3 Pillars of Character Development – Achieving Complex and Real Characters
While any novel will likely struggle with enough Character Complexity, I find that novels with high-worldbuilding elements may run into this issue more than others. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the world lore, and leave the characters as cardboard cutouts positioned up on a colorful and vibrant stage. While the author likely loves the characters no matter their simplicity, we need other people to love them too. (Kind of what my mother always said about me when she was doling out disciplines!)
Pillar 1 – History
Every character has come from somewhere. They didn’t just pop into existence when you plopped them on page 1. They had parents, a past, friends, an upbringing, and an entire culture and society who impacted who they are before the novel even starts. Don’t forget to thoroughly understand where your character comes from, but also where their society came from. What wars happened, what political regimes rose and fell, what religions dominated and what kind of people from other lands who now reside as minorities, or even majorities, in the place where your character resides.
Most authors have entire notebooks dedicated to this pillar. It’s not a matter of what makes it into the book, because when writing you aren’t going to include absolutely everything. But you need to have a rock-solid foundation of the world. You need to know it better than anyone else, and at the drop of a hat when your characters are having a conversation and something pops up about a quirky social custom, you need to know enough for why it’s there and how your character has been affected by it. It just needs to make sense and seem realistic, otherwise if you’re clueless, the reader is going to notice and feel disappointed to be shoved into an uncompleted world.
Pillar 2 – Motivations
What does your character want? And don’t make it simple, make it complex. Make the motivations change throughout the novel as your character grows. Start with the initial motivation, make sure you answer why that motivation exists, and how it’ll lead to the next plot point.
Jane is in college to become a teacher. Why? Because she wants to help people. Underlying reason: She really wants to be a doctor but believes she wouldn’t succeed.
Next plot point: Her boyfriend finds out she really wants to be a doctor, and pushes her to pursue it. When she finds out his sister has a rare disease, she agrees. New motivations: Become a doctor because that’s what she’s always wanted to do, but now she can help someone she cares about if she steps up to the plate, believing in herself and what she’s capable of.
This is just a brief and simple example, but even here you can see how this development of analyzing Jane’s motivations also showed how she grew as a character. That’s what is supposed to happen in your novel. That is the essence of “character development” and it shouldn’t be something you have to force, but a logical sequence of events that is led by the character motivations. Let me repeat that. The Plot is Led by the Character Motivations.
Pillar 3 – Five Why
This concept is taken from the Japanese standard of asking “Why” five times to really get to the root of a problem. But this really can apply to anything you want to understand deeply. Pick something about your character, either a trait or opinion your character has, and ask yourself “Why?” five times. This is best explained as an example:
Jane doesn’t like apples.
Because Jane once ate a whole basket of apples when she was a little girl.
Because her father told her she could only eat one, and she never listens to her father.
Because she was angry at her father for leaving her mother.
Her mother cheated on her father, and instead of working it out, her father left when he got custody of the children.
Her mother has a drinking problem.
The five why made a seemingly simple opinion go to the heart of the matter. It’s an easy exercise to help yourself really understand your characters on a deep and complex level they deserve to have as creations made to emulate real human beings.
Once you fully understand your characters, you need to get the reader to feel the same emotions your characters are feeling. My highest recommendation to illustrate your characters on the page is the Emotion Thesaurus. I love this, it allows me to click on an emotion, for example “determination”, and I immediately get taken to pages of gestures and suggestions on how to describe a character looking determined. It’s refreshing for when I find myself using the same gestures or descriptions over and over again, giving my writing a stronger sense of variety. So for this reason I suggest the 5$ kindle version so you can easily click on the emotion you’re looking to describe.
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression Kindle Edition
by Angela Ackerman (Author), Becca Puglisi (Author)
No matter your writing goals, be it to provide a message, insight, or just to tell a story, don’t miss out on a key component: capturing your reader’s heart.
8 thoughts on “3 Pillars of Character Development”
Great post. Good characterisation is so important. Characters should feel like real people.
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Thanks so much for the shout out, A.J. I couldn’t agree more with your pillars. Many writers get freaked out about backstory, but understanding it, exploring it, and then using it well within the context of the story is exactly the way we show their motivations each step of the way. If we don’t know what a character wants, and why, it’s hard to get into his head and feel empathy.
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I’m checking out that emotion book! Interesting stuff.
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I use it more often than I’d like to admit during my first drafts or when I’m stuck in a revision haha. (It’s perfect for “my eyes are bloodshot help me” writing)
I love the “five-why” concept. I’ve heard this before relating to solving problems in the corporate world, but it applies to so much more. Great article!