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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Character Development: Making Readers Care

Remember the time when New Superhero was given a personality flaw and some fanboys would suddenly rave, "Wow, great character development!"

Those in the know will tell you that character development is a process, a series of changes that a character goes through for better or worse, brought about by factors in the character's environment and interpreted by his values, experiences and morals.

Characters in a story have a "beginning status" at the start, and an "ending status" by the story's conclusion. One of the writer's responsibilities is to introduce events and situations that seek to alter or reinforce a character's beginning status. When the story ends, the resulting status becomes a thematic point of the whole process.

So if you decide to give a character claustrophobia, or a drinking problem, or an apathetic relationship with his supporting character wife, don't do so just to make him interesting. Make these qualities affect a major decision. Make them threaten his achieving ultimate success. Make them institute some change in the character's status.

When you begin to humanize a character, you initialize the link between the reader and your story. And maximizing character development can not only give your story a deeper level of complexity, but also a reason for your reader to care. When you get your readers to care, you give them a reason to stick around.

Character development is tricky, because you have to know your characters inside and out. How they think. How they view their situation. How they view the world around them. What makes them tick. What drives them forward. What holds them back. A well-rounded character acts like a normal human being who may not always be predictable, but will always have a reason for their actions.

For instance, a superhero who has a chronic case of claustrophobia would not likely rush into a cave to face a bad guy. If he does so, he may not be able to function well, thus threatening his team's victory. A superhero who has a major drinking problem might secretly be attending Alcoholics Anonymous, thus threatening his crimefighting career. A character with an apathetic relationship with his wife might be fooling around on the side with a woman who's a pawn of the main villain. In short, give your characters a reason to suffer, genuinely suffer. It's harsh I know, but why should a reader care if the good guy has it all easy?

To put matters another way, say you're a basketball fan and you idolize one particular player. You're excited everytime he's called into the court, and howl with delight when he makes a kick-ass dunk. To you, he's the god of basketball.

Then your friend tells you one day that your idol is going through a difficult divorce. The question is: would you actually Google it? Would you search for news about it? It's a divorce, not a basketball game, so why would some basketball fans want to know the nitty gritty of the settlement proceedings? Why would they talk about it?

One reason could be that fans want to know how the divorce might affect the player's game. They've begun to care about the player's performance. They want to see their hero emerge unscathed.

Here's an exercise. Write a personal letter, one that you don't intend to send to anyone, but write it as if you're the main character of your story. Pretend that the character is halfway through your story, and write down what he thinks and feels about the situation so far, the other characters, his objective, and the threats at hand. More importantly, write down why he thinks and feels the way he does.

When you're done with the letter, set it aside for a week, then take it out and read it. Does the letter convince you? Does it sound sincere? If this letter were written by someone else, would you care to know what happens next? Cross check the letter with your script and see if what the letter contains is consistent with how you presented the character in your story. You may be able to get fresh insights by doing so.

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