Character Development, part II

Yesterday, at http://magicalwords.net, where I blog with fantasy authors Faith Hunter, Misty Massey, and fellow SFNovelists member C.E. Murphy, I began a discussion on creating and developing characters.  I started with my belief that creating believable, compelling characters is the most important element in effective storytelling, regardless of the genre in which you happen to be writing.  I then went on to talk about the foundation work I do in creating my main characters, from working out physical traits, to exploring family history and background, to figuring out personality traits and (this is key) personal faults and shortcomings that my main character will have to overcome in order to deal with the troubles I plan to throw his/her way as the story progresses.

Today I’d like to delve a bit deeper into the types of things I do to create my protagonists and make them not only convincing, but also interesting enough to make my readers want to follow them through an entire book or series of books.

Let me begin by saying that characters — like people in our own lives — are more than just a compendium of physical traits, family history, and personality quirks.  That may seem basic, but as I’ve worked with beginning writers I’ve found that many of them don’t look deeper into their own characters.  It may be because I’m a storyteller by trade and thus look at the world through that lens, but I believe that we are also the sum of our stories.  What do I mean by this?  I’m not merely David B. Coe, author, husband, father of two, son of a teacher and stockbroker, youngest of four kids.  I’m also someone who has done and seen and experienced a lifetime worth of stuff.  Some of what I’ve experienced has been fairly mundane, notwithstanding whatever impact it had on me; and some of it has been pretty incredible and would be to anyone.

As writers, we ought to look at our characters in a similar way.  In yesterday’s post I mentioned that I like to know if my characters have certain physical attributes — do they have scars, do they carry themselves with confidence or do they seem to shy away from the world around them?  I also said that I like to know what their relationships with their parents and siblings were like, and what their childhoods were like.  And I want to know if the character is quick-tempered or arrogant or a loner, etc.  In figuring these things out about our characters, we open ourselves up to learning and retelling our character’s stories.  Your character has a scar?  Great!  That’s a story!  Write it!  That scar can lead to a short story that will tell you more about your character (and by extension, your world, and perhaps even your plot for the book you’re developing).  Is there some event from your character’s childhood that was formative, that explains a key personality trait?  Great!  That’s a story, too!  Write it!

Why this emphasis on writing short stories?  Several reasons.  First writing a short piece of fiction about your main character is a great way to get to know him or her better.  It allows you to add some meat to the framework we began building in yesterday’s post.  It makes a personality trait or physical attribute something more than a bullet point on an index card.  It adds substance to the character’s personal history.  It’s one thing to say that a character didn’t get along with his/her only brother.  It’s quite another to have a detailed, exciting story to back up that knowledge.  Second, knowing a character’s traits and history is one thing; understanding that character’s narrative voice is another.  This person is going to be your primary (if not your only) point of view character.  The sooner you begin to develop a distinctive narrative style and tone for telling this person’s story, the better your book is going to be.  Connected to this is the fact that narrative voice is another way of reinforcing your worldbuilding.  The tone of your writing ought to change when you move from one project to another, and writing a short piece about your main character allows you to establish the tone you want for this new novel or series, and at the same time allows you to learn more about your world.

And finally, regardless of whether this is going to be your first novel or your tenth, selling short stories is a great way to raise your public profile, reach greater readership, and generate greater sales for your book.  If you haven’t sold a novel yet, short story sales can make it easier to interest an editor or agent in your book.  So not only will writing short fiction about your character give you a greater understanding of the person around whom you’re building your book, it will also help you market that book. 

Do I practice what I preach?  I try.  I have a new series that I’m developing — I plan to begin work on it as soon as I finish the last volume of my Blood of the Southlands trilogy (which could happen as soon as later this week).  And earlier this year I sold a short story set in this new world, centered around an event from my lead character’s past.  The story is called “The Lost Children,” and it should be appearing in Black Gate magazine in the not-too-distant future.

What about you?  Do you use short fiction to bolster your worldbuilding and character development?  Do you have other techniques that you use to deepen your understanding of the characters you create?

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  1. 1. cedunkley

    Thanks for these articles. I’m not a short story writer, and yet, recently I’ve actually started writing some. I’m using them as ways to explore different narratives (and I think they’re pretty cool little stories in their own right).

