Wondering how to make the characters in your story “developed” or real? Then start with reality. The reality is that we as humans have deep seated needs, wants, and often hidden desires. So too must our characters if they are to somehow come to life on the page and become important and memorable to our readers.
Kurt Vonnegut said it best, “Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”
As you journey with your own characters through the stories of their lives, from scene to scene, from situation to situation, don’t impose some heavy handed exposition to reveal what your characters want. Instead just listen to them and let them come alive on their own. Watch them on that high definition screen in your mind’s eye and think about yourself and your own life, perhaps even observe the people you know, and notice how our subtle human actions in everyday life often reveal those things we want most. You’ll never know completely what someone else wants or thinks, and that is part of the beauty of a story and the uncertainty of life.
Here is a character who wants water right away, just like Mr. Vonnegut insisted. What is different in his need for water is the beginning of a story, the beginning of an external conflict, the opening to a plot. If you were to continue writing this story you would follow this character and his obvious struggle to survive. You might not know what the situation is that put him here, needing water, so desperate for that sustaining life liquid, but those answers would reveal themselves to you, just as his emotional needs would be revealed as his character blossoms before you as he rises or falls, and as he changes or grows as a human.
For more on creating complex and conflicted characters, register for Don’s three-hour workshop on Saturday, Nov. 1, from 10 am to 1 pm.
Don Rearden grew up on the tundra of southwestern Alaska. He is board president of 49 Writers, a produced screenwriter, and award-winning author. He teaches writing as an Associate Professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. The Raven’s Gift is available from Penguin in trade paperback, Kindle, and iBook. More info at www.donrearden.com
, and twitter.com/donrearden. This post first ran in August of 2013.