4 Ways To Successfully Develop Your Characters

Writing tips for character development with examples from Stephen King, JK Rowling and Neil Gaiman

Hey! Welcome back to my blog.  Today I’m going to be exploring examples of how to successfully develop your characters. Last week we looked at 16 things we can learn from Stephen King about writing.  Under characterization we noted that ‘to build realistic characters you need to pay attention to how real people behave and then tell the truth about what you see.’ 

In his Masterclass, Neil Gaiman concurs with King’s advice; when his short stories were getting rejected at the start of his career Gaiman thought to himself ‘either I’m not good enough, or I don’t understand the world.’  So in order to better develop his characters and subsequently his story, he decided that he was a ‘freelance journalist specializing in the world of publishing and fantasy and science fiction.’  This perspective enabled him to learn from the world around him, then go back and apply his learnings to his writing.  This is a great example of a growth mindset by the way!

All fiction has to be as honest as you can make it.

Neil Gaiman

Before we start I want to let you know that I’m not affiliated with the writers I refer to, nor am I promoting their work.  Any examples that I use are based on my reading preferences.  For this post I’ve chosen to reference ‘End of Watch’ by Stephen King (book three in his Bill Hodges trilogy), ‘Career of Evil’ and ‘Lethal White’ by JK Rowling (books three and four in her Cormoran Strike series) and ‘American Gods’ by Neil Gaiman (book one in his American Gods series).  So let’s take a look at four ways you can develop your characters and how King, Rowling and Gaiman have effectively applied them.

(1) Ask questions

Before you start writing you need to know:

  1. Who are your characters?
  2. What do they do?
  3. What do they want? <– This is the only question that will open the door to what you will do next in your novel.  If you get stuck, ask yourself this question and it will be your flashlight.

Gaiman states that what the characters want (what they set out to obtain) is always one stage below the mechanics of plotting, and King is of the view that as characters grow and develop at their own pace they in turn develop the novel.  This is why character development is so important; your characters ARE your story!

Remember, characters always, for good or for evil, get what they need.  They do not get what they want.

Neil Gaiman

(2) Utilize voice and vocabulary

By voice, I don’t just mean your characters’ dialogue – I am referring to the way the writer tells their characters’ stories through their characters’ own words, in essence adopting the persona of the character.  Neil Gaiman referred to this as ‘American transparent’ in his Masterclass, where the writer is invisible and does nothing to draw attention to themselves.  This is what third person narration should be.  The reader should forget that there is a writer and believe that they are reading the words of whichever character happens to be narrating their point of view at the time. 

There is a narrative voice but a lot of the craft of the narrative voice comes in disappearing into the text.

Neil Gaiman

In ‘End of Watch’, King executes this extremely well by using derogatory terms such as ‘nigger, raghead, fag, and dyke’ when writing as the deplorable murderer Brady.   King travels a fine line between offending readers and evoking revulsion but all fiction should tell the truth.  King has shown his character’s racist nature and utter disregard for humanity by using these terms when narrating as his character.  Remember to be consistent.  If your character is the type that would use (and therefore think) of people in these terms, make sure they consistently adhere to this persona throughout your writing. 

Rowling also uses derogatory terms such as ‘cunt’ and ‘fat fucker’ in ‘Career of Evil’ when writing from the antagonist’s view. This gives her antagonist a distinctly different voice from her protagonists and like Brady, shows his disregard for others.

Vocabulary also encompasses the way a character speaks and in ‘Career of Evil’ Rowling expresses characters’ accents through writing their dialogue phonetically.  This is a great technique as the reader hears the accent in their minds while reading the text and the character comes to life.  Each accent comes across unique and true to reality; Scottish, Cockney, Cumbrian, Essex, and Irish.  I live in Australia and am unfamiliar with some of these accents so I particularly appreciated this technique that added to my reading experience.

