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If you’re like me, you’re a fiction writer that struggles with creating so-called “fully-developed” characters. Rather than living, breathing people on the page, they end up more like cardboard cutouts in a wheelbarrow with no will of their own, waiting to be pushed along to the next plot point.
But, like me, you’re getting better. You know that characters have desires and obstacles that get in the way of those desires. You know that even the most seemingly flawless of heroes have their dark sides, and that they must face them to get stronger (or weaker, if they succumb to their darkness).
I mean, that’s what real people do, too!
Think about it. Day in and day out, you’re faced with a choice: get up from bed, or stay there. Face the world, or don’t. Steal that TV you see in the store, or don’t. We all wrestle with inner and external demons of some kind–even the ones that don’t look like they do.
So, what gives? You know all this stuff about characters and character development, but something just isn’t clicking.
Care to take a guess what it is?
Your character development habits.
A “round” character is as close to a real life person as they can get. Like any other human being, we know how they act in different situations, and they usually end up, by the end of the story, much different than they were at the beginning of the story, because humans grow and change. If this description sounds familiar to you, it’s because many central characters and protagonists in stories are round characters.
Spoiler warning: Chihiro from Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” is a great example of a “fully developed” character. At the beginning of the movie, she is whiny, cowardly, and clinging to her parents. By the end, she is independent, self-assured, and far less whiny.
A “flat” character does not change much. You know exactly what they think and exactly what they are going to do, because they’re not going to surprise you by acting differently in other situations.
Kinda spoiler warning: Gaston from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” is a flat character. He wants Belle and is a beast-hating narcissist for the entire movie.
When someone refers to a character as “fully developed,” they are usually referring to a character as being “round.” But does this mean that “under developed” characters are “flat,” and that having “flat” characters is bad?
No and no.
Dos and Don’ts?
If you’re protagonist is starting to look like a “flat” character, you might be setting yourself up for trouble, because a reader expects most a central character like a protagonist to change by the end of the book, series, or whatever fiction your have in mind.
However, some protagonists don’t change that much. If your character becomes a symbol that withstands the test of time, like a comic book super hero, they can be as flat as a pancake. Super heroes like The Flash and Superman don’t really change from comic book story to comic book story. Their personalities stay pretty much the same, even though they are major characters. There are various re-tellings out there that give them more depth and complexity, and therefore, some roundness. But overall, when people open up a comic book, they know Superman or the Flash are going to save the day.
But what about that janitor on the third floor apartment of your story? Does he need to have some deep, riveting character change? How round does he have to be?
It depends. If he’s a central character you want to focus on, that janitor might very well be playing out an epic story of his own, and you might have to write about his five kids at some point. But if you’re not going to write about him in depth, don’t worry about developing him too much. It’s okay if he’s flat. He can still want to do his job and be friendly with your protagonist. But he has to be developed enough so that he’s plausible, not so that he necessarily has to be round.
And if I used phrases like “fully developed” and “under developed,” things would get hairy.
The “Fully Developed” Trap
The phrase “fully developed” is a bit of a trap. It suggests that before you write a story, you need to have a “full,” completely whole, satisfied, self-actualized central character. But if your character is 100% completely actualized, they won’t be able to grow, change, and surprise you, or the reader. Ironically, they start to look flat.
Notice what I said earlier: that round, fully developed characters are “as close to a real life person as they can get.” That means that you should have a pretty darn good understanding of who they are and what they do, but you should also leave some wiggle room for them to develop on their own during the story itself. Otherwise, if they have no conflict that prevents their self-development, what’s the story for?
Out of all your characters in your work, the necessary characters should be developed as much as they need to be, round characters more so than flat characters. In other words, the characters that need to be developed as much as possible should have a kind of 85-15 ratio, where the character is 85% developed and 15% unknown. The other 15% of development is portrayed in your story.
Of course, these ratios are by no means static, concrete, absolute measurements. How much that gets developed beforehand and how much that isn’t developed beforehand gets based on what your story is about. Does your character span three novels? One short story? Do they regress in their development at some point? How complete are they as human beings based on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? If one part is lacking, that could very well be what your story is about.
Also, what methods are best to developing your characters?
Whatever Works, Really.
If you’re more a hands on, tactile kind of artist, making a scrapbook or vision board for your character is another way to get to know them and develop them. Maybe certain fabrics or objects remind you of them, or certain images that strike a theme with you. Either way, it’s letting your brain get into the nook and crannies of the characters that need development.
Freewriting can help by putting you inside your central character’s mind for a time—or even a minor character you’d been wondering about. I recommend writing for a few minutes in the voice of the character you want to explore. Letting them vent or sing or dance or laugh on the page will help you find tidbits about them you might not have found with toher methods.
Character charts are one of the more popular ways of developing and creating characters. And rightfully so. They’re can be extremely thorough and helpful. And if you like ’em, great. Do ’em all you want. Fill out all the sections and questionnaires to your heart’s content, but don’t forget to leave some room for growth and surprise.
Me? I can’t stand them. It feels a little pointless for me. Why think of a favorite flavor of ice cream for my protagonist if ice cream hasn’t been invented in my fictional world? I suppose it gets the ball rolling for more story ideas down the line, but if I fill out the entire thing, and only one-tenth of it gets into the story, it feels like I’ve wasted that time away instead of writing.
Since I’m a very dialogue heavy-writer, my preferred method of getting to know my characters is interviewing them and writing out their answers. I’ve done this with my writerly friend a few times, where she asks questions, and I reply back as my character. It’s been incredibly fun and enlightening to do, because sometimes, depending on the question, my characters give answers I never would have thought possible. It’s like being a kid again, playing make-believe.
Otherwise, if none of these methods are for you, you can likewise just dive right into your novel, story, or fiction piece and figure out things as you go along, only organizing after. That’s viable, too. You’re still getting to know your character in your own way.
Just Grow It
There is no one right way to create and develop characters. Some people rely on astrology, divination, or the Chinese Zodiac. Others take acting classes. All that matters is that you find a method/methods that work for you, and stick it.
Characters are seeds. Treat them well. Give them the proper water and sunlight, and they will flourish the way they were meant to in your story.