Friday, March 4, 2011

Devise to Demise: Developing A Character To DEATH

Have you ever spent hours slaving over a work of art until it was just short of perfect, but then instead of backing off and accepting the rationalization that nothing is ever perfect and that any further tweaking will inevitably result in the undoing of Everything Good and Wonderful, you stubbornly carry on, brandishing pen, palette or paint brush as if you were some kind of reinvented Michelangelo and the bloody screaming corpses of the Medici themselves had come back from the grave just to commission one last masterpiece? That is. Right up until you wear an irreparable, flaming, gaping hole right through the center of your precious creation?

For me, the worst part was learning that this disease of killing your work with love is not restricted to art. Writers are not immune to polish-the-ever-living-crap-out-of-it-itis!

In high school, back when the world was...not-so-young...and Pluto was still a planet—okay fine, so it wasn't that long ago—the Pagemasters (AKA Ladies Pendragon) and I used to make up characters and stories together through a combination of role-playing and notebook-passing. (Scribe recently exposed us on her blog about collaborations so I guess by "used to" I mean still do and by "make up" I mean rabidly crank out like house elves on LSD and crack rocks.. But we've upgraded from notebooks to Google docs! And we've matured from role-playing Look. DON'TJUDGEME.)

We all made characters and spent years developing the ever-living crap out of them. Most of the time the results were good. We ended up with characters who were healthy complex individuals with realistic problems, meaningful aspirations and shining personalities. I'm sorry. Who am I kidding? They were mostly veritable basket cases with serious life problems, megalomaniacal tendencies and fangs. But we did come up with some awesome stuff too.

Adryn accomplished the 50,000 word goal for NaNoWriMo this past November with characters she'd been playing with us since before we all had driver's licenses. Scribe is well on her way to completing an epic trilogy she's had in the works for over a decade featuring characters she used to sketch into the margins of her Latin notebooks.

I recently picked up The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie and one of the praises on the back of the book really stood out to me. Scott Lynch, the author of The Lies of Locke Lamora and coincidentally another favorite author of mine, wrote: "If you're fond of bloodless, turgid fantasy with characters as thin as newspaper and as boring as plaster saints, Joe Abercrombie is really going to ruin your day. A long career for this guy would be a gift to our genre."

So character development is fun and character development is good. It also goes without saying that character development is one of the most important, if not the most crucial, aspects of a strong story. But like all things fun and good, can there be such a thing as too much? Is it possible to over-develop a character?

Just like over-editing a drawing can result in eraser burns on your subject, I believe that it's also possible to smite a character with over-thinking.

Mainly, because I've done it before.

Unlike my friends Adryn and Scribe, most of my brainchildren from high school have never seen the light of day, let alone the light of a computer screen. Reason? I strangled them in the womb with their own umbilical cords.

While the rest of my cohorts formed up just enough description to breath life into a unique operative being and saved the development stage for pen, paper and notepad, I closed in on my own grey matter, analyzing and delineating every detail of my potential Frankenstein. As if not knowing my characters' favorite flavor of ice cream and political disposition on the Rape of Nanking before I presented them to the world would somehow prevent them from being functional in their respective stories. This is embarrassing to admit but I once mapped out an entire time line for a single character from birth to death because I thought that by knowing everything there was to know about her, I would be able to write her better.

Needless to say, I was dead wrong.

Knowing everything there is to know about your character doesn't mean that your character is well-developed. Hell, it doesn't even necessarily mean that you have a viable character. To illustrate my point (because I don't do enough of that *sarcasm*) I'm going to tell you all about a very small friend of mine.

S. aureus is a nonmotile, nonspore-forming facultative anaerobic bacterium that can be found on the skin of about 20% of the human population. Morphologically it is a cluster-forming cocci, so under the microscope it typically looks like bunches of grapes. It is Gram-positive, catalase-positive and coagulase-positive which sets it apart from the rest of the Staphylococcaceae family. Grown on an agar plate, S. aureus forms the large golden colonies for which it is named—aureus is Latin for "golden". It is ubiquitous and usually harmless, but certains strains can cause suppurative infections, as well as food poisoning and toxic shock syndrome.

There. I just told you more or less everything there is to know about the microbe which causes Staph infections.

Does this now mean S. aureus is well-developed as a character? No.

Does this make S. aureus unique and distinctive from other bacteria? Maybe. But I can tell you from personal experience that without a microscope and testing, it's actually quite hard to distinguish from its close relative S. epidermidis.  

Does this even make bacteria more interesting? Well.. that can be argued.

The point is, what I just created was not a character but a fact sheet and even though I just wasted an hour of brain power reviewing my microbiology 101 notes from college, you probably still don't give a hot-damn about S. aureus. So I'm exhausted, you're disinterested and I still don't have a candidate for building into good story.

Now, bring it all back to my original anecdote on character development and the Pagemasters, stretch it out over about 10 years or so, and you have my diagnosis for literary cancer which killed just about every poor character I thought up in high school. May they all rest in their pieces.

The biggest difference between me and the rest of my friends?

They treated their characters like people. I treated my characters like lab reports.

What I've learned and need to act upon:
  • Details DO NOT EQUAL Development.
  • The same things that make real people interesting can make characters interesting as well, i.e., John's fear of spiders could be more of a take-off point than Gandalegolas's sword-chucking prowess. 
  • Sometimes, it's not about what you know; it's about what you don't know. 
  • Let your character do the talking. 
  • Leave room for fan-fiction. Personally, I'm not even a fan of fan-fiction. But before you spend precious time coming up with useless factoids like your character favorite cheese and his mother's maiden name, ask yourself: "Will I write this in my story?" and "Does anyone care?"
  • Stop caring.


  1. AWESOME POST. I love it. Makes me glad I didn't both with those "200 questions for your character" sheets. Well, ok, I didn't bother with the last 160-odd. Truth is, I got bored. You're right. You don't need to know THAT amount of information about your characters. And if you don't, your readers sure as HELL don't.

  2. Amen! I've actually read a few authors who suffer from this (usually adult fantasy authors who like to control EVERY DETAIL of their world). Nothing kills a character more for me then knowing everything about them. By knowing everything, they become predictable; and when they do something unpredictable, it just come off as out of character.

    Leave a little mystery, people! I'm not talking trench coats and sunglasses, but really! Let your character surprise us as readers! Hell, let your character surprise you!

  3. I'm really happy to see this post...especially since I suggested you do it. :D Besides being hilarious enough to have me spitting tea all over my cat (who did not appreciate it much), I found it a very astute look into the process. I've also done the "fact sheet" method of development, and while it can provide some interesting details, it's not what makes that character real.

    We could all receive a character sheet, and we would all write different characters from it, and that's because we would all DEVELOP the character differently.

    Your example with S. Aurum was quite illustrative, and you're right: I don't care about S. Aurum, as long as it stays out of my corn-flakes. <3

  4. But, but, but ... my char liking Camembert over Brie is a because her family comes from Normandy which is highly important to the plot!!!1!

    Just jokin'.

    Great post!

  5. This is a very good point. It's one of the reasons I try to stay away from character sheets and develop alternatives that are more meaningful.