Story Development and Execution Part 3: Character

Ciao, SEers. As we bring February to a close, we reach part three of this series: characters. SE has quite a few posts on the topic. (Joan has a whole series on specific character types, Craig has a series on archetypes, Mae shows us how to use personality tests to develop characters, John discusses insensitivity, and I haven’t scratched the surface. Consider typing “character” into our search bar for a variety of character posts.) Today, I’ll take a slightly different approach and discuss what your characters should do.

Even if you write plot-driven fiction, this point is an absolute truth. Your story is about how your POV character sees a specific aspect of the world. That means there’s automatically an element of bias in your story. Your instinct might be to try to eliminate that bias and tell your story as impartially as possible. RESIST THAT URGE. What makes your story compelling is that character’s view.

Take, for example, The Wizard of Oz. We see things from Dorothy’s perspective. Her home life is boring, and no one understands or seems to care about her problems. Only a life-threatening experience convinces her to stay in Kansas, not run away, and appreciate what she has. I promise you, if the story was told from the Wicked Witch of the West’s perspective, it would be a far different tale. Embrace your character’s perspective. Lean into it. Always tell the story through that filter. To do so, you need to get into that character’s head. Learn who they are, what they want, what they need (which is different), and what they’d be willing to do to get these things.

Our main characters can’t be stereotypes. They need to be unique individuals, just like real people. You may have just brought them to life, but they come with a lifetime of history and lug their baggage to prove it. That baggage is proof they’re not stereotypes. They made mistakes before, and they’ll do so again. (Hopefully not the same ones.) This is your character arc. Their errors in judgement, how they react to them, and how they’ve changed from lessons learned is the whole point.

Make your main character and your villain complex people. They, more than any other characters, must be unique and memorable. That doesn’t mean ignore the development of secondary characters. They impart wisdom, provide comedic relief, and occasionally go on to star in their own stories. They must be “real” people, too. Make all of your characters live in the gray. No hero is perfectly pure, and no villain is entirely evil. Everyone’s on the gray spectrum. Show the challenges that must be overcome to lean toward the light (or the ones that are ignored that take a character into the darkness). Your hero can and should occasionally stumble morally. And your villain should have moments of charity.

Take the time to make your characters not only imperfect, but also memorable. And whatever you choose to make your characters memorable and distinct, reveal that early. The earlier, the better. That will go a long way in bringing them to life as individuals.

In the end, remember that telling the story is done through the lens of your characters. But what sells your story is creating a relationship between the reader and the characters.

To summarize:

  • Show the world through your characters’ eyes.
  • Avoid stereotypes.
  • Remember their backstories.
  • Let their mistakes define their characters and inform their arcs.
  • Make sure all of them are complex and fully developed.
  • Show them all in the gray.
  • Make them memorable.
  • Introduce their individuality early.
  • Strive to create a strong reader-character relationship.

Next time, we’ll discuss dialogue in more detail. Until then, I’d love to know more about how you develop your characters. Please leave a comment below. Grazie!

Links to the Whole Series:

January 7: Idea Generation
February 2: Story Bible
February 28: Character
March 25: Dialogue
April 20: Plot
May 16: Constructing Chapters
June 10: Pacing/Tension/Suspense
July 6: Writing Suspense
August 1: Writing Action
August 26: Macro-Level Self-Editing
September 21: Mid-Level Self-Editing
October 17: Micro-Level Self-Editing
December 7: Planning a Series

Note: Links will only work on and after the date the post goes live.

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89 thoughts on “Story Development and Execution Part 3: Character

  1. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 10: Macro-Level Self-Editing | Story Empire

  2. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 9: Writing Action | Story Empire

  3. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 8: Writing Suspense | Story Empire

  4. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 7: Pacing, Tension, and Suspense | Story Empire

  5. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 6: Constructing Chapters | Story Empire

  6. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 2: The Story Bible | Story Empire

  7. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 1: Ideation | Story Empire

  8. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 5: Plot Development | Story Empire

  9. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 4: Dialogue | Story Empire

