WRITING KNOWHOW Details in Character Development

How well do you really know your characters? KnowHow editor Eleanor Pender dives into this essential piece of the writing process.

Take a close look at the main character in your story. Why do they do what they do? For instance, if they had eaten your breakfast this morning, would they have liked it or loathed it? Even if your character is scrambling through a jungle, scaling a mountain side or sitting in their kitchen, they will need to eat at some point. 

It is these details - how your character interacts with the day-to-day, their relationship with food, social media, their first thoughts when they wake up, how they interact with people - that can say so much about them.  

Next time you’re reading a book, or watching a film, look out for a key moment when a character makes a big decision or does something significant. Are they reacting to the plot? Are they reacting in a way that fits with how you understand the character so far? Is there anything missing from how you see that character? 

Then take a moment and think, how have I come to know this character?

This is through the little things that came earlier on, how they went about their day, how you have seen what life is like for them. For example, you can believe that Harry Potter won't be friends with Draco Malfoy when you have already seen the bullying Harry experiences with the Dursleys. In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen roams around the woods alone and only sees Gale and her family. Is it surprising she is not, as she says, good at making friends? 

Why is this important? It is these small details in how a character is introduced that lays the groundwork for those bigger moments later on. Your character is on a journey, and on this journey they will, generally speaking, change into a new version of themselves. Not being friends with Draco Malfoy may not be a key indicator of Harry's future, but it does fall in line with the two being on different paths laid out by their upbringing, their parents and guardians, and the values and morals they have both adopted. With Katniss, this can be seen in the choices she makes for her family and the first ally she makes in Rue. These small details are the breadcrumbs that take the reader, or viewer, on the journey with a character.

Let's come back to your protagonist. You are taking them on a journey and, how your character behaves and reacts to your plot all links back to what makes them who they are, as defined by you. How you share those details with the reader will help them understand and connect with your character, and root for them until the end.  

For further reading on characters and emotions, I recommend Donald Maass's The Emotional Craft of Fiction. For more reading on story structure, you can read our previous KnowHow piece on midpoints here

Picture credit: © mari lezhava on Unsplash

Photo by Mihaela Bodlovic

Based in Bristol, Eleanor lectures in digital communications and chairs YA and middle-grade events at festivals including Bath Children's Literature Festival, Edinburgh International Book Festival, and YALC. She is currently working on a young adult fantasy novel. Find her on Twitter at @eleanor_pender.

Do you have any suggestions for KnowHow? If there's something you'd like to know how to do or know more about, tell us. Email KnowHow editor, Eleanor at knowhow@britishscbwi.org

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