In my blog post, Characters are People Too – Part I, it was pointed out that novelists must be fascinated with people in order to create believable characters. In today’s post, we’ll take a further look at character development.
Memorable Fiction Characters
As an aspiring fiction writer it is important that you learn to like people, to listen to people, and to study people. As a fiction lover, it’s a given that you read a great deal of fiction. Take a moment and think about some of the characters that you’ve met in those novels. What made one or two of them stand out in your mind? How do you think the author was able to make them spring to life on the pages?
One of the keys to good character development is simply observing people. Not in a lackadaisical manner, but on purpose and with focus. Let me give you an example.
Several years ago, I was in the dentist office waiting my turn. From the back came a middle-aged man into the waiting area. It’s obvious he has just had some work done. He’s holding his jaw. His wife, who has been waiting for him, stands up and walks over to him. She is rather overweight and speaks in a tone that is several decibels too high for the small waiting room. The first thing that becomes apparent – after noting the wife’s penchant for megaphone-type speech – is that the husband has a genuine fear of the dentist. And the wife is loving it.
Here’s how I recorded this scene in my notebook:
“Did you ask him?”
“Did you ask him about the other tooth?” The wife cackles a wicked laugh.
He holds his jaw and shakes his head
“Chicken. You’re just chicken. A little yellow coward.”
The wife calls to the dentist. He comes into the waiting area.
“He has another one here giving him trouble,” she says. “He needs it out.”
Dentist looks up at the man. The husband is a large man. “Is that right?”
The man shrugs. Still holding jaw that doesn’t need to be held any longer. After an uncomfortable silence he speaks. “Would it be any trouble?” Probably hoping dentist will say he has no time.
“No trouble,” the dentist assures him.
The two disappear into the back.
The wife cackles again. Has no concept of his level of fear. Totally unfeeling of his hurt. Has found a soft spot and goads it.
This is exactly how I scribbled it down later that evening after arriving home. Think of the drama here. Consider the intricate interactions between these two people. This large man has an area that is difficult for him to handle, and instead of compassion, the wife give him a big dose of cruelty. And with an audience to make things even more uncomfortable. I wasn’t the only one in the room, and the receptionist was there as well.
To most people this is a scene that needs to be quickly forgotten. But not to a writer! Oh no. Heavens, no. This is fodder. This is fuel. This is an incredible lesson in humanity.
Another Notebook Entry
Stopped in at the bread store. A black girl is in a parked car singing out loud. Melodious singing; belting it out in full voice. Full and rich. Out over the entire parking lot. It makes me smile.
And One More…
Are you getting the idea here? Let me share one more:
Older lady comes up to the mailbox in front of the post office. Mutters to herself as she reads the pickup times on the box. Starts to put letter in. Hesitates. Pulls it back out. Starts to walk off. Then comes back. Puts it half in, takes it out. Then with an exasperated sigh – shoves it in and walks off.
Does it make you wonder what was in that letter? It does me!
Cultivate Powers of Observation
Are any of these earth-shattering revelations? No. But as you learn to become oh so observant, you will cultivate a heightened awareness of what goes on around you – how people act and react.
Have I ever used any of these scenes in a book? No, quite honestly, I have not. But have I used my knowledge of human nature and basic psychology? I certainly have. Many times.
Understand that the writer’s notebook becomes like an artist’s sketchbook. Actively fill your notebooks on a daily basis with what you see and hear. You will have an arsenal full of portrayals of life as it is lived out on a daily basis. Then when it’s time to create your characters, they will not be flat cardboard characters; they will be vibrant, living, breathing, fully fleshed-out people. People whom your readers will not want to say good-bye to when they hit the final page of the last chapter.
And guess what else? Character development is so darn much fun! You’re gonna love it!
I’ve often said that creating characters is the funnest part of fiction writing. This 11-page Be A Novelist Workshop will give you great insight into the dos and don’ts of character development.