Writers should develop characters like they do their relationships.
We meet a coworker, a new friend, a romantic interest, and the story slowly unfurls as time goes by.
At first, we find out things – such as they don’t like it when the barista puts chocolate sprinkles and whip cream on top of a decadent hot chocolate. Gilding the lily bothers them. Or we know their favorite color, movie, or song.
One night, over drinks in the living room in one of your apartments, you might find out what their “Death Row Last Meal” might be.
But maybe you don’t know their mom’s maiden name.
Or what name they gave their childhood pet.
The type of shampoo they use.
Or about the time they accidentally told the cashier at the bakery that they loved them.
Why don’t we meet someone we are interested in being friends with or romantically involved with and give all of this information immediately?
Surely, finding out everything would make it easier to decide if you want to make this person a permanent fixture in your life, right?
Maybe. Wouldn’t that take away all the magic and spark of making a new friend or starting a new love affair, though? Perhaps the person would become less fascinating immediately – because what is left to discover about them?
TMI - Too Much Info
Characters in writing should be looked at in the same manner. Writers are often obsessed with knowing their characters inside-out – from favorite colors to what song their phone plays when their alarm goes off in the morning.
Usually, fans are the same. Whether it is a character in a book or a member of a band, fans often want to know everything they can find out. It’s no wonder that “Teeny Bopper” magazines were once a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Of course, now we have gossip sites, Reddit, and Tumblr. The word “fans” comes from the word “fanatic,” so that explains everything.
Knowing everything about a character, though it can provide warm and fuzzy feelings, is a double-edged sword.
One, (as mentioned before) this leaves nothing else to learn in the future, taking away the excitement. And two, if the character acts…out of character…in the future, it is highly upsetting to the readers.
There is a thin line between character development and character obsession.
When a writer conceives of a story, usually it begins with a plot point or a character that intrigues them.
They either have to find characters to move the plot along and flesh it out, or they need a plot to give their character purpose.
In either scenario, the writer (and reader) needs to know why a character does one action after another as they move through the plot. Otherwise, the entire story would fall flat, and everything would seem pointless.
To understand a character’s motivation, you have to understand the character, and that’s where the writer begins making these decisions about what the character is like and what makes them…them.
The writer decides what about this character makes it believable that the character and plot are a natural fit for each other.
As far as I am concerned, a writer can write down copious notes detailing every single detail about their character and the life they lead.
They can know everything there is to know about a character. If they feel it helps them write the story, then they should not hold back.
But how does a writer known when to hold back on what they share with a reader?
Reading is fundamentally about imagination. Eyes scan printed words on a page, and a movie plays in the reader’s mind.
Even if I were to write a line about the curtains in a person’s home being blue, the reader gets to decide what specific shade of blue. Unless I am specific—maybe even give the Color Value Number—blue is a very general description of a color.
It provides the reader with enough information to set the scene but still allows them to make the story somewhat their own.
The same should be done with characters. What the reader knows during each stage of the story should feel like a relationship is unfurling between the character and the reader.
Introduce the character to the reader.
Give enough information to breed familiarity.
Throw in tidbits of information here and there to keep things exciting.
Stop when you don’t have a reason for including information about a character. At the end of the story, the reader should feel that the character could be a person they might happen across in real life.
However, you should leave the reader wondering about all of the things they would want to know about a new friend or romantic partner.
Leave some magic and wonder for the reader. Let them fill in the gaps of knowledge with their thoughts and ideas. Let them believe that a character they loved might have the same favorite song or food.
Unless that information needs to be in the story, the reader will appreciate it more if they can decide these things for themselves.
It takes years out of a lifetime for two people to become close friends. Don’t try to make it happen in 300 pages.
Do you have a hard time writing characters? You're not alone!