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Writing technique: character development

The most important element of any work of fiction is character development. Use this technique to get to know your characters.

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Think back to the last really good novel you read. What is it that you remember the most? A great paragraph of dialogue? A cool plot twist? Or do you remember the characters themselves? No matter how talented a writer you are, if you don’t have believable characters no other element will matter and your work will fall flat. characters are the most important element in fiction – it is through their thoughts, speech, and actions in which your story is told. What is the secret to building believable characters then? If you ask this question to other writers the answer will vary from ‘unique traits’ to ‘a common emotional plane with the reader’. In simplest terms, to build a believable character you must know your character. He/she must become like a real person.

There are many techniques to get to know your characters – the main one being the character profile. Character profiles are good but they still only give factual statistics – they don’t bring the character alive. One technique I always use to get to know my characters is called the, “Interview Exercise”. You do exactly as the title suggests – you interview your characters. To do this properly you must use rapid writing – where you write without stopping to think or edit. You just put down whatever comes to mind without censoring. This exercise will bring all those statistics in your character profile together and make your characters suddenly come alive – talking and acting in a way that is uniquely their own.

To start this exercise, take out a blank piece of paper or start a new computer file. I personally prefer paper and pen because you can then concentrate on the writing itself, instead of the mechanics of the keyboard (correcting missed letters etc.) You can always type it onto the computer later. Write this exercise in the first person viewpoint of the interviewer. You can create a character or just write as yourself – an author coming to interview his characters. Start by having yourself going to the interview and then just write. Where is the interview? Where are your characters waiting for you? Why are you interviewing them? Don’t stop or correct, just write whatever comes to mind.

Sometimes you will find that your interview turns into a story of its own. I had this happen with two of my characters in a book series I was working on “The gentleman bandits” The two characters were Brady – a mid thirties high class English bandit and his young rouge side-kick Rodney. I started the interview with me getting off a boat to the fort town of Victoria (Brady’s hometown) and walking towards the inn that they stayed at. Using rapid writing I came up with the scenario that the two bandits were notorious throughout the country and this was the first time that anyone ever had a chance to interview them. Brady was the one who arranged the interview and Rodney didn’t think it was a good idea. Throughout the interview they argued with each other and showed their differences in personality much clearer than I ever could of by just stating it. By doing this exercise I came to understand the motivation behind my two characters so much better than before.

When you do this with your own characters, don’t prepare any questions in advance. Just write and see where it takes you. Ask whatever questions come to your mind and let your characters answer however they want. If they want to give you the cold shoulder and not answer at all, then let them –or maybe they get so irate that they storm out (a tip: if they do this, chase after them and see how they react). Don’t take this exercise seriously; you’re not writing a great work of literature, your just getting to know your characters. Have fun!

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