(3) Explore views and perceptions

When writing through the eyes of your characters, their perception of the world should be clear and unique.  In ‘American Gods’, Gaiman’s protagonist Shadow is kidnapped and when describing his captors Shadow notices minute detail such as the state of their fingernails and hairlines.  This not only tells us a lot about Shadow’s character but it speaks volumes about his captors.  Gaiman is hitting two birds with one stone and doing it in a subtle way.  He has also steered away from clichéd descriptions such as hair colour, eye colour and height, which would pull the reader out of the moment and not be true to Shadow’s character.

In this same scene Gaiman uses brilliant internal dialogue to bring across Shadow’s stream of thought.  When thinking what to do about his situation Shadow’s thoughts are both realistic and entertaining and are written using parenthesis and italics so that the reader can easily differentiate between the multiple thoughts.  Below is the extract of the scene from ‘American Gods’ (page 161) as it appears in the book:

I am bigger than either of them, he thought.  I can take them.  But they are armed; and even if he – somehow – killed or subdued them both, he’d still be locked in the cell with them.  (But he’d have a gun.  He’d have two guns.) (No.)

Neil Gaiman, ‘American Gods’

(4) Articulate behavior

There is a scene in Rowling’s ‘Lethal White’ where Cormoran Strike, the protagonist, meets Flick, the girlfriend of an antagonist, and notices that she has applied eyeliner on top of sleep in her eye. What’s sleep? You know that gunk you find in the corner of your eye when you wake up? Yep, THAT! So… let’s start by acknowledging how unhygienic this is! I was immediately put off her character and couldn’t comprehend how she thought that that was ok.  It was also quite strange as applying eyeliner suggests that Flick cares about her appearance, and yet she hasn’t bothered to remove the sleep… this not only tells us a lot about Flick but adds a layer of complexity to her character with the reader left wondering… why? Is she feral? Is she lazy? Is she distracted? Hmmm…

Moving on to ‘Lethal White’, Rowling explores the intricacies of relationships through Robin’s marriage and Strike’s relationships.  In Robin’s view she is stuck in her marriage because she feels obligated to try to make it work even though she knows it’s over, while Strike, upon seeing Charlotte, his ex-girlfriend of sixteen year, realises she still has a ‘power’ over him.  Rowling also includes Strike’s current fling Lorelei’s ‘need’ to end things with Strike face to face (yep there are people out there exactly like that) even though he has made it clear he sees no need to draw things out with a post-mortem of the relationship.  These are all genuine feelings and the related actions that people take and depending on the readers personal experiences they may or may not understand Robin’s decisions, Strike’s emotions or Lorelei’s stance (which in turn may change their feelings towards the characters) but nevertheless, Rowling sticks to the truth and each reader will have their own unique experience of her text.

Before I sign off I’d like to explore an example where the author failed to effectively develop her character.  In fact her character came across as a caricature!  I won’t be sharing the title of the book or the author but the premise is a doctor at a mental asylum in the 1940s falling ‘in love’ with a patient.  The author has overplayed the doctor; he trips or almost misses sitting in his seat whenever the patient is around.  In another scene it is painfully obvious that a resident nurse is interested in him but he seems oblivious, which is unrealistic given the nurse’s blatant and over-the-top flirting.  His reactions to the nurse’s actions just didn’t ring true, and the unrealistic behaviour made me feel as if the author didn’t trust that I would understand her characters. I also found myself wondering how someone who is so daft and awkward could have had the stamina and concentration to complete a medical degree.  Don’t overplay your characters; trust that your reader will not only understand but appreciate your subtlety.

Have you read any books that have excellent character development? What about poor character development? Please leave your examples below, I’d love to hear from you!

Best,

Nathalie

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2 thoughts on “4 Ways To Successfully Develop Your Characters

  1. Great tips here. I myself suffer from writing anything other than action, and I’m well aware that my novels need more character development, setting, and a proper plot, but as a pantser, I just dive right in and get wrecked that way so, I guess there’s always edits, lol.

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  2. Thanks Stuart, I love writing action too so I can relate. Try asking yourself the three questions and see what you come up with, it may even help those action scenes! There’s also an exercise I refer to as ‘A Day in the Life of…’ where you choose one of your characters and just write what a typical day would be like for them. It really gets you into their mindset and helps you understand them! and yep there’s also edits, and more edits, and more edits 😂

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