Esther Mitchell's Ten Commandments of Character Development
As an author, I've heard many times that killing off one's important character(s) during the course of a novel or a series is a serious taboo. If this is your belief, you may want to stop reading, now, because I happen to believe that the inability to torture or kill off one's characters is what holds too many authors back from creating memorably unique and multi-dimensional characters.
So who am I to throw everything you'll ever be taught in fiction writing courses on its ear, and tell you to go ahead and torture, torment, and kill your character(s)? No, I'm not a NY Times Bestseller, or a Hugo or Rita or any other major award winner. However, what I am is a character developer and author who spends a great deal of time and energy creating and developing characters and character situations (as opposed to plot development, which is the subject for another article). I also have decades of education and experience in both psychology and personality development under crisis, which I bring to my character creation. I'm known for my characters, and often receive e-mails from readers raving about the characters in my books. With decades as a published author with characters people still remember from my first releases, and a critical reader and editor, I have to say I find no value in the old staid rules of what should and should not be allowed to invade a character's existence and development. Being narrow-minded on what a character should experience is detrimental to creating truly memorable characters. So I'm daring you, if you've read this far, to consider throwing out the rule book regarding life, death, and experience, when it comes to your characters.
After all, if you examine some of the most memorable fictional characters of all time, the thing you note first is what makes them memorable. And it's rarely something happy. Let's use Romeo and Juliet as our example, here. They are often seen (whether rightly or wrongly - that's not the point) as one of the most well-known and memorable romantic couples in all of literature. Yet, what is it that we remember most about their relationship? Not a breathless love affair, or anything resembling joy. No, what we recall is the tragic series of events that culminated in their joint suicide. Still, for some reason that escapes me, modern Romance has banned the concept of death or heartache from its wheelhouse, shying away from the idea like a horse from a nest of vipers. The sad result of this is a shallow, tepid pool of predictable character tropes that have become overused to the point of making the industry a joke in the eyes of many potential readers.
There's a whole realm of character development that opens up when an author isn't afraid to push the envelope with his or her characters. When you're not afraid of what you put your characters through, when you refuse to coddle them like newborn chicks, then you get to see what your characters are really made of.
How do I know this? I have consistently, over two decades as a published author, been contacted by readers who fell hard for my characters, and wrote to me to tell me how this character or that gave them the strength to face their own demons. Seeing someone else go through it (even if only fictionally), and getting to experience the suffering right along with them, and the sense of relief and triumph when the situation resolves, gave those readers courage. And that's the greatest accolade I, as an author, could ever receive.
So, how does one craft these characters people remember and talk about even decades later?
Here are my own personal Ten Commandments for Character Creation and Development:
Know Your Character
Seems obvious, right? And yet, in talking with a number of authors over the years, I've been shocked to learn how few authors really take the time to get to know their characters. Instead, they baby and gush over the characters like proud parents, terrified their precious characters will end up with a boo-boo. They can't tell you what their character's favorite food or drink is, what song they sing in the shower, or if they prefer to talk or text on the phone. More importantly, they couldn't tell you what demons the character might be hiding. They can't define what makes their characters tick.
Now, I'm not saying everyone should be as fanatical about character building as I am -- I have entire biography packets that would make even the CIA blush with embarrassment on each of my characters (if you're interested in more on these packets, you can e-mail me directly at email@example.com and I can provide more about them). I'm aware most people consider my character creation system a little excessive, but at least if I'm ever unsure of a detail, I have easy access to the information.
However, I would recommend is that you at least have an actual conversation (on paper) with your character. Consider it a kind of interview. This interview will give you an idea how your character talks and thinks, and will give you some insight into their mindset on important subjects. You might be surprised by what you learn -- I know I constantly am.
Kill Your Character
Aaaand now I hear the screeches of horror from those of you who hold tightly to the concept of not harming one's characters. Simmer down, people.
I'm not suggesting you publish this death scene, though you most certainly may, if you wish. What I'm suggesting is that you write death scenes for your characters. Doing so will give you insight into what kinds of situations they might get themselves into, how they deal with imminent death, and how/where/why they might possibly die.
