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Character Development Workshop: Complex Modes of Development

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Wed Oct 14, 2009 9:47 pm
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Character Development Workshop: The Complex Modes of Development

So, you know all about the active modes of development; you know all the down and dirty tricks of showing and not telling, body language, mannerism, visceral feeling and dialogue. Your characters are breathing and moving about the page, capturing the reader’s attention, sucking them in and quickly acquiring a cultish group of readers who will eat you if you kill any of their favorite characters. Your characters are coming across loud and strong… but you know there has to be more. Yeah, body language is important, but how do I attach themes to my character? What about symbols? I don’t want to just give the reader an opening into my character’s soul; I want to emphasize this trait or that trait. I want to take this mannerism beyond a purely literal realm and make it symbolic. I’m not just letting my characters spew out a story; I want to take them to a different level.

Is that so? Then this is for you. :wink: You see, characters are the single most powerful magnetic force to a story, but they are more than that. They are the powerhouses, the central figures of your story, and they have amazing potential to work towards the themes or ideas you want your story to include. Theme does not have to arise from plot; it does not have to dwell in symbols. Sometimes it is most powerful, most personal when it is settled deep inside your characters. But how is this possible? Well, first the character needs to be developed well. Characters that are solely ideas don’t work (unless you are writing a deliberately dry allegory). If you are writing a story and you want your character to be personal, develop them first. And then it’s time for some writerly manipulation. :wink:

Going to the next level of character development is not a matter of smothering the reader with body language or making it painfully clear what your character is meant to represent. It’s a matter of connection and detail. It’s a matter of manipulating the reader. So, here are a few complex modes of development to make your characters more than just intriguing people in the pages of your story.

Emphasis Manipulation

You’ve all heard the word ‘emphasis’. Decide what matters. Focus in on the things that are significant. The first thing to do when you are trying to develop a character beyond his or her character-state is decide where the emphasis should be. Is there a part of this character that is extremely symbolic? Is there a part of him or her that pretty much pins down some of my ideas and messages? I have a character who has violet lines on the side of her face; the violet lines are deeply significant so whenever I give a brief description of her, I try to hone in on those violet lines. This can be done by slowing down prose, yes, but there are even subtler ways to manipulate readers at the sentence level in order to emphasize qualities.

Let’s take an anti-hero for instance. Richard the Viking, we’ll say. Richard the Viking is a brusque, angry character, but, for the means of your story, you want to make him, in some slippery way, likeable. By just describing all his body language, this doesn’t immediately work. So it’s time to play with your readers’ heads. You also have a character named Sally, who is a nurse. She’s a very kind person, but, for the sake of your story, you need to distance her from the reader slightly. So what do you do? Time for some emphasis manipulation.

Sally the gentle, sorrowful nurse touches my shoulder with her damp fingers. Her fingers damp, Sally touches my shoulder; she is a gentle and sorrowful nurse.

Richard the Viking slaps me on the shoulder with his weathered hand. With his weathered hand, Richard, who is a Viking, slaps me on the shoulder.

Same words. Different orders. Different emphasis. Who strikes you as kinder? The first Richard or the second Richard. I say the second Richard. Why? Because emphasis is placed on his weathered hand, not on him being a Viking. When people wrote in Latin, they used to designate the beginning of the sentence and the end of the sentence as the emphasis powerhouses; to a degree, this rule still applies to English. The opening and closing spots are going to get the most emphasis. See? When I put ‘Viking’ first, Richard is immediately labeled as a Viking. When I put weathered hand first, the word weathered sticks out and some of us think, “Oh, poor Richard, his hand is weathered. He must work very hard.” Nice job; your mean Viking just evoked a nugget of sympathy.

Sally’s fingers are damp. A slight shiver goes down our spine when we read that second sentence. Why? Because we can just feel her damp fingers. I feel like I’m there with her. The first Sally? I feel a little more distant. Why? Because the first thing I get is a name, her name, and not until later do I receive any tactile feeling I can relate to.

Where you place the emphasis defines where the reader gives the most attention, and you can manipulate readers endlessly—even cruelly—into feeling a certain way about your character. So, if you have that antihero and the straight out characterization isn’t working, it’s time to get crafty.

Preconceived Notions

You can manipulate your reader into thinking one thing about a character before meeting him or her and then shattering that perception with introduction. It’s fun, really. The way a character is introduced and the way he or she is described before introduced will help give the reader a point on which to focus when they form an opinion of your character. Basically, whatever preconceived notion they destroy is probably going to be significant. Great way to work with significant ideas? Yeah.

I’m going to use an example from my first novel. There’s a character named Captain Sophie Pierce who is mentioned in the story before her introduction. She is established as an ally of the two major introduced protagonists and as they talk about her, the reader gets a sense that Sophie is very limited in what she is able to do, constricted by her setting. First impression. However, when Sophie is introduced, she comes across as anything but the limited type. She is brash and outspoken and confident at first meeting, and the preconceived view of Sophie as being limited clashes with her opening demeanor. This immediately sets up limitations as an extremely significant aspect of Sophie’s life and it continues to be throughout the entire story. Bam. Limitation issue, covered. Time to get Sophie’s character thrashing beneath those limitations.

Preconceived notions are an easy way to bring an issue to the forefront of a character’s development without telling the reader anything, so think about how you want to introduce your character before you introduce them. There are many ways to attach an issue to a character at the first introduction.

Setting Manipulation

We are people who like to make connections. So, doesn’t it make sense that some character development happens by connection? It does. This is where your setting comes into play. Some people have this strange notion that their setting is just the stage on which action happens, a painted background which is nice when it’s detailed, but not too important. But characters can interact with setting. And setting is a powerful thematic tool to give your characters deeper meaning.

