both. Audiences only develop feelings about real people, so in order to hoodwink them into caring about your cast, you must make them as real as possible. If you aren’t sure how to balance qualities and flaws, think of people you really know. Do you have a friend who becomes a different person when they drink? How do they change? Maybe you have someone who plans very well but fails at communicating those plans. Use friends, enemies, coworkers, and even family members as a base to build up each character.
Stereotypes Are Not Characters
If you write fantasy, then you know exactly what type of character most elves, dwarves, wizards, Halflings, and fairy folk portray. Elves are snooty. Dwarves are brash and crass. Halflings like comfortable chairs and good food. Fairy folk are either adorably naïve or a selfish, mysterious, highly dangerous bunch of vaguely defined villains. If people read your story and can match your character (plus or minus a few physical/situation traits) to a character in another, similar story, you have a serious stereotype problem. The good news is, there is a simple fix. The bad news is, you don’t actually have any characters yet – just stereotypes.
Solution: Look for Nuance
General traits aren’t necessarily a problem, especially from the perspective of another race/nation. In real life, Europeans typically find Americans loud, somewhat insensitive, but generally very friendly. Americans often find Europeans cold, stuffy, and naturally elegant. That doesn’t mean these traits apply to every American and every European. The opposite is often true. Look at stereotypes in this way. Then begin building actual characters. Maybe your elf doesn’t enjoy as much open physical affection as their human comrade, but maybe they are the loudest person in the room when they drink. Maybe your dwarf really likes flowers, keeps a big garden, and finds artificial flowers lacking. The possibilities are endless. When you find a stereotype, go outside the box and consider nuance. Maybe someone from a different culture WOULD perceive your elf as stuffy, but they aren’t like that at all in their own culture or even to the humans who know them.
Two Dimensions Leave Characters Flat
Two-dimensional characters are a half-step away from stereotypes. In this situation, you may not find characters who look and act exactly like yours in other books, but your readers barely know how your character looks and acts in the first place. Maybe you provided a huge list of physical descriptions in the beginning (something you shouldn’t be doing in the first place), but they don’t really provide much to the story outside of basic plot progression and necessary filler dialogue. They don’t feel real at all. They feel like those cardboard trees at the back of the stage in an elementary school play. Flat, lifeless, and vaguely generic even if they were handmade, these characters may not stick in the reader’s memory long enough to even finish the book.
Solution: Build Some History
Add depth to two-dimensional characters with a back story, and give them a reason to be there. The root of all character development is goal-driven. What does each character want? Simply giving each major, secondary, and background character something of their own to work towards will make them more life-like.
Ready to get working on your characters? Just remember to make them a little less perfect and a little more real. Give them a history and something to work towards. Then they’ll do a lot of the work for you!