Today I'm excited to be welcoming the author, Mirriam Neal, to my blog for a guest post. ^_^
I've admired Mirriam's writing for years; her sense of humor, character interactions, and overall good storytelling make me want to read every story she shares snippets from. So needless to say, I am overjoyed that her book, Paper Crowns has been published so I can finally read the entire thing!
Paper Crowns synopsis:
Ginger has lived in seclusion, with only her aunt Malgarel and her blue cat, Halcyon, to keep her company. Her sheltered, idyllic life is turned upside-down when her home is attacked by messengers from the world of fae. Accompanied by Halcyon (who may or may not be more than just a cat), an irascible wysling named Azrael, and a loyal fire elemental named Salazar, Ginger ventures into the world of fae to bring a ruthless Queen to justice.
Today, Mirriam is here to share her thoughts on character development:
//Cutting Through the Static
Static: lacking in movement, action, or change, especially in a way viewed as undesirable or uninteresting:
I'm going to start by referring to the Campbellian idea of a hero's path to personal transformation. Usually called the Hero's Journey or the Mythic Journey, it puts for the idea of a three-step journey all heroes take. Each step in the journey has minor sub-steps (or baby steps, if you will), but in the end the three main points are Separation, Initiation, and Return. A perfect classic example of this is The Lord of the Rings, in which Frodo undergoes Separation (leaving Hobbiton on a quest), Initiation (a series of tests he must endure), and Return (he arrives back at Hobbiton with new insight). According to Joseph Campbell, who named this process in his dissertation, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, this idea is a monomyth - an Ouroborean cycle of mythology, continually on repeat.
There's a reason we're drawn to stories of heroes and quests. Not only is it a grand adventure where the stakes are high (if it's a good tale), but we get to travel with the hero as he or she embarks on their journey. We fall when they fall, we rise when they rise, and we come out the other side all the better for the undertaking (hopefully).
Or rather, that's the ideal. Unfortunately, much of modern fiction has taken a turn from the idea of character growth and has instead handed us more static characters than we know what to do with. A static character, as you might now imagine, is someone who never changes. They don't grow, they don't even backslide - they are exactly the same at the beginning as they are at the end.
This is a personal peeve of mine, and it's all-too prevalent - especially in young adult fiction. I don't think it's usually on purpose - I think it's a reflection of our culture. As life demands less and less of us, we demand less and less of other things, including stories. We settle for mediocre, and soon even mediocre becomes better-than-average.
Suffice it to say, character development is, to me, the most important element in writing, and I'm thrilled to be able to talk about it today.
Nobody wants a static character. Now, when I say static, I'm not talking about characters like John Watson who remain solidly heroic and undergo no striking changes in personality. I'm talking about characters like James Bond, who undergo various and sundry adventures that would change the ordinary person, but leave 007 surprisingly unscathed - both physically and mentally. The actor may change, but the character does not - at least, not in any major way.
Personally, I think James could do with a little character development now and then, but that's just me. But character development isn't necessarily easy. It takes less work to keep a character the same as you write them, because you don't need to think as much. You know exactly who they are and how they will react at any given time - which in my opinion is a terrible thing, both for the writer and the reader. Character development is what helps us grow as people. Nobody wants to travel on a journey alongside a fictional character and come out the other side exactly as you went in. How boring would that be? (Answer: Very. I've been on several such journeys. Sigh.)
But I did just say writing character development can be hard, so over the years I've cultivated a few tips that ensure the personal plot carrying on inside my characters is always moving.
• Throw a situation at them and see how they react. This situation doesn't have to make the final cut, or even enter the novel at all - it's an exercise to see how well you understand your character. Place them in a difficult position. Give them a dilemma to solve. Give them a devastating heartache. Give them an incredibly happy moment. What do they do? Their reaction will help you get a grip on their personality.
• Step back whenever you come to a major plot point. How will this affect your character? Don't just keep writing on autopilot - take the time to really think about it. What is the outcome of this? Does this challenge your character in any way? Will this break them, or will they rise to the occasion?
• Keep asking those questions. Never fall into the trap of thinking you know everything about your character. Question everything they do before they do it. Ask 'what if?' and go with an option that surprises you. Keep things rolling. Keep things interesting.
• Don’t forget that your character is not isolated. (Or at least probably not.) Most characters are constantly surrounded by other characters. No man is an island, so don't forget that your character needs to be very real, which means what other characters say and do will have an impact on him or her. This may not seem like it has anything to do with character development, but it has much to do with understanding your character - and understanding your character paves the way for development.
• Not all development is forward in motion. Sometimes a character who began as the good guy becomes the bad one. Sometimes a character makes a stupid choice. Sometimes a character breaks your trust. These are always fascinating situations to explore the character's psyche and throw a twist into the plot - both of which are opportunities you should never pass up.
• Compare. Look at your favorite fictional characters (the ones you didn't write). Why do you love them so much? What trials do they undergo? What changes them? Look at your own character and see if they measure up, if they're the kind of character you would root for. If not - you should probably fix that.
• Your character should learn from his or her mistakes. One dumb decision is fine - good, even. Two is acceptable. But three, and you've developed a bad habit. Your character isn't learning. They're running into the same wall over and over. That's the opposite of character development, and it's an issue I see most often in young adult fiction. I can't count the times I've wanted to strangle a YA character because they kept making the same mistakes, caught in an endless cycle of poor choices.
• Make a list of major plot points. You'll have to work for the filler that comes in between, but you'll have something to keep you moving forward. I usually like to have at least three major plot points figured out before I start writing. These plot points usually deal with the main character, but don't forget that they should have an impact on the minor characters, too.
• Write down all those cool ideas. I pretty much always have a notebook with me when watching a movie or a drama or a TV show for those 'Oooh. That'd be cool,' moments. I don't end up using all of them, but I never regret writing them down. Seriously. Losing a good idea is one of the worst feelings ever. Not that I'd know anything about it. Ahem.
• Ask someone! This final step is particularly hard for those of us who are private, or sensitive to criticism. I used to be so terrified of anyone reading my work that I didn't let anyone see it. Take it from me - you can do it. Pick someone you trust and have them give you their opinion. You don't develop a thick skin by keeping yourself locked away in a safety cocoon.
This learning process is different for everyone, and as far as I know, it doesn't ever stop. It's a constant thing that practice refines and refines some more. I stated earlier that it was hard, but I don't want to daunt you. It's hard. Writing is hard. Most things worth doing are hard! (Particularly writing. But I'm also biased.) I'm not an expert, although I've just written an entire blog post on the subject - but I've been writing for a good long while, and these tips have proved consistently helpful. I hope they're as helpful to you!
Mirriam Neal is a twenty-two-year-old Northwestern hipster living in Atlanta. She writes hard-to-describe books in hard-to-describe genres, and illustrates things whenever she finds the time. She aspires to live as faithfully and creatively as she can and she hopes you do, too.
Publisher's page: http://pagesofwonder.com/neal.html
Barnes & Noble:Link!