Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Character Development

Trojan. A word that conjures up several images. Some dubious, some not so dubious. The first and foremost is a wooden horse hiding an elite Greek force who are intent on destroying the city of Troy. Another, the Trojan condom, a box branded with the admirable profile of the aforementioned Trojan soldier. I'm not sure who came up with the idea, but in history, the Trojans were defeated in battle. Perhaps not quite the marketing message you need in such a situation.

Another image that the word Trojan conjures up is that of something rather faceless. You cannot see it, touch it, talk to it, use it, but it will without doubt ruin your day. I cannot tell you exactly what it looks like, but rather what it instils, how it feels. Absolute horror.

The story begins at work. I was typing away as I do whilst sat on the reception desk of our cardiology clinic during a bit of a patient lull, when I hear a rather dubious call of my name. 'Micheeeeelle' I hear from the back office, which sounds a lot like the 'Muuuum' I used to say when I either wanted something, or had already done something wrong and wanted to cushion the blow. It is worth noting at this point that my job extends beyond scientist/physiologist in our clinic - I am also the cleaner, the tile layer, the coffee maker, the receptionist, accountant, and apparently, IT expert. Now in reality I have no particular skill with any of these tasks. I am forgetful enough to be a poor receptionist, like tea so much that I make a bad coffee, and whilst I clean with enthusiasm, it could always be done more frequently. I can however do pretty good tiling. But what I am really not, is an IT expert.

So when I see on the screen nothing but a message which is apparently from the police of Cyprus, demanding a €100 fine to be paid immediately, after which they would return our computer I thought that something is not quite as it should be. Cyprus may indeed be broke, but this seemed a pretty unlikely scheme. I assumed something had gone astray. It had. It was a Trojan virus. We cannot log off. We cannot get on the internet. We cannot do anything.

First thought? Books. All of them. When did I back up, did I get all of it, how much have I lost? All the questions go swirling around my head as if I am in a great big sink hole, staring whilst years of work gets sucked into the earth. The next? The PC. We cannot run the office without a PC, and it will be nightmare to lose patient data. The part-time accountant in me is also running through the bills and the latest account statement and wondering if I can just go out and buy another. I probably can't.

However, the police in Cyprus did their job well. We called them, and they talked us through several steps on how to get our computer back, and within roughly half an hour I was running a virus scan and kicking the Trojan's ass. PC fully restored. But for that half an hour there was an unknown and faceless enemy trying to ruin me and destroy our hard work.

This got me thinking about the bad guy in books and movies. I can still remember sitting in the cinema watching The Blair Witch Project and being utterly terrified, as was the rest of the cinema which breathed a collective sign of relief as the credits rolled. I found The Blair Witch project terrifying not because of the things that happened or that were said, but rather the things that were absent. The lack of a discernible identity, and without a manifestation of the evil in this film inherently made it more scary. The lack of human emotion permitted a deeper and more indestructible iniquity, capable of unimaginable and inhumane acts. The same goes for Paranormal Activity, and sleep I did not that night as I sat watching my sheets for the slightest breeze or movement.

But these characters are 'other worldly'. They are not part of what we accept as the real world. They are fictitious personifications of human fears and emotions. If we were to create human characters with such one dimensional evil, it would be hard to make them believable and therefore, less scary. Through the development of character the evil gets a face, a body, it breathes just like the rest of us. We give them a good side, a conscience, heap them full of guilt. I love a good faceless villain like The Blair Witch, but the characters that we really connect with are the real people with conflict inside them. Even Hannibal Lecter has a back story, and as we learn about his childhood dare I say that we begin to understand how the monster was created. To understand how he became what he is makes him one of us. It makes him just another person, a regular man who got dealt a really bad hand and that makes him all the more terrifying.

Character development is very important and without it our characters become less human and less believeable.  So what can we do to ensure that our characters become real and somebody that a reader can connect with?



1.      Give them a history - if they were raised with strong religeous views, how has that altered their choices in the present?  If they were abandoned as a child, do they struggle to be a good parent?  Maybe they even avoid parental responsibilities completely.

2.      Who are they - get to know them well. Where did they go to school, who was their friend, what was their first job, what is their sexual orientation. Get to know your character outside of the story. We all have friends that we socialise with, but yet we don't know very well. Make your characters one of your best friends, the person you can chat over coffee with. Make them the person who you can describe in greater detail than hair colour and what they wear.

3.      Define their goal - what do they want? It's all very well knowing who they are and where they come from, but what are they interested in for the future? For example, Captain Corelli wanted to get through the war and make it home. He wasn't interested in finding love, but it found him and this helped to grow his story. Because we know his goal, we can decide how he would be likely to react.

4.      Make them individual - don’t create a caricature of your characters. Make them somebody interesting, with flaws and quirks, likes and dislikes. Nobody wants to see a flawless hero. Even Superman had a flaw.

5.      Give them a voice - as a writer it is important to have a voice and agents always say they are looking for an original voice. Give that same attention to your characters. Their voice comes through not only in their actions, but also dialogue. Make sure it is believable. Your average gun wielding gangster is unlikely to curse a mishap with 'oh shoot' and the local nun is unlikely to swear on God's name. Let your character decide on their vocabulary, not you. Let them speak freely in a voice that suits them.

Do you have other ideas for character development? Share them here in the comments.

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