Even more importantly, however, writing these death scenes serves one very important function in the character development process -- it divorces you, the author, from Mother Hen Syndrome. Without this necessary step, any attempts to put your characters through Emotional Black Moments (EBMs) will either prove excruciatingly difficult, or the result will fall flat, because you'll give in to the temptation to "make it easier" on your characters.
Emotional Black Moments are necessary to developing truly three-dimensional characters -- characters readers remember and go back to time and again. The subject of EBMs is one I'll get into in another article, but the basics are that an EBM is meant to test the mettle and morals of your characters, by putting them up against moments neither they nor you are certain they'll survive (physically, mentally, or emotionally. Even all three.) . Moments like these, that either change or break characters, can only happen when an author is unafraid of the possibility that the character might just break, or that he or she might actually die.
If you can't kill your character, you most certainly can’t be brutal enough to torture them emotionally. If you can't place them in mortal bodily peril (even if it never make it into a book), you'll never be able to rip their souls out and stomp all over them with jackboots.
So, regardless of whether you actually use the scene or not, write that death scene. I promise you won't regret it.
Research Your Character
One of my pet peeves in any work of fiction (novel, television, or movie) is poorly done research. With all the tools and resources available to writers, today, there's simply no excuse for shoddy research. And one area where research seems particularly sloppy among writers is in character development.
Too many writers rely on stereotypical character tropes -- the tough-guy cop, the geeky computer nerd, the airheaded prom queen/cheerleader, etc. These writers think that by giving said cardboard characters an unusual twist on their jobs, they've suddenly created someone memorable.
This couldn't be further from the truth. Especially not when a writer fails to research the new career they've given their character.
Let me see if I can illustrate the difference for you.
To be generic, we'll use a character we'll call John Doe. John is being developed by Writer Jane, who thinks she can get away with a twist on the "Brave Firefighter" trope. She decides, to write a twist, she'll make him an Arson Investigator (Fire Inspector).
So, Writer Jane begins her story -- John's at the scene of a blazing house fire, suited up in turn-out gear, hose at the ready, and… Are you seeing the problem, yet?
That's right -- Arson Investigators aren't called in unless foul play is suspected, and that usually isn't determined until after the fire's out. But Writer Jane didn't bother to research her character's job. And, had she researched her statistics, she would have found out that approximately one quarter (1/4) of all firefighters go into their profession as a way of confronting their fears about fire, death, or heights. This statistic is the real makings of a truly fascinating twist.
So, Writer Anna is writing about character James Smith. James, too, is a firefighter. Only, Writer Anna did her research, and James is a firefighter whose mother died in a house fire he barely survived himself, when he was a little kid. Ever since, he's been terrified of fires, because he has flashbacks of his mother's dead, burned body protecting him. And when his best friend died in a rappelling accident, James developed a fear of heights, as well. Now, as a rookie firefighter, James is confronted with both of his fears for the first time.
Whose story would you find more interesting to read? Who do you want to know more about? If you said James, you're grasping the concept of how research plays into character creation.
And if you write Science Fiction or Fantasy, don't fall into the trap of thinking you don't need any research for your character(s). This assumption couldn't be further from the truth. I'm going to use my own work as a brief illustration, here, since I write Fantasy and Science Fiction, myself.
In my Fantasy series, Legends of Tirum, my central character, Telyn, is a product of feuding houses and a magical heritage she doesn't trust. While the particulars of Telyn's heritage are built on completely fictional events and properties, there was still a lot of research involved in the creation of this character and her back story. I needed to understand the dynamics of feuds, and the psychology behind them. I needed to understand what drives Telyn, psychologically and emotionally, to give her a basis for growth. I spent weeks investigating abandonment issues, the psychological effects of family feuds, social prejudice, and bias.
The end result? A warrior woman with an important destiny she keeps trying to outrun, and with a fear of being abandoned that sends her running from her own feelings and has her holding everyone at emotional arm's length. Her fear -- and the pride that keeps her from acknowledging that fear -- continues to threaten any chance at happiness for her, and routinely puts her in mortal peril.
