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Character Development Workshop: Active Modes of Development

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Wed Oct 14, 2009 12:40 am
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Character Development Workshop: The Active Modes of Development

You may have heard it said that characters are the single most powerful magnetic force that draws a reader in. People are not lying to you. As readers, we read to experience something new and to get to know the people who are experiencing it, to feel what the character is feeling, to solve mysteries, unravel characters, to watch them and know them and sympathize, rejoice and weep with them. We are not just watching them. When you’re at the zoo and watching a cage of monkeys, do you find yourself glued to the cage wondering what the next move will be, trying to unravel what the monkey really feels, predicting what the monkey will do, crying with the monkey, rooting for the monkey? Some of us, okay. Most of us, no. A better question: do you feel as attached to monkeys as you do to a character? Probably not. Why? Because of character development. Characters are not real… but they feel real. Why? Because we don’t just watch them. We feel, see, hear, become a part of them. And they become a part of us. This is why character development is important.

When you write a story, you are usually not writing an essay. What does this mean? This means that no matter what your thesis or motive for writing is, nobody’s going to care unless your story and characters draw them in. You could be writing a story about my favorite topic, but if you label it a story, a work of art, then I am going to be looking for some awesome characters. Not for your brilliant prose, though that is nice. Not for your prevailing, breathtaking theme, though those are impressive. Because that human part of me needs someone, something to latch onto and that would be character.

So, then, how do I develop my character within my story? There are many ways. But for now I am going to address what I believe to be the major, active modes of characterization.


This might seem very obvious, but it’s an important aspect. It's what your character most readily reveals to the reader. It is possible to get mixed messages from characters, but often times actions are a pivotal point of characterization. However, action is not as simple as what your character does. This is where verbs come into play. It’s what your character does and how your character does it.

Never skimp on character action. If something happens, we want to know what your character does. One need not go into excessive detail, of course, but showing us the actions of your characters in response to events that may or may not involve said character is key to characterization. It might seem obvious and maybe it is, but all too often I see writers delving into description and neglecting action. No one care what your character looks like until we know the character and action helps us get to know your beloved cast.

But on to verbs. Verbs are the conveyors of action. For now, were going to lob adjectives into the description category and just focus on verbs. Verbs are important. Verbs are the essence of action. So, let’s think of all the verbs at our disposal. :wink:

Okay, quick. Think of all the synonyms for the word walk. Okay, now think of a character. What does he do? Use the verb. Don’t use any adjectives.

He walked
He strolled
He staggered

Different moods. Now pick a mood. Let’s do stagger. That’s always fun.

He staggered
He stumbled
He swayed while he walked
He picked his way along the road
He limped
He dragged his feet while he walked

Okay, maybe not all the same moods, but they all establish a sense of difficulty walking. What do all of these say about your character? What image do they convey? Staggering is a strong verb—very little interpretation of the gait there. Picked his way is more vague—maybe your character doesn’t want to admit he’s staggering? Look at all the different moods and personalities these actions convey. They all mean roughly the same style of walking, but each one characterizes your character slightly differently. Now, I’m not saying at each verb you should stop and do this exercise, but when you are writing actions that further plot, always keep your character in mind. If they have to travel somewhere, don’t just make them get there as fast as possible. Does your character like to stop places? Is your character dead set on getting somewhere as fast as possible? How does your character perform an action? Think about it. Actions are not just plot-kickers. They can help shape your character in many ways.

Body Language and Mannerisms

You’ve probably heard this time and time again. It’s still important. :wink: I suppose body language is also an action, but it deserves its own paragraph. Dialogue is a very fun way of characterizing, but body language is pivotal for sending mixed messages and for conveying mannerisms. Mannerisms? As my Creative Writing teacher explained it, mannerisms are the manifestations of a character’s goal and attitude. Mannerisms are the tiny actions like twiddling your thumbs, fidgeting, not stepping on the cracks in a sidewalk. Body language and mannerisms are the famous conquerors of telling and the lords of showing.

