Sunday, June 7, 2015

Character Development 101

Creating characters for your novel or short story and assigning personality traits is a no-brainer, right? All an author has to do is give his or her little darlings individuality, place them in awkward situations or force them into conflicts with other characters, and then slip out for a cappuccino while our fictional friends write the story. The writing process is so easy, even an illiterate can do it. Right?

Not so fast. Character creation may seem obvious to Charles Dickens, but for someone like me who woke up one morning and decided to write the next “Tale of Two Cities” in a single day, the fine art of creating characters was a frustrating, evolutionary experience—a process that needed serious refining. Let me explain.

About seven years ago, I started writing my first novel, The Epitaph of Jonas Barloff. The basic premise sprang from a ninth grade writing assignment doled-out by my English teacher who instructed the class to write a short story. I don’t remember her stipulating any parameters: genre, moral, etc.—just write a short story. That’s it. I returned to class with three whole pages of paranormal prose worthy of an old Twilight Zone episode on television. (The teacher falsely accused me of plagiarism and slapped me with an F, but I’ll save that story for another day.)

That was over forty years ago. In 2007, I started turning that old short story into a full-length novel. The tale had a beginning and an ending, but the middle section became a muddled nightmare. Not exactly what I had in mind. All I can say is this: I wish I had known then what I know now. You see, I developed my characters: Daniel, Marc, Angela, Jonas and others on the fly. I let them evolve over time, which meant previous chapters required constant rewrites to match the characters’ ever changing personality traits…or subject them to inevitable psychiatric evaluations by readers and reviewers.

Letting characters evolve isn’t a bad thing. In fact, character development makes for scintillating reading. As human beings, we all evolve (I’m not talking about Uncle Ape and Aunt Baboon, so hold those nasty emails). Events in our lives, especially conflicts, can have profound consequences, or at least they should. Hopefully, for the better. If not, we’re not growing as well rounded people. Shouldn’t that be true for our fictional friends as well? In literature, character flaws may take the story in a different, unpredictable, and therefore, more interesting direction.

When I first started writing fiction, my characters were flat. Undefined. Lifeless. But over the course of writing three-hundred pages, I came to grips with the fact that Marc needed acceptance and moral support. Though well adjusted due to his intact family, he needed peer affirmation. Meanwhile, the beautiful, intelligent, but fatherless Angela longed for paternal affection, and naturally gravitated to the elderly Jonas Barloff against Marc’s better judgment.

While the evolution of my characters came naturally, I didn’t plan their development or take advantage of their storytelling abilities during the first draft of my novel. I simply gave them space and let nature take its course. A few drafts later, I realized my characters were pushing me away from the keyboard and writing the novel for me. Thanks, Marc and Angela.

Five long years and eleven drafts (count them, eleven) passed during the writing of "The Epitaph of Jonas Barloff". This insufferable writing process taught me so many lessons that my next book, "A Door Unlocked", sailed from beginning to end in four or five months. Talk about the college of hard knocks!

Here’s the takeaway: beginning authors should create lifelike, 3D characters by giving them strong, recognizable attributes. Place them in unusual situations and give them space to grow and mature (or not). I’m telling you this so you’ll avoid the painful mistakes I made. By defining your characters at the beginning of your story and plotting their evolutionary process as humans, you’ll find that your writing process is much more efficient. Therefore, the returns are not only pleasant, they’re gratifying, and your little darlings will reward you in ways only Charles Dickens could imagine. 

                                                                                     -- Calvin Dean

Monday, June 1, 2015

Collierville, TN Library Event

I'm excited that the Collierville, TN library invited me to speak on Tuesday, June 2, 2015. I'll read from my YA novel, "The Epitaph of Jonas Barloff" and discuss character development. The event starts at 1 pm and should last about a hour. Hope to see you there.

Lucius E. & Elsie C. Burch, Jr. Library
501 Poplar View Pkwy.
Collierville, TN