As you can see from the examples given, character creation becomes a unique an exciting prospect when a writer takes the time to research his or her characters and their backgrounds.
I've already touched on the subject of Emotional Black Moments (EBMs) and their importance to character development. However, there's one part of character creation crucial to the EBM, and thus the evolution/de-evolution of a character -- demons.
I'm not talking about physical embodiments of evil. I'm talking about inner demons. Past traumas and mistakes that color how your character interacts with the rest of the world. Regrets, self-hatred, or self-recriminations can inform a character's creation in amazing ways. A character without a past can't face a true EBM, because they have nothing to come up against.
EBMs are all about choices made when a character is faced against a misunderstanding or trauma from their past. They're about emotional fight, flight, or freeze responses. If a character has an idyllic past, they don't have anything to face, and nor do they have the tools and skills necessary to create a powerful moment. I've read manuscripts before with these kinds of characters -- what I call "Delusional Affectations," because they simply have no basis in reality. Any attempts to create tension of any kind with these characters just makes these characters sound like whiney narcissists.
Creating demons for your characters isn’t difficult, and the demons don't have to be extremely terrible. For example, one of my characters from Legends of Tirum -- Paduari -- has a self-made demon. He dislikes himself because he thinks he's a disappointment to his entire family, and a failure in everyone's eyes because of a series of incidents from his youth, when he let fear of his true self and nature lead him into a sequence of terrible mistakes. He's created a self-fulfilling prophesy of this failure, through his own fears and insecurities (he will eventually discover how unfounded his beliefs are). The first of his EBMs comes in accepting his destiny, and the responsibility to his world that comes with it, while looking death in the face.
Torture Your Character
This leads right in from those demons, and the concept of killing characters.
Some of the most epic characters in literary history are deeply tortured. Hamlet, Lady Macbeth, Scrooge, Dr. Frankenstein, and Jane Eyre, just to name a few. What sets these characters apart from their paler, less-memorable counterparts is that the authors who created them weren't afraid to torture them. Hamlet faces the age-old question of existence, when confronted with family secrets, betrayals, and tragedy. Lady MacBeth faces her own conscience and her role in a daring and profoundly disturbing murder. Ebenezer Scrooge is quite literally forced to confront all his ghosts and demons, in order to undergo the complete transformation necessary to save his soul. Dr. Frankenstein suffers the guilt of creating a monster so misunderstood he was forced to dispatch his own creation, and Jane Eyre suffered repeated cycles of neglect and abuse that tormented her and destroyed her trust in people to do anything but harm her.
Yes, all of these characters faced some kind of tragedy. But unless you're writing a comedy joke book or witty satire (in which case, congratulations for wasting the time it took to read this far in my article), your story's going to have to contain some element of loss or danger of loss. That's what drives all good conflict. And refusing to torment your characters, or declaring them "too cute to suffer" (yes, that's a direct quote from someone whose work I once critiqued), only makes the story suffer in ways not good to any kind of character or plot.
So, how does one set about torturing a character?
That all depends on your character, and this is one of those areas that shows how necessary research is. A good friend and mentor of mine once gave me a piece of advice I've never forgotten. She said a good author is half psychologist, half researcher, and all crazy, at heart.
To properly torture your character, it's vital you have a good foundation in psychology. You need to know how and why a situation could impact a person's psyche, to understand how to get the proper responses. I'm not suggesting you need to go out and pursue a full degree in psychology, but you need to at least invest in some decent psychology books and some time in researching psychology. If you don't have personal experience with it, you should develop an understanding of trauma and how it impacts the psyche. Also, you should learn about some of the most common responses to stress and distress. The mistakes I see most often are those of improper character development due to the lack of a rudimentary understanding of stress, distress, trauma, and the impact these have on the psyche and character responses.
How, exactly, you choose to torture your character will naturally have a great deal to do with your plot, unless you choose to apply the torture and its resulting trauma to his or her back story.
How does this distinction matter? If you'll allow the liberty, I'm going to reference some of my own work for this one, again.
In Legends of Tirum, I make use of both types of torture at various points. Not only do I apply literal physical torture to my characters at various points, but I also present plot-based trauma to my characters' psyches by making use of my Commandment Number Two, or at least the assumption of it.
