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  • Joan Schweighardt

Writing Tips: Character Development

After two discussions of characters revealed through different points of view, we’re moving on to ways of developing those characters before you start to write them. Joan Schweighardt steps up to the plate this month with suggestions on how to persuade wary characters to reveal their deepest secrets.

If you are a plot-oriented writer, you might be tempted to burst forth from the starting stall with your handful of plot points the moment the flag drops and the gate lifts, creating your characters on the fly. That could work, but unless you’re at the top of your game, you might wind up with a manuscript full of characters distinguished only by the fact that the good guys all resemble you and the bad guys are your opposite.

One way to avoid this is to interview your characters before you begin your story. This will force them to differentiate themselves, because who in an icebreaker lineup wants to say the same thing as the person who goes before them? You might have them start with their physical attributes: gender, age, height, weight, eye and hair color, body shape, any identifying features. By then you will likely find them more than willing to play along, and in the second round they may divulge their marital status, job history, ancestry, how much money they have in the bank and how they came by it.

Once you’ve established trust, you can ask the kinds of questions that begin to reveal who they are on the inside. What are their desires? Their dirtiest secrets? What in each of their backgrounds has become their main motivator? You will be surprised at the range of answers this one elicits: religious experiences, accidents, loss of loved ones, bullying incidents, romantic heartbreak, winning lottery tickets. You may have no more reason to reveal a particular character’s main motivator in your story than you would the details of her checking account, but knowing it yourself will help you to envision how that character will react to the challenges she must face in the plot you are planning to devise.

It’s important to remember that good guys have flaws, and bad guys can have some wholesome inclinations. But you won’t want to reveal everything about any character all at once. How they behave in reaction to an unfolding plot will allow the reader to make an initial impression, which may bloom or disintegrate over time. The thing to remember is that a well-developed character will not remain static over the course of an entire manuscript.

Take House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III, one of my personal favorites. The main characters in that novel are Massoud Behrani, a former Iranian colonel who flees Iran for the United States with his family during the Iranian Revolution, and Kathy Nicolo, a recovering addict. Both Behrani and Nicolo are deeply flawed, but they have good intentions and the reader cares about them right off the bat. Behrani bids on a house being auctioned by the county (in the Bay Area of California) and wins. But Kathy, who lives in the house—until the police force her to vacate it—believes she has inherited it from her father. As they do what they feel they must to prove themselves the rightful owners of the house, more and more of their respective dark sides are revealed. Because both characters are so well developed, because the reader feels empathy for both parties nearly equally, watching the plot bring them to their knees is heartbreaking—and impossible to look away from.

Mr. Palomar is both the subject of a novel entitled Mr. Palomar by the great Italian author Italo Calvino and a character who appears in one of Calvino’s short stories. A blurb describing the novel says that Mr. Palomar is “a seeker after knowledge, a visionary in a world sublime and ridiculous.” A reviewer of the same work describes Palomar as a man who “may or may not think too much.” These descriptions are intriguing, but on their own they do little to reveal Mr. Palomar’s true character.

I haven’t read the novel Mr. Palomar, but I did read the short story in which its namesake appeared, “The Naked Breast,” long ago, and I thought it so well revealed Mr. Palomar’s character that I never forgot it. Mr. Palomar walks along the beach and sees a woman who is sunbathing topless. He passes her by with his head turned aside, so as not to appear to be an ogler. Then he gets to thinking that he has acted awkwardly, that there’s nothing wrong with what she’s doing and his avoidance of her was actually reinforcing a mindset that says there is. So he turns and walks by again, this time letting his gaze travel over the sky, the sea, and her breasts equally. He is happy with himself initially, but he soon gets to thinking he has flattened her human person into that of an object. Perhaps he has even appeared to assert a notion of male superiority. And so he turns once again, this time taking in the sky and waves but now allowing his gaze to linger just a beat longer on her breasts, a small gesture of no-more-than-fitting appreciation. Still he feels he has failed to exert the enlightened intention he is going for. So he tries once more, but this time the woman jumps up in a huff, covers herself, and runs off.

Knowing just this much about Mr. Palomar enables the reader to envision a range of reactions he might have to other stimuli. Everything is a moral dilemma for him. He is the kind of man who always wants to react appropriately. His obsession with rightness is a great foundation for character building. It’s not the end of the process, but it makes for a solid beginning. You can know exactly what your character looks like, what his voice sounds like, what kind of education he has had, all the places he has lived in and/or traveled to, but nothing will tell you more about him than how he reacts when confronted with a moral dilemma, or at least what he perceives to be one.

If you’re having trouble developing a certain character, you might want to have him or her confront a moral dilemma or two before you begin your story. A loose dog is running crazy on a busy street. Does your character risk getting bitten to try to grab him, call an emergency number and hope someone arrives before the dog is hit, or ignore him altogether? Your best friend’s husband, who is also your boss, is having an affair with a coworker. If you were this character, would you tell the friend and risk losing your job? Or would you keep your mouth shut and risk losing your friend? Or would you hope the affair will end before you ever feel compelled to act?

The possibilities for such encounters are endless. Before you know it, you will know your character(s) almost as well as you know yourself. Pushing them into the fun house where the plot is waiting to unfold will be as easy as a stroll in the park, and a most satisfying experience for you as a writer.

Images of characters, both human and other, purchased via subscription from

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