The Sunday Salon: Character Development

At times while revising my novel, I’ve come to points when a character refers to something in his or her past and suddenly find myself lost, and having to flip section by section through my manuscript, backtracking to find the first reference to the event. Does the chronology match? How about my character’s attitudes and voice? Why is this past event so important?

When I set out to write the book, I thought I had such questions answered. My characters’ biographies firmly chiseled somewhere in the back of my mind, ready to march forward when called up, just like a computer file. Except, I think I’ve created multiple subfolders and new folders with new tidbits added, sometimes logging in stuff completely contrary to earlier renderings.

Could I have avoided so many different folders and such an information mess had I written detailed character biographies outlining history and wants and needs and desires beforehand? 

As I’ve been reading Elizabeth George’s Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, I’m beginning to think I should have started out with something like the detailed character analysis she describes. Once you have a name for a character, she suggests you sketch out your characters what amounts to a combination of history and psychological profile.

In the midst of revision, I can see how such an analysis could help, how it might have helped before I even began composing the book four years ago. I avoided writing such a profile for each character, though, because I didn’t want to necessarily get locked into a specific path. What happened if the characters started really coming to life, and had their own directions to go? That, as I understood it, was what literary characters did. They developed on their own, like real people.

But real people have biographies, they have moments in their pasts, events in their past, people in their past, even if the past was just the day before, that fuel their desires and needs. So if characters are supposed to represent in some way real people, why not develop a profile, become their historian and shrink? With some of the problems I’m encountering in each draft I write, I’m beginning to think I should have had something firmer than my mind’s eye filing away bits and pieces.

What do you think? How do you develop your characters? Are they filling your brain’s folders coming out piecemeal, or do you have detailed biographies?


One thought on “The Sunday Salon: Character Development

  1. Like you, I began my novel about 4 years ago. I wrote character backgrounders, conducted character interviews and more recently, recorded events from the past in their journals.

    It all helps get them solidified on the page.

    However, I still have sub folders and new folders and find myself checking back in the manuscript. It feels like a mess. In Immediate Fiction, Jerry Cleaver says writing fiction is messy – you make a mess and clean it up over and over.

    I’ve come to the conclusion, there is no right way and no way to avoid the mess. I’ve decided that, ultimately, the mess is how the subconscious mind starts to make connections so the story is richer and achieves more depth. Working over the “mess” repeatedly makes it start to take shape. (Have you ever taken a pottery class using a wheel? It’s a lot like writing fiction!)

    Thanks for the book recommendation, it’s one I don’t have and will definitely check it out.

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