I also torture my characters psychologically through their back stories. My central character, Telyn, has a long history of abandonment. I've also foreshadowed the revelation of some life-altering traumas that haven't yet been explained (call this a spoiler alert -- I'm not going into detail, so it doesn't ruin the surprise).
One thing my readers have come to know about me, over the years, is that I build complex and often traumatic back stories for my characters. A back story can be an excellent vehicle for torturing a character -- especially when faced against the threat of similar trauma or mistakes, again. I'm not suggesting your characters all have abusive childhoods or highly traumatic pasts. But they should have a past, if you intend to torture them, and a tortured character is one audiences love to root for.
Honor Your Character
I know this seems odd, on the heels of all my talk of maiming and murdering your character(s), but this is a very important step -- particularly that of character development.
So what do I mean by honoring your character(s)?
What I mean is to be true to the character you create. While characters will and should change as they grow and develop during a storyline (or several), they also have cores, just like every real, living person does. Those cores, more than anything, are what make them real. When you first create your characters, you should develop Core Character Foundations (CCFs) for them. If you've created your characters with the intention to make them real, believable, and memorable, then the creation of a CCF for them should be a natural process of character creation.
Core Character Foundations are core beliefs and reactions -- the basic building blocks of a character that never change, despite whatever opinions or viewpoints they might vocalize. Their actions and reactions will always tell the truth, regardless. Once you've created a CCF, this is the part of the character you need to honor, first and foremost.
What do I mean by this? Well, let's look at an example, shall we?
Jane Doe is a creation of Writer Anna. Anna has determined Jane is a pediatric nurse who went into medicine because she lost her twin sister as a child, from a disease that kept her sister in the hospital for months before her death. Jane saw how the nurses were and decided she wanted to help people that way.
Jane's reason for going into her chosen career is a Core Character Foundation. She experienced a very profound and personal emotional trauma that set her on the course she's now pursuing.
Now, if Writer Anna suddenly decides to have Jane start killing people with sadistic glee, Anna has failed to honor one of Jane's CCFs, and has destroyed the foundation of her character (yes, this is an extreme example, but I've actually seen this kind of fatal mistake made before). Jane goes from being a character with a great degree of potential as a believable, real character to a mockery of a character whom the audience loses all ability to suspend disbelief over.
Audiences detest characters who go against their established CCFs, and even a villain can make an audience decide your work isn't worth further attention because you've failed this most basic rule of character creation.
Honor your character's CCF, and audiences will love them (or love to hate them, in the case of your villains), and they'll believe in you, as well.
Be Your Character
I know this one sounds creepy, but I promise you it's not. In fact, this Commandment deals with the old fiction writer's adage of "Show, don’t tell."
In my years as a writer and editor, I've seen too many authors stumble on this most basic rule of writing -- especially where it applies to characters.
I've seen far too many cardboard characters that started out with potential, but when it came time to actually deliver, the author stumbled.
Some years ago, I wrote an article for my then-blog on the subject of getting inside your character (I'll be reposting it here, eventually). I think it's appropriate to share a part of it here, because this is the best way I can illustrate what I mean about becoming your character. In that article, I stated:
If Character A (we’ll call him John) is stuck dangling five stories above the ground, that’s part of the plot. But what makes this position interesting is that John is afraid of heights. So, how does he get out? Does he freeze up? Will he talk himself into overcoming his fear at least long enough to get back inside the building? And his struggle to get back inside will be fraught with either his emotional rollercoaster, or complete and total numbness, with the emotions sinking in only once he’s climbed in off the window.
Or take situation #2: John’s put himself out on that ledge, intending to jump. Problem is, he didn’t know until this moment just how intense his fear of heights is. He wants to die, but he’s afraid to let go of the window frame. Now there’s another paradox to deal with.
In both cases, the immediate plot is important to moving the story forward (John has to either survive, or become a splat on the pavement, and depending on the importance of the character, the writer determines which plot device moves the story along more efficiently. Neither outcome is outside of the realm of possibility.), however, without the character’s reaction, the reader is sitting on the sidelines shrugging and muttering “Who cares?”
