Guest Post by Stuart Aken – “Character Development is Good for You”

Character Development is Good for You

by

Stuart Aken

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Is it possible to write a story without at least one character? I seriously doubt it, even if the ‘character’ is only something inanimate. But is it desirable? Definitely not. Characters are the writer’s means of delivering story. Plot is a framework, a guide, sometimes a straightjacket, that determines a story’s direction and ultimate end. But it’s the character, or characters, who take the reader by the hand and guide her through the twists and turns. And the more believable that character can be made, the more thoroughly will the reader engage with the story.

A lot has been written about character development, so I can add to the cannon only by describing my own method. Before I start any story, I have to know my main characters. In my current fantasy trilogy, which is well under way (Volumes 1 & 2 are written and edited), I’ve so far developed a cast of 83 named characters. Each of these people has a history, biography, physical description and a picture on which I can hang my memory. I know; a lot of people will think there are too many characters here, but this is a tale in the tradition of the epic fantasy, though it’s more adult than many. It’s common in the genre to have a large cast list: think of Lord of the Rings. How I keep track of all these individuals is for another day, another post. For now, I’ll concentrate on how I ‘invent’ my characters.

As an ex-professional photographer, my driving creative muse is visual. So, having determined gender and age, and with a vague idea of what I want the character to look like, I search my catalogue of images of people. Over the years I’ve been writing, I’ve made it a habit to collect pictures of real people I come across on my flights through the matter on the internet. I copy these pictures and assign them a basic designation according to race, gender, age (approximate), and hair colour. I have so far collected a library of around 1,200 from which I can take my pick. (Some of you will be concerned about copyright infringement, but, as these pictures are never published by me, that’s not really an issue).

Having chosen my picture, I attach it to a template on Word in the form of a table, listing physical features, beliefs, relationships, political persuasion, family history and asking the character two questions: 1. What does this person want? 2. What is this person prepared to do to get it? I now have a pretty good knowledge of my character.

At this stage, I use my table of names to select an appropriate name. (I’ve a document listing over 10,000 names, sorted alphabetically and by gender, with annotations showing the nations that use the name. For access to that list, please visit my blog at http://stuartaken.blogspot.co.uk/p/links.html#.UcBjqPZUOGk where you’ll find a .pdf version that you can copy for your own use.) For my fantasy, since I’ve invented a whole world along with everything that goes with it, I’ve made up my character names and tested each against Google to ensure I’m neither using one that already exists, nor naming somebody by using a word that means something inappropriate in another language.

I now have my character with name, age, physical attributes and belief system. I also know what motivates that character and what that character is prepared to do in order to achieve any ambition. That gives me a pretty rounded person to put on the page before I even start writing the story. This may seem a lot of work, but in my experience, the bulk of writing is preparation. Once I have my characters and locations and any historically factual information that may be relevant, I can start the story. I find that the preparation allows me to write very quickly. I always place hyperlinks in the story to each character’s bio page so that I can quickly check to make sure I haven’t either changed some physical aspect or turned a peace-loving pagan into a warrior extremist.

So, there you have it: my method of creating and developing characters. Once they are on the page, I allow them to guide the story for which I only ever have a very loose framework, or sometimes none at all. Often, they take me along roads I didn’t know existed. I love that. I learn a great deal along the way, as well. Character is vital to the story; we neglect it at our peril.

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For information on Mr. Aken and his work, follow the following links.

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9 Comments

  1. Thanks for an interesting article and for access to a very useful resource.

  2. Many thanks, Brian, for this opportunity to connect with more readers. I really appreciate it.

  3. I agree with Stuart. Preparation is the *work* behind all good writing, and when a wheel falls off the problem can usually be traced back to that pre-starting point.

    Good article, though I’m still reeling from the 83 character set…

  4. Avril

    With a “cast” of so many characters, Stuart, I think your approach is masterly. Fascinating insight into your method. Thank you.

  5. Sounds a lot, but I suspect there are as many in Lord of the Rings, and several other well-known fantasies. Thanks for your observations, Linda. It’s a good job I have access to Excel, imagine having to keep track of them all in paper form!

  6. Madeleine McDonald

    Good article, Stuart, revealing how meticulous your preparation is. I find it interesting that you invent names as well as geography for the worlds in your fantasy books. One reason I have never enjoyed this genre is that the names jar on me. Yet when I read fiction by African or Indian or Japanese authors the names sound right in the context. I wonder if we all share a subconscious recognition of what is rooted in the reality.
    Madeleine

    • Thanks, Avril. Hope it’s some use.
      Madeleine, your comments about invented names strikes a chord with me. In fact, as I was in the process of inventing the world, naming countries and other features, I used a fairly loose but nevertheless organised pattern of letters. This way, the names of characters fit in well with the names of the lands/cities/regions they inhabit. It’s a lot of work, especially as it’s important that the made up words don’t mean something inappropriate in another language: Wouldn’t want to name someone with a fictional name only to discover it meant something rude in Finnish!

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