Character Development - When you are Stuck
Updated: Jul 31, 2020
by Brad Christy
As fiction writers, we’re all sadists. We spend countless hours, days, sometimes years crafting characters that are flawed and beautiful creatures of our own design. We get to know their personalities, their quirks, their fears and desires. We come to care deeply for them. And why do we spend so much time and effort pouring our souls into these imaginary friends? It’s so we can do something terrible to them. Unless you plan to not advance their story’s plot. Whether your character is a Hobbit fleeing the comfort of his home to escape Ring Wraiths, a beagle whose girlfriend is kidnapped by the Red Baron, or a girl who volunteers as tribute to protect her sister, the plot demands its sacrifice. But it has to be a worthy sacrifice. The first rule of character creation is the audience MUST care about the fate of your character. If Princess Leia was a Disney damsel in distress, she wouldn’t be an icon, and while we would feel bad for the people of Alderaan, our hearts wouldn’t break for her as she is forced to watch its destruction. So where do we begin? Even worse, what if we’re stuck? There are a couple schools of thought on the subject. Do you start with a character and build the plot around them, or have a plot in mind and go from there? Chicken or egg? It all depends on what the proverbial Muse plucks from the ether for you. There is no right answer (it’s the egg), but if you’re stuck I can tell you what I do. I’m a plot guy, so my advice is to start with a concept and work your way in. When I wrote my very first short story, Miseryland, my concept was that Pandora’s Box had been opened, unleashing a virus that turned people into monstrous versions of their worst selves. Obviously it wouldn’t be much of a story if everyone just accepted it, so I came up with a loose idea of who I wanted my hero to be: a self-taught monster killer fighting to close the box and stop the Pandora Plague. Could I have written a Terminator guy who mows down monsters while spouting witty puns? Sure, it’s been done. It’s also boring. Cliché. It’s a foregone conclusion that this guy will succeed, so where’s the tension? We root for underdogs, which is why I ugly cried when Charlie Brown finally got his kite to fly. Knowing this and the horror industry, I made the prototypical victim (a female) into my hero. By doing so, the character inherently had a perceived vulnerability that male characters don’t naturally have. This isn’t to say you can’t write male characters who are vulnerable or sensitive, I have done so many times since Miseryland. Now that a hero had emerged, I started down the rabbit hole of questions: Q: Why her? A: She and her boyfriend found the box in a cave together. Q: Why is she important to the plot? A: Her boyfriend is the one who opened the box, unleashing the virus. She feels guilty for the role she played in causing the Pandora Plague. Q: Why would she feel responsible? A: She knew he would succumb to curiosity, and did nothing. Q: Is this another splatterpunk story? A: Killing monsters is a means to an end. She has to overcome horrific trials if she wants to reach her boyfriend and close the box. Q: Will she kill him once she does get to him? A: It’s too easy to say she will kill him. They have a history, she loves who he was, and she feels just as responsible for the death and destruction that she blames him for. Q: Wouldn’t that mean she deserves to die as much as he does? A: Yes. She believes it, too. Q: So she has a death wish? A: She wants to be redeemed and hopefully survive, but wouldn’t mind dying most days. Q: What do we call her? A: Sunny (I liked the contrast it gave to the mood of the story). After you know your character’s purpose and motivation, the minor details (what they wear, how tall they are, which witty pun to use, etc) will fall into place. So be patient with this new relationship, it’s not always love at first sight. Get to know them personally. Before you know it, you’ll be the best of friends… well, until you do something terrible to them.
Brad P. Christy is an award-winning author and college professor of English and Creative Writing. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association and the Writers’ League of Texas. He currently resides in Alabama with his wife, a judgmental rescue dog named Eddie, and a colony of cats. His story, Tornado Alleys, won third place in the CWIA Battle of the Bards Writing Contest.