But once the reader’s allowed access to John’s thoughts and feelings, suddenly it matters what happens to him. And we’re right there, holding our breath and praying for him, wishing we could reach out and help him back into the room. And our sense of relief when he makes it back inside (whether defying the odds of a terrible accident, or making the choice to continue living) keeps us reading, to find out what happens to him next. We care about John. Thus, his character becomes essential to the story moving along, as well.
But how does the author get inside John’s head? At risk of sounding corny – practice! I always advise writers who are just starting out that, before they sit down and plot their first book, they do some basic characterization exercises. These are really simple to do:
1. Pick a character. Determine name, sex, age, and jot down a few basic notes about background. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy or indepth, though some of my early characterization exercises have become wonderful characters, in time.
2. Pick a situation. It doesn’t have to be life-threatening, although understanding how a person reacts under extreme stress can make understanding them in day-to-day situations much easier.
3. Have a character and situation written down? Great. Now, ask yourself one simple question: Based on what you know about this person, at this moment, how would they react?
Here’s an example:
1. John. Male, 30, fear of heights and fire, loves his family intensely, was a pilot until he suffered a bad crash in a small plane and lost his brother.
2. Situation: John’s trapped on the roof of a burning building with his six-year-old niece, whom he’s only just found.
3. How does he react? Here's one possibility:
The sweat stood out on his skin, and he knew it had nothing to do with the flames licking beneath him, as Amy’s small arms trembled around his neck. This sweat was cold, and his knees shook with the effort to remain upright as he looked down at the ground, some twenty feet below him. His stomach lurched. No way could he make that jump.
“I’m scared.” Amy’s small voice wavered against his ear, and John’s heart seized. She was six, and the only piece of Pete left in this world. He couldn’t fail her.
Again, the heat of burning jet fuel singed him, and he heard Pete’s scream, and then that terrible silence. Flames crackled around his booted feet, and he smelled the oily burn of rubber.
“Shit.” He swore, and didn’t need to look down to know the roof was now on fire. He was out of choices, here. If he didn’t jump, he was condemning Pete’s daughter to die the same way her father did – burned to death because of John’s fear. He looked toward the ground, where firefighters set up a huge net. He was out of time. John heaved a deep breath, squeezed his eyes closed, and flung them both out into the fire-lit night. (This selection is copyright 2004 by Esther Mitchell, as part of a larger work)
See how the step inside works? You know something about him, and you see the world, and the danger, through his eyes. His love for his family, and his guilt over his brother’s death, are both stronger than his fear of heights and fire combined. When pressed to act, he does, but you can feel his fear through it all. And that human factor is what makes the plot so much more gripping.
Trust Your Character
Seems obvious and silly, right? After all, you're probably saying to yourself, you created the character and anyway, they're not real, so how is trust involved?
It's more involved than you might think. I've seen too many authors force reactions from their characters rather than trusting the characters to get to that point on their own.
What do I mean?
Let me see if I can illustrate my point.
In Legends of Tirum, Telyn's been vacillating for a while over whether or not to agree to marry Nacaris (I'm six books in, and the issue is still ongoing). It's a foregone conclusion it will happen at some point, but even I have no idea when. Why not? Because I'm trusting that detail to Telyn.
I've written wedding scenes into my outlines for every book since Daughter of Ashes. However, I've not set any of them in stone. I trust Telyn to come around to the idea when it feels right/ fits her CCF and base psyche. When it happens, it will be as much a surprise to me as to my readers, and I'm perfectly content with that.
Could I have forced a wedding at any point before now? Sure, I could have. But that's exactly how the scene would read -- forced. This is the point I'm trying to get at. If you only approach your characters from the outside, and never crawl inside their heads to see how they think, feel, and react to situations, most of their story ends up sounding forced. I've heard authors lament how difficult it is to write a book because nothing works. I've heard them whine and complain about excessive edits. I rarely have very many edits, and the most difficult part of my writing process (aside from finding the time to do it) is in keeping myself from being distracted by characters from books I haven't got to, yet. The reason the process is so smooth for me is because I'm not actually writing. I'm directing. My characters are like the cast of a TV show or movie. I simply offer direction, and yell "Cut!" when something doesn't seem to be working or needs new blocking. Otherwise, they know their script better than I do, and I let them do their thing, as long as they stay within the boundaries of the overall important plot points.