Think about movies for a minute. I know, different medium. But think. Ever pay attention to how the lighting changes? To why the camera shifts one direction then the next? Take Disney’s "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" for a minute. During the scene where Quasi-Modo is humiliated before the crowd the lighting, which was bright and normal before, turns vibrant red when the people turn on him and then suddenly becomes light when Esmeralda intervenes only to plunge into darkness as Quasi-Modo returns to the belltower. Think the animators are manipulating our emotions towards the characters? Oh yes. Why the sudden burst of light upon Esmeralda’s appearance? Screaming ‘protagonist’, anyone? Yes, we are talking about movies, but this is possible and even helpful in writing too.

Take, for instance, rain. What does it mean when it starts raining every time one of your characters appears? Significant? I think so. As a character undergoes an epiphany, the weather changes. Significant? You bet. Setting has full potential to interact with characters, whether it labels them as a part of a culture as the setting of The Shire does for Frodo or reflects the character’s role and personality as the moors do for Heathcliff.

Also, what surrounds your character? Not just the weather, the town. What is your character holding? Let’s take the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings for a moment and pretend it has no power. Frodo has a ring. I’m going to call that setting. This ring is always present with him. It could just be a ring. But wait—it’s not. Because the ring weighs upon him and, even if we didn’t have that backstory of what the ring was, we, as readers, would know that Tolkien was taking a piece of the setting and making it significant. Setting objects can become key parts of plot, but they can also identify with characters. The fact that Frodo carries the ring immediately labels him ringbearer which eggs on a whole slew of representative meanings.

Your main character always carries a picture of his dead wife around with him. When he breaks down, the picture rips, and when he finds his purpose now that his wife is gone, he finds that somebody has glued the picture back together and left it on his bed. You just sent the picture along the journey with him. Congratulations. You just manipulated your setting and attacked the reader with the nagging feeling that the picture and the character himself must signify something deeper.

Use setting to your advantage. Give your characters pieces of setting, wrap the setting around them. It will develop them more deeply and give them levels of resonance beyond just being a character in your story.


Sometimes characters are symbols, and not just in allegories. Sometimes they symbolize ideas, sometimes a group of people. Let’s say you already have a well-developed character. Because, even if your character is a symbol, he or she must be developed. Now what? No, don’t go shoving the ideas down your reader’s throat. Please don’t make your character a mouthpiece for his or her overarching idea, as tempting as it may be. But if I can’t tell the reader and I can’t let my character spew off what he represents, what do I do?

Detail, repetition and emphasis. Let’s take a look at The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald for a moment. Full of symbols, yes? Oh yeah. Daisy—old money. Myrtle, Tom—old money. What does Fitzgerald say? Well, I won’t ruin anything for you, but I thought The Great Gatsby was a severe commentary on the values of those people who represent old money. So, how does Fitzgerald do it? Detail. We see the wealth. We see their actions. We see the details that make up their scandalous lives. Repetition. He reminds us that Daisy and co. are part of the old money repeatedly. Emphasis. He emphasizes their money, and emphasizes their actions and the values that result. He emphasizes the connections between these characters, pouring them all into this symbol of people with wealth who take things of greater value for granted.

So, how do I make my character symbolic? Well, it depends on what your character symbolizes. Use certain words for your character that connect to what he or she symbolizes. Give your character some setting manipulation like that One Ring. Make use of odd objects. Let your character fixate on some of the things he or she symbolizes. All of these complex modes help with symbolism, so just don’t force it. Okay? Okay.

Foil Characters and Mirror Characters

Geez, WD, do you have to get into the literary terminology? I’m going to. Foil characters and mirror characters are two of the most powerful tools we have as we set up our cast to make characters more than just people on the page. So, first, definitions.

Foil characters: characters who resemble each other in many ways but are distinctly separated by a few significant differences that contrast them

Mirror characters: characters who reflect each other

Most of the time, this happens when you are setting up your cast and you end up with two characters who are similar in many ways. So, how does this help develop your character in a more complex way?

Well, if you have mirror characters, they are going to reflect each other and the reader will instinctively connect them in his or her mind. If you have an ogre and a dwarf and you make them mirror characters, the reader is going to draw some serious messages from that equivocation of the two characters. When you’re making mirror characters, it’s important to consider what is most important about their relationship. Obviously, two characters cannot be exactly like (unless you’re writing something really whacked out), so pick out what is most significant that they have in common and emphasize that. And let the reader draw the connections.

As for foil characters, things get fun. Foil characters share some similarity with each other… but their differences are where the real thematical and powerful development shine through. What does this difference do to each character? Why is the difference important? How can two characters from such similar cutout have such different endings? You can imagine the wealth of possibilities this provides. In my first novel, my most charismatic protagonist and my conflicted antagonist were foil characters. They had similar heritage. They were both very stubborn. They both dealt with more than their share of grief in life, and they were both often at fault for their own suffering. The difference was in their reaction to the consequences of their actions, and this difference threw them to complete opposite endings. My protagonist lived to marry his beloved. My antagonist was crushed by the castle she had made all those nasty decisions trying to claim. What did this do? It made that difference between them, an issue that had been woven throughout the entire story, a major theme that was resolved at the end. All done by a pair of foil characters. Foil characters are wickedly powerful development tools, so don’t be afraid to use them. Just because they are literary terminology does not mean they are just for analyzing the classics.

These are some of the complex modes of character development, for those who aim to develop their character beyond just a person or figure on the page. Themes and meaning are often a key part of a story, and they’re hard to pull off subtly. Which is why characters are some of the best carriers. So, as you write, keep all these things in mind. Don’t ignore the down and dirty active modes that develop a character, but don’t be afraid to manipulate the reader. It’s really kind of fun. And if you’re good at it, they’ll never know. :wink:
~ WD
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