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How I Approach Character Development

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

For me, character is as important as plot. If I’m not invested in the characters, it will show in the writing. If I don’t care, then why will the reader?

When I begin a new novel, I have a start point and an ending. I mark them up on a huge whiteboard. Between the start and the finish, I put in a couple of scenes that I need to pass through to get to that end point. That is as far as I go with plotting. I’m writing two series, the Jimmy Wayne books, and the Shakespeare Murders featuring DC Toby Marlowe and DS Fred Williams, are already developed. As I write, I discover new things about them and these are added to my profile notebook. Every new detail that occurs in the story is added to their profile and this enables me to develop their back story.

I’ve been asked if a character’s back story is important. The simple answer is no; not if they are killed off quickly or if they are peripheral to the storyline. However, if they are central to the plot then they have to have a backstory because that informs their actions. It also decides if we care about them as characters; you can’t have strong feelings about a cardboard cut-out.

When I write my characters, I have to know them to understand their motivations. What do they want? What are they afraid of? If I care about a character, it shows in the writing.

Ma Lantern is the evilest woman that ever walked the earth but I love writing her. I never meant for gangster Jack Lantern to have a mother who was head of the family crime business but one day she just appeared and started talking to me on the page. When strong characters appear like that, you need to listen to them; it’s your subconscious mind telling you they need to be there. You should only include them if they come with their backstory clear and obvious. They need a reason to be there; don’t just drop a new character in for the sake of it. If they don’t add something to the story and enrich the backstory of other characters, leave them out.

Because I am mostly organic in my writing style, (Pantser, but still wearing my socks), these characters just occur without planning. I usually just write them if it’s a first draft, I can always cut them later. It’s amazing how often totally unplanned characters just appear and then become essential to the plot development. If you are writing, this will almost always happen at some point; listen to that voice when it calls. Characters have a life of their own; listen to them and let them in. What have you got to lose?

Next post in this series - Crafting Believable Antagonists

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