So, you have a brilliant scene of plot. Something enormously thematical and important is happening and people are telling you in critiques that your character is flat. Well, geez, people, it’s a plot moment. No, stop. You can have epic plot moments and accelerating action scenes without sacrificing characterization. Because your characters are still there and that means they have body language. Right now I am typing. I am also occasionally stretching because my back hurts. I am also sniffling from a cold. I occasionally twist my wrists to make them hurt less and I tend to end sentences with a flourish of my left hand. There. I’m just sitting here typing and I gave you a whole slew of body language. So, how much more body language is your character who is fighting his archnemesis going to have? Body language doesn’t have to be drawn out in long descriptions. It can be short, succinct; it doesn’t have to detract from suspense or plot.

Let me demonstrate:

Saphirus brandished his sword and shouted, “Gather to me, men!”

Yes, we already have a good image from brandished and his shouting epic lines, but if this is the extent of his characterization all scene, we might have some issues, so let’s work with this.

Saphirus tightened his trembling hands around his sword and brandished it, shouting, “Gather to me, men!”

Saphirus’s mouth stretched into a weary smile as he brandished his sword and shouted, “Gather to me, men!”

Saphirus drew in a deep breath. He brandished his sword and shouted, “Gather to me, men!”

All of these add another level of characterization to that line. Saphirus is not just brandishing his sword. You can tell that he is weary, maybe not entirely wanting to be here. It doesn’t even have to interrupt the action. Even if your character is just sitting listening, what is she doing? Is she looking around the room? Is she staring at the speaker intently? Is she picking her nose? These tiny details add loads of characterization to your lovely cast, so don’t neglect body language, even if you’re writing actions scenes and serious plot moments.

As for mannerisms, I see them as habits of body language. I have a character who is obsessed with truth who routinely scrubs down every table in sight at random moments. That is a mannerism. I have a character who flinches every time you raise your voice. Powerful mannerism characterization. These repeated instances of body language hint at the deep, dwelling secrets of your character you are trying to flesh out but not tell the reader. So think about your character. Take a look at his or her mannerisms. Figure out what he or she does upon feeling a certain way. Body language and mannerisms are two of your most powerful modes of characterization.


This is a double-edged mode. As a reader, I interpret your character a certain way. But how do other characters interpret that character? The reactions of other characters characterize the reacting characters and help to characterize the character being reacted to. You can introduce a character with another character’s reaction, give the reader a preconceived notion based upon that reaction and do whatever you want with it. Often times when we write, we like to focus on one character and sometimes that’s appropriate but other characters’ reactions are also important and help us figure out the place into which that character is placed in his own world.

So, I have a beautiful young character named Anna I am going to introduce. Thus far she has been characterized as sweet, with a few odd reactions, but overall a nice character. She visits another character named Sam. Sam slams the door in her face and is overcome with trembling as he proceeds to ignore her at the door.


What just happened to the characterization of Anna? You just messed with the reader’s head. You’ve taken another step towards unlocking the deeper parts of Anna that do not come across clearly in her everyday actions and body language.

Anna walked in the door and hurried into the kitchen

She hurried. She’s obviously in a rush… but wait…

Anna walked in the door and hurried into the kitchen, avoiding Sam’s accusing glare from where he stood alone in the living room.

Whole new level of characterization, like I said. Basically, don’t be in a rush. Be willing to slow your prose down and include other reactions. And alternately, what is Anna’s reaction to Sam’s reaction? Well, she avoids him. It’s a cycle of characterization. Be careful not to fixate on one character so completely that you lose sight of the other reactions.

Internal Monologue

Characters like to talk to themselves. Internal monologue can take many forms. Stream of consciousness or just plain old thoughts the character has in the middle of a scene. It’s a great characterization tool, but it’s also risky. Why? Because it is very easy to do badly. It is easy to grab a character and give them a paragraph of internal monologue about their own personality and goals to characterize them. It’s harder to do it well and give the reader little hints and intriguing lines without overkilling it.