    When it comes to writing short stories based upon characters in my main second-world creations, I end up writing scenes instead of short stories. I’m a novel writer and my writing brain just thinks that way by default it seems. But recently I’ve been thinking about trying to write actual short stories about some of my characters, especially some of the newer ones.

    I never thought to send those out to short story markets, however, but, as you say, it does seem an obvious way to try and break into publishing and generate an interest in my writing and characters.

    One business question:

    Is there any potential legal entanglement if the short story ends up being morphed into a flashback scene in a novel, especially if the short story was sold before a publisher offers a contract for a book?

  2. 2. Kelly McCullough

    I can answer that one. The question is dependent on the exact clauses of the short story contract, but with almost any reputable contract, no. Or, at least no bad ones. My first published novel begins with several chapters that significantly overlapped a short story published in Weird Tales. Pretty much all that was required was a note on the copyright page acknowledging the earlier publication.

  3. 3. Kelly McCullough

    I agree with a lot of what you’re saying over these two essays, David, but I have to note that really good characters will not carry me over big plot holes or world-building flaws by themselves. I’ve put books down for inadequacies in any of the three areas. In some ways I’m more forgiving of cardboard characters as a reader than I am of logical flaws in either plot or world. It’s really a matter of scale. I need at least two legs of the stool to be solid and the third not to be awful if I’m going to keep reading.

  4. 4. Scott Marlowe

    Good advice on writing short stories to get your name out. I’ve been planning on doing just that with a new series/character as soon as I finish my current project.

  5. 5. David B. Coe

    Thanks for the comments, all. Kelly, I appreciate the answer to that first question — I was going to say much the same. As for your second comment, I might have overstated my tolerance for bad worldbuilding and/or plotting. Clearly I want the books I read (not to mention the ones I write) to have all three legs of that stool be rock solid. But I find that as a reader I can deal with flaws in worldbuilding and plot so long as they’re not too extreme. But if an author gives me a bunch of lifeless characters, he/she is going to lose me pretty quickly.

    To Scott and cedunkley: I’ve never been much of a short story writer. Novel length feels much more natural to me. But I’ve found recently that these background stories help me a great deal, and the sales are a nice bonus.

  6. 6. Kelly McCullough

    David, I suspect that you are closer to the reading norm with less tolerance for character flaws and more for the others. Perhaps because I start with world and plot or perhaps because I read partially as an exercise in puzzle solving,* the problems in the other two rank higher for me.

    *If I’m puzzle solving and the author makes even logical errors that make it impossible for me to solve the puzzle presented to the characters, or ignores easy and obvious solutions for reasons that are less than well thought out, it will often produce a setting the book aside forever moment and occasionally a remove the author from the reading list moment.

  7. 7. David B. Coe

    Yikes! A “remove the author from the reading list” moment! That sounds so . . . permanent. Good thing we SFNovelist authors write flawless books!!

  8. 8. Kelly McCullough

    Well it does take a pretty serious infraction for that. I haven’t done it for several years. And, absolutely, no one in this group would ever write anything less than deathless prose.

  9. 9. glenda larke

    Deathless prose? David? Aargh, I am not forgiving you for the death of a certain character in Rules of Ascension, David! Joking aside, though, you do write great characters.

  10. 10. David B. Coe

    :) Thanks, Glenda! That means a lot to me coming from a writer of your talent.

  11. 11. cedunkley

    Kelly,

    Thanks for answering. I appreciate it.

    As for the won’t read any more of that writer’s stuff scenario, so far I’ve been lucky in my reading choices. Dan Brown is the only one I have moved onto that list.

  12. 12. Barry Holmes

    Interesting. I’m not a serious writer yet. I’d position myself as more of a dabbler. My wife and I have been developing a world of our own. To date most of what I’ve written are short scenes that explore how our world came to be and how it works. One example is a series of research logs about how a test subject of Project Enablement nearly died of diabetic shock after his first (and very unexpected) Were shift. After reading this post I think I’m going to spend some more time with the characters working on what makes them tick. I have a sense in my head on who they are, however, I’m realizing that I haven’t really explored them yet.

  13. 13. David B. Coe

    Thanks for commenting, Barry. I think you’ll find that doing even the same type of short scenes on character that you’ve been doing for your worldbuilding will be enormously helpful. Good luck with the project.

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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