Development of novel characters is central to any novel. Some have major parts, others minor, but every character should be there for a reason.
Some of the major characters in your story will be heroes, some villains, some good, some evil, some dim, some clever. Just like all the people you meet in real life, all your characters will have different characteristics, some you will like and others you will dislike. That presents authors with a problem. Like them or loath them, your characters have to be believable.
When we talk about writing characters, that applies to all characters, even fantasy or science fiction characters. Those characters still need to be believable, and if your readers are going to find your monsters or aliens believable, they still need to have hopes and fears recognisable to your readers.
You are a nice person. That goes without saying. Whatever level of education, and whatever your background, you are an intelligent, likeable, nice person. Writing about other nice people should be easy for you. You can base them on your own character.
What you also have to get your head around in the development of novel characters, is that all the evil characters in your book think they are nice people too. You may intensely disagree with their politics, their behaviour, their morals, their crimes, or their ethics, but they all have a background that made them what they are. If your villains are to be believable, you need to understand their point of view. You don’t have to agree with their point of view, but you do need to understand how they have arrived at it.
The vilest person in your book, can justify what they are doing. Not to other people, but to themselves. The vilest person in your book can justify their actions to themselves. They must be able to, otherwise they would take a different path.
There is no such thing as an unthinking murderer, thief, adulterer, robber, burglar, war criminal, terrorist. They are not unthinking. They all think about things, and justify what they are doing to themselves. You don’t need to agree with their justification, but you do need to know what it is. Unthinking characters in your novel are unbelievable characters, so if you want your readers to believe in your characters, you need to know what makes your characters tick, and how they justify their actions to themselves.
The following excerpt has been abbreviated from Rutger Bregman’s excellent book, Humankind: A Hopeful History, ISBN: 9781408898956
‘Our enemies are just like us. This applies even to terrorists… It’s tempting to think suicide bombers must be monsters… there must be something to explain why they deviate so far from the average person. Not so, say sociologists. Terrorists span the spectrum from highly to hardly educated, from rich to poor, silly to serious, religious to godless. Few have mental illnesses, and traumatic childhoods also appear to be rare.’
For anyone interested in human nature, I heartily recommend the above book. The actions taken by terrorists are terrible, and ninety-nine percent of us would find those actions completely unjustified. However, terrorists justify their actions to themselves, so if you include them in a book, and if you want them to believable, you need to know how they justify things to themselves, even if (I hope) you find them completely unjustifiable yourself.
Characters need to be authentic in order to be believable. By that, I mean there must be a believable back story. Each one of us is the person we are today because of what has happened to us in the past. You may not need to write everyone’s past history in your book, but you do need to have some idea of what that past history is. For example, if someone is wary of making lasting relationships, why is that? If someone has a chip on their shoulder and thinks the world owes them a living, what caused that chip? If someone is afraid of the dark, what caused that fear? These are the questions you need to be asking yourself. Knowing the answers will make your characters believable.
If something leads to a normally calm character losing their temper, you need to know what that something is. If nothing else, it keeps your story straight. You will know the situations when your character will cope with everything thrown their way, and you will know when that calmness will evaporate into an explosion of anger.
Those character traits need not be worked out in advance, but once you’ve introduced them into your story they need to be consistently applied. That’s not to say things cannot change. The characters in your novel will develop during your story. Bad people may become good. Good people may become bad. That sort of intrigue adds to the enjoyment of any story. Your characters are all on a journey, but you need to know how they have arrived at their starting position, and you need to justify any changes occurring during the course of your story.
The other important thing to mention about the development of novel characters, is that they don’t need to be fully described. How many times have you been disappointed by seeing a film of a previously read book, because the main character has been nothing like you imagined them to be? Good authors only describe what’s necessary for the story. The rest is left to the imagination, and one hundred readers will imagine one hundred different things!
Here’s an example:
“Creeping quietly along the landing, the gunman stopped outside the door and listened. They opened the door slightly, and saw the empty bed with the window beyond.”
I haven’t described the gunman at all. Some of you will be imagining a man, some a woman. It could even be a child! What age? Take your pick. You will all have chosen a different age, different skin colour, different hair colour, different clothes, different gun. How did they open the door? Some of you may imaging them using a key, some turning a handle, some pressing down a lever. What type of bed? What type of window? None of it matters to the story.
Of course, any one of those things mentioned above may be vital to your story. If so, then you need to describe them, but if not, it’s best to leave the reader to their imagination. That short paragraph is full of menace and intrigue. Adding unnecessary information only detracts from the action.
With every sentence and every paragraph, you need to be asking yourself ‘Does the reader need to know this? Is there a reason why I’ve included this information?’ If there is a reason, that’s fine, but if there isn’t a reason, all it does is slow your story down.
Here’s another example of the development of novel characters :
In the middle of a murder mystery, a power-cut takes place during which a murder occurs. Subsequently, an electrician attends to deal with the power-cut.
You have two choices.
Your first choice is to describe the electrician in some detail, describe his conversation with the home owner, describe the fault that caused the power-cut, and describe the action the electrician takes to remedy the situation.
Your second choice is to simply write something like, ‘an electrician later attended and sorted things out.’
If your electrician was the murderer, or if they found a vital clue to the murder, then you may want to include some of the first option. However, if the murderer simply took advantage of a random power-cut to carry out the murder, you may want to use option two.
What is important, is that once you start describing the electrician in detail, your readers will assume the electrician is important to your story. They will assume there is a direct relationship between the electrician, or the power-cut, and the murder. Why else would you take time to describe them?
If it subsequently turns out the electrician had nothing to do with the murder, your readers will feel disappointed and deceived.
To sum up this section on the development of novel characters: Make your characters believable. Know their back story. Understand your villains as well as your heroes. Know the traits of your characters. Describe what you need to describe, but leave out anything not relevant to the story. Don’t over describe bit-players.