  10. Pingback: #ReblogAlert – #TwoFer #ThisWeekOnStoryEmpire & #SmorgasbordWeeklyRoundUp | The Write Stuff

  11. Sorry I’m a week behind on my favorite blogs, Staci, but I was preparing for my Saturday wildlife presentation and that ate up a LOT of time. I’m really, really glad I stopped by today while putting together my Sunday post, because I needed to read this NOW. I’m starting a spinoff novella series based on WRR characters, and I know what the first story is about and who will be the one to unravel everything. (Did the name “Rabbit” cross your mind?) But I’ve been pondering my villain. I didn’t want him to be totally bad or unredeemable, but had no idea how I should approach him. This post has reminded me of things about character development that I’d forgotten, PLUS given me several brand new insights to consider. Perfect timing for me, and I thank you so much for laying it all out so clearly and concisely. Now I’m really looking forward to getting back to work on this novella tomorrow. WONDERFUL post!! 😀 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Nailed it again, Staci! You’ve done such an amazing job with this series. Sorry I can’t add to the conversation. I’ve reached that point in the day where my brain is about to shut down. Hope you’re enjoying your grandbaby!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I love this post, Staci. My favorite POV characters (writing and reading) are those with flaws and world views that differ from my own. When done well, it challenges the reader to consider the beliefs of others rather than simply judging that person as unworthy. It can even stir sympathy toward a character we might dismiss in the real world.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. This is great advice, Staci! As a reader, I love complex characters and can easily tell when an author has flushed out all parts of his/her characters. As a writer, I love shedding light on imperfect beings. No one is perfect, so our characters shouldn’t be either! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Really great advice, Mae. “Our main characters can’t be stereotypes. They need to be unique individuals,”–it’s so easy to forget this! It’s what makes writing more difficult and more gratifying. We end up with characters as friends if we do it well.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. That’s an excellent point, Staci, about the story’s lens being each character’s POV. A great example of this is the unreliable narrator, and in a way, all narrators are unreliable to some extent since they evaluate everything and everyone through their own filter. 😀 Happy Writing.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Characters are what drive a story for me. As both writer and reader, I’m all about character-driven fiction. I need that emotional attachment to become immersed in a tale. You make a good point about attending to both the protag AND the villain. I’ve read books where the author fully fleshed out their MC but the villain remained more of a cardboard cutout with no depth. Even secondary characters need more than a surface gloss.
    This was a great post, Staci, and using Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz was an excellent example to drive the point home.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Marvel movies frequently come under fire for not developing villains. The ones they do develop often go on to have as big (if not bigger) a fan base as the heroes. I hate when I read the cardboard villain in stories.

      Glad you enjoyed the Wicked Witch example. Thanks, Mae.

      Like

  18. This is such a good post and has been a truly informative and helpful series, Staci. I don’t think I’ve ever heard the term “show them all in gray.” But it makes total sense to me. And yes, even though we’ve created these characters, they do come with flaws, habits, baggage, and goals. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t think of a single real life person who didn’t live in the gray. Perhaps Hitler was closest to black and Mother Teresa to white, but Hitler saw himself as a hero (which all villains should) and Mother Teresa (in her infinite humility) would claim to be flawed.

      The gray is where the interesting stuff happens. When we remember that (as writers), we do our characters and our readers a service. Thanks, Jan.

      Like

  19. Excellent post, Staci. I’ve read plot driven fiction that has “flat” characters and it’s not appealing. Of course, I’m partial to character-driven fiction, but even characters like Jason Bourne were multi-dimensional and had a character arc. As you said, it comes down to “knowing” your character and developing them.

    I’m really enjoying your series.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I read a plot-driven NYT bestseller last year. It got the requisite glowing reviews from a lot of people, but I didn’t care for it. The characters just weren’t believable. (Made me wonder how many reviews were positive because of who the author was rather than because of the story itself. But that’s cynical of me.)

      I’m glad you’re enjoying the series, Joan. Thank you.

      Liked by 1 person

  20. Excellent overview! Interesting your reference to Dorothy from L. Frank Baum’s book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. As the chief protagonist, the depth of Dorothy’s character for a children’s action fantasy intrigued me. The Enneagram of Personality has given me nine separate base lines to create characters who must navigate between feeling secure and stress. Enneagram reference sources abound for well-known individuals to serve as models of realistic behaviors and emotions, offering detailed flaws for protagonists and likeable qualities for antagonists. Stories are essential, yet book reviews suggest readers return for the characters.

    Liked by 3 people

  21. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 3: Character | Legends of Windemere

  22. Pingback: Story Development and Execution Part 3: Character – Stuff I want to read

  23. It sounds like you have to use deep 3rd person pov or 1st person to do this well. And it may mean multiple pov’s in the course of a novel. Maybe that’s why the impartial omniscient narrator isn’t common these days.
    My go-to narrative voice is 1st person. It has limitations, but I don’t have to worry about head-hopping.

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