I learned a long time ago to trust my characters, and if you're struggling to get the story out, perhaps it's time to take a step back and let your characters show you where things should go.
Take Nothing For Granted
What, you ask, does this have to do with character development?
Quite simply, too many authors make the assumption that as long as their story ends happily, and as long as the main plot of the story is addressed, they've done their jobs and don't need to do more.
I'm here to tell you that just isn't so.
First of all, it's a mistake to assume your story is going to end happily. If you've crafted real characters of depth -- the kind necessary to sustain a lasting impression on audiences -- you should never be thinking of how the story ends. With real characters, any ending is an agreement between you, the characters, and your readers that it's not really an ending, but rather the beginning of a whole new chapter for your character.
It's important that, along with divorcing yourself from the concept of the character death taboo, you remove the assumption that all stories and situations must end happily. Erase the concept of Happily Ever After from your writing wheelhouse, because if you've truly created a real character, forcing a happy ending on his or her story will end up contrived and false, cheating your readers out of the true experience of your character. Not all situations end happily, regardless of what you might believe the character deserves. As an author who has created a living character, you must be willing to trust your character to reach an ending that fits them, even if -- like Romeo & Juliet -- that ending is tragic. Assuming (and forcing) a happy ending means railroading your characters into a plastic situation, which robs them of the very depth you're trying to create.
Second, if you take for granted that you, as the author, are in charge of the story, both you and your readers lose out on all the possibilities of your characters. While I draft full plots for my books, I never expect the book go exactly as I've mapped it out. Some of my best books have come from my characters hijacking my writing process, once I turn them loose on my plot.
Be Prepared to Break the Rules
There's an infamous little quip that goes "Well-behaved women seldom make history." Well, I'd like to add one to that -- "Authors devoted to too many rules seldom write anything worth reading."
I can't tell you how many times I've heard the words "You can't do that" and when asked why not, the writer issuing the edict can't give me a credible answer. They fall back on "because that's not the way it's done."
Again, why not?
Granted, there are some things that industry standards prohibit, for a number of reasons ranging from illegal to just plain nasty, and there are some things that just aren't a good idea to do, because they don't make much sense (like falling in love with your neighbor's goldfish. Really, don't ask.). However, there are some rules that are made to be broken, and I'm still trying to figure out who came up with these "rules" in the first place.
The one that bothers me most is "all Romances must end with a Happily Ever After" (known in the industry as an HEA). Really? Says who? Real-life romances seldom (if ever) end with "Happily Ever After," and while I understand that some people read Romance to escape reality, and I don't have a problem with you ending your book with an HEA, if the story leans that way, or that's where your characters take it, I'd like to make it pointedly clear that, contrary to what you might have been told, you are not required to end with an HEA. Heck, I ended Phoenix Rising (Legends of Tirum, Book 2) with about the furthest thing from an HEA I could get short of outright killing one of my protagonists. And I have no idea, at this point, exactly how the Legends of Tirum series will end up. I have several alternate endings for the series, and not all of them are completely happy.
There are many, many more of these kinds of "rules" that have no credible explanation as to why they are there, or why they have to be that way. And some of the best fiction I've ever read, some of the best TV shows and movies I've ever watched, are the ones who've thumbed their noses at these staid and inexplicable rules. While it's not necessary to always break the rules, and you shouldn't force such breaks just for the sake of breaking them, it's always a good idea to keep an open mind, and be prepared to question, bend, or break the rules if it becomes necessary for your character or plot development.
These are my Ten Commandments for creating real, believable and memorable characters. Do you have to follow them all? Not if you don't want to. These are simply the steps I've learned, over the course of decades of writing and over a decade as a published author who regularly hears from readers thrilled with my characters, are the foundation of creating and writing characters readers love and therefore stories that captivate.