I very much enjoy a spot of Modern Jive dancing. I don’t claim to be very good, but I am certainly an enthusiast. I regularly attend dancing lessons and, every now and then, incorporate it into what very little social life I do have. Take just the other night, for instance. A good friend of mine was visiting from out of town, and we went out so that she could have a dance. Of course, having not danced in over a year, she believed she was going to have forgotten it all, but by the first dance, it was like she had never left!
I, however, nearly fell over three times. The floor was slippery, I promise!
During the course of our evening, I spotted a woman dancing by herself. I was rather impressed with her energy and courage, and what she lacked in technique she made up for with a complete disregard for the opinion of others. No matter what anyone said or thought, she continued to dance, albeit to the beat of her own drum.
I then later discovered that someone I knew was friends with this woman and when in a one on one environment, she is shy and quiet. Dancing was, obviously, her form of communication – the place she felt comfortable to express herself.
As a writer, nothing is ever just something to me. I always wonder about the backstory of a person, what makes them tick, or if the man in the suit, over there checking his watch, is just late for an appointment, or if he is really a secret government agent here to save the world.
Dramatic, I know.
To me, this dancing stranger presented a conundrum. How could someone so seemingly effervescent on the dance floor, be introverted and unsure everywhere else? Why? To think about it reminds me of characters in books. As a writer, you have the opportunity to create entire worlds, entire lives, and it’s up to you to decide what makes them who they are – whether they’re shy, loud, boring or intelligent.
In my opinion, character development is a vital organ in the anatomy of storytelling. Without it, each protagonist is dull, lifeless, and empty, and therefore the story will be too. The characters must take on lives of their own and be believable in a story arch. If I introduce ‘Jane’ at the beginning of a book and I write her to be kind, gentle, caring, sweet natured and perfect, with no discernable flaws, Jane’s character is likely to be flat and the reader will be unable to relate to her because she isn’t realistic. But, if I write that Jane is kind, gentle, caring and sweet natured most of the time, but her relationship with her twin sister often causes her to lash out at women who have similar personalities to her, Jane leaps from a 2D character to a 3D character.
Continuity in your character’s development is important. Diving into a character and giving them back stories and past experiences and emotions will help you to create a lifelike character that readers can get behind. Unless something drastic happens to change that aspect of Jane, if I write Jane to snap at women similar to her sister on page 109, she has to lash out on page 110 as well.
If it helps, I suggest writing out the details of your character as if you’re writing their short biography. Decide on their height, eye colour, middle name, shoe size, hair colour, and stature. What was the name of their parents? Where did they grow up?
This, then, makes your story deeper and more meaningful. Your characters become the purpose of the story and not the addition. It can also help when you’re drowning in the murky depths of writer’s block! By deciding who your character is, you can determine where your character, and your story, can go.