by Meg Dowell
On a page, you are in control of time. Outside of it, you aren’t.
I have read and experienced many fascinating stories in my lifetime.
I have also experienced many poorly executed stories.
The deal breaker for me are a story’s characters. If, by the climax of a story, I do not care what happens to them, if I am not devastated by the possibility of an imaginary person failing or dying, then I cannot in good conscience call it a good story.
But more importantly, if a story’s main characters don’t transform from start to finish with great significance, I walk away disappointed.
It’s very easy for us, as writers, to shake our heads at a story that exhibits poor character development. “I can’t believe how bad that story was. Unbelievable.”
We forget how hard this is. You know. Telling stories.
Someone writing their first story will not have yet mastered the complex process that is fully developing at least one character. It doesn’t mean they’re bad at writing… this is just something that takes many, many pages’ worth of writing experience to come even close to getting right.
Have you ever wondered why this is? It’s because we spend a lot of time focused on ourselves in general. That’s just how humans are.
And it’s very hard to track our own character development in the long-term. Because time moves slowly. You change as a person at an even slower rate.
You and the people around you do not grow and change in a matter of a few hundred pages, as a cast of characters does in a book. It takes years to develop as a human being, regardless of the severity of the catalyst that prompts people to mature and transform.
A typical character arc, as you know, begins with some kind of life-altering event. What was once normal is no longer tangible. Character development is the process of a fictional person essentially “growing up” as they learn from the string of events that originally set their story in motion.
But that’s the easy part. Throw in the fact that people turn up their noses at cliches and stories that are too predictable. Keeping someone interested in a story as you work through on paper how to get a character from point A to point X is one of the most challenging parts of writing a full-length novel.
And when you’re writing something shorter, you meet the seemingly impossible challenge of developing a dynamic character in a very brief span of time.
Time in stories is not what it is in the real world. It takes you years to understand why that thing that happened to you in high school shaped your life at 25. How are you supposed to figure out your character’s whole life story, while trying to balance everything else while you practice telling it?
Patience. A lot of focus. Things many writers, unfortunately, aren’t willing to take the time to develop.
Time. Fun to play with, but so, so trippy.
On a page, you are in control of time. Outside of it, you aren’t. So even when you’re sitting here creating stories out of the most significant things that have happened to you, you don’t always yet know exactly how they will change you.
And you’re often responsible of not only creating a backstory for a stranger, but taking over their life, making bad things happen to them and then showing them how to make the most of it.
That’s a lot of responsibilities to toss around in your head all at once.
Deciding the best way for your character to develop as a result of all their experiences is like speeding up time – it is not an easy thing to do. Especially for a beginner. Even for those who have been writing for years. Including me.
If I really want to fully develop my dynamic characters as effectively as possible, I still have to chart their growth from the beginning of their story to its end. It is the only outlining I have ever done when writing fiction on my own, and I do it because I have to – not because I like it!
OK. Maybe a small but very nerdy part of me does enjoy it a little bit.
Character development is extremely difficult to get exactly right. Even some of your favorite books, shows and movies aren’t perfect when it comes to their dynamic main characters. Developing a story, you might spend hours upon hours figuring out how each of your characters’ individual arcs interlock from a story’s start to finish … without actually writing anything.
If anyone who doesn’t write ever asks me why exceptional books take so long to write, I’m going to point them to the above paragraph.
Let me say it again: GOOD STORIES ARE HARD TO MAKE.
This is why I always have to stress the importance of taking the time to get to know your characters, both before you start writing and as you dive headfirst into actively creating every story. Sure, there will still be surprises along the way. No sensible character reveals all her deepest secrets within hours of first meeting you.
But you have to have at least some sense of where you’re going. Not all the pieces have to fit together yet. But you need a starting point.
And even if your starting point seems small, and in the middle of all the action, you have to make sure you start writing. Characters literally will not develop themselves. Don’t get caught up in having all the answers before you begin. Just set out with enough of them to let your interest and excitement carry you forward.
In the years you spend writing, you will create dozens of well-written stories – stories with beautifully developed characters, expertly crafted plots… everything you’ve ever imagined yourself creating.
You will also write hundreds upon hundreds of stories that miss the mark in one or more of a book’s most important elements. You will try your hardest to develop a perfect character. And many times, you won’t get it exactly right.
But that’s a pretty sweet metaphor for life in general. Sometimes you’ll try something and it will work. Or it won’t. Or you’ll succeed and have no idea what you even did right.
No matter what happens, always come back to your characters. The same ones you welcome into your mind, and raise, and set free. An imaginary person, it turns out, can teach you a lot about how much of a different person you are now, compared to who you used to be.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and an eight-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.