One thing I’ve learned over the past several weeks is that life is full of surprises, excitements, and disappointments. Sometimes life seems dull, but others it’s like an emotional roller coaster. Those moments, the tough ones, the emotional ones, are an invaluable source of inspiration for your novel, in particular: character development.
I’m now several drafts into my novel, and looking back over my previous drafts I can see the stages my thought process went through, beginning with action scenes and quick dialogue to get to the next action sequence and move the story along. Stage 2 added a little more thought provoking dialogue, a little more backstory to help the reader understand why these action scenes were taking place and to give a little more substance to the wider story arc. Stage 3 was about tying up loose ends, embellishing certain scenes, smoothing out some rough edges and cutting out some redundancy. In these 3 stages though, the most fundamental aspect of a reader’s experience was missing or sorely lacking: character development. Sure, my characters did and said things and the reader usually knew why, but the feelings described were hollow or non-existent. They didn’t feel real. The human bond of emotional connection was missing between the reader and the character.
Character development truly makes or breaks a novel, and it can be tricky trying to figure out how to do it successfully. Loss, grief, fear, anxiety, love, desire, hatred, thrill: Real emotions which derive from real experiences and real relationships are paramount to character development. But MJ Pankey, you say, my character did experience loss, his best friend was just badly wounded in front of him! But as you read that scene, do you feel like your best friend was just badly wounded in front of you? Tap into your inner psychologist, and tell me what that really feels like.
The emotional struggles make us who we are as individuals. How we process those emotions, work through them, and overcome them is how we can connect with one another as human beings, and it’s also how we can connect and invest in fictional characters, even if their experiences aren’t real.
Every character who is important to a novel needs this internal struggle. While my heroine can’t necessarily experience being offered an amazing job and then it falling through a week later in exactly the same way (being a fantasy novel kind of messes that up), I can still incorporate the familiar feelings of excitement and hope for the future, and then the following disappointment when it does not go according to plan. I know what that feels like, and I can give that to my character.
Describing the internal conflict as actions happen and as scenes unfold is what character development means. How does this character become better by these experiences, by these scenes, how does this event impact them now to have such a marked influence on a future thought or action? And the best way to figure that out and get it on paper is to dig deep into your own experiences and describe how you feel/felt/would feel in a similar circumstance, and how did it change your expectations/circumstances/behaviors/beliefs moving forward?
To recap, a story is more than just events, places, things, and actions, it’s about people; real experiences, real emotions, and the kindred connection that a reader has with the character. To create character development in your novel, you need to do some serious soul searching from your own life experiences. When was a time you felt embarrassed? Describe it, give it to your character. When was a time you felt betrayed by someone? Describe it, give it to your character. You get the idea.
So if your novel is lacking some depth, look deep. Dig up the emotional moments and give your characters a small piece of yourself. Show your readers the raw humanity we all share between us as a species, and bring your characters to life.