An example of where this goes badly.

Hadassah looked at the inside of the bathroom stall with tears in her eyes. Why doesn’t anyone like me? All I want in life is to be accepted. All I want is a few good friends. I’m a new kid in school; don’t people want to talk to me? But I’m strong. Yes, I’m going to be strong. I’m going to stand up and walk out of this stall and be brave and deal with this. But I just want to be accepted. You can do it, Hadassah. Just stand up.

Ugh, you just pretty much spewed out your character’s conflict! You robbed me of all intrigue when I read this part. I can no longer ask why Hadassah is crying. She’s no longer intriguing to me. I know what she’s going to be struggling between throughout the story. Don’t ruin it!

Hadassah looked at the inside of the bathroom stall with tears in her eyes. I’m fine.

That’s more like it! We get her thoughts. She’s convincing herself of something, we know, and by her body language in conjunction with her internal thoughts we get a very good idea of her conflict, but it’s not ruined for us.

With internal monologue, often, less is more. Don’t fall into the trap of telling us all about your character in internal monologue. Don’t rob us of the adventure of deciphering your character. Internal monologue is great, but it’s easy to do badly, so be careful. :wink:


When your characters talk to other people. The key here is listening. Every character has a different voice. So listen to that voice. Character dialogue differs in many different ways. Word order. Word choice. Lengthliness or conciseness. Just don’t overdo it. Listen to that character voice. Read it aloud. Read it like your character aloud. It’s the difference between Sally saying, “I’m so sorry your dog died.” And “I’m so sorry your dog kicked.” Just one word change, but a completely different character.

So when does dialogue sound unnatural? When it’s forced, basically. When you have a preconceived notion of your character and you force it upon him or her religiously. This character will talk in big words. This character will not. And when your character doesn’t like that. Let your characters speak. Let them make their voice heard. Observe their patterns and take them to heart. If Daisy talks in big words, then let her. If Connie uses one word often, let her use it. Don’t force it. Just listen. Let your characters talk. And if you have doubts, it’s time to read some stuff aloud.

Visceral Reactions

I love these. We’ve covered body language. We’ve covered characters talking to themselves. But what about the way your character feels like he’s going to throw up when he sees blood? Visceral reaction! This is great character development tool, especially for characters who are quiet. It’s the way they feel. Not that they feel depressed. Not that they feel happy. It’s how your protagonist’s heart pounds when she’s running. It’s that one guy whose throat just closes up when he doesn’t know what to say. Little details, but these are massive hints at the deeper secrets of your character if done well.

Think about it. Characters can control body language if they try. I had a character who prided himself in having a noted lack of body language reaction to suffering. It could be horrible at times, because he just stared at people when they hurt him. But when I wrote from his point of view, boy, was he in for it. His hands trembled unnoticeably. He was cold—painfully cold. Trying desperately hard not to shiver. If that doesn’t tell you something about his personality and core, I don’t know what does.

Visceral reactions are tiny details and it’s important not to overdo them, but they are priceless when dealing with characters, especially the ones who lie to themselves. Take for instance, my main character in my work in progress. He lies to himself compulsively. He controls his body language exhaustively. However, whenever someone says something that strikes a little too close to the truth, he suddenly feels nauseous. He suddenly goes cold and stops feeling anything altogether after a minute. Powerful visceral reaction. Obviously, that struck too close to his core for his liking. So don’t forget how your characters feel. They can’t control their sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems as well as they can control their dialogue and movements. :wink:

So, here are a few of the basic modes of character development. Remember—your characters are the most important part of your story. Don’t neglect them. Keep these things in mind and remember to pay attention to those character actions, reactions and body language. Unlock your characters through development. Happy writing!
~ WD
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