Remember the frayed and overused “Keep It Simple, Stupid” (KISS) way of doing business? The principle is attributed to Kelly Johnson of the Lockeed Skunk Works. It may have a valuable place in creating spy planes and other technological marvels but it’s often wrong-headed for fiction writers and their character-creations. Worse than misguided, it’s boring for your readers, the nadir of fates for any writer. Just don’t KISS your characters, ever.
Your characters need depth, and lots of it. They don’t live in a flat, two-dimensional world, even though they come alive that way on your page. Characters exist elsewhere – mostly, in the minds and hearts of your readers. It’s in this secret, personal gallery of images where characters truly come alive. This is why your characters demand dimension, breadth, facets and nuances. They demand life, and it’s your job to make that happen.
Character development cannot be simplistic, nor can it become a massive, instantaneous dump process into your readers’ minds. Their nature needs to evolve, encapsulate the reader, and help carry him or her through the story line, right to the last paragraph of the last page. Characters must evolve naturally, within the context of the environment that you have created for them. There’s nothing KISS about it. If you KISS your characters, you’ll probably kiss-off your readers.
Throughout the course of your masterpiece, any given character must be born, evolve, and become the glue that keeps your story line moving forward. It’s not just the story line itself that captivates your readers. More often than not, it’s the characters who do the heavy lifting, who convey the story line where it needs to go. They are the actors that make the action come alive. In some literary works, they are the entire point of the story line. It’s called a “character study” for a reason, and it’s the kind of writing that fascinates many readers for the pure enjoyment of watching a character come alive and move around the pages. It’s life, in a very real sense, when it’s offered by a seasoned writer.
Also, all characters are not equal, which is a vital point for any reader. Supporting characters help to define the story line and also help to define other characters. It’s the old game of “compare and contrast.” Not every character can be primary. Not every character needs to survive, overcome, enlighten, or even develop into a major part of your story. Still, even a minor character can play a crucial role. They should always be much more than a face in the crowd, even if they appear to be inconsequential.
Whether a minor or major player, each character still demands attention and dimension. Each character must be sufficiently realistic to re-create itself in the mind of the reader. Even if a particular character makes only a cameo appearance, that appearance must feel real and valid to the reader. A reader may not remember the character forever but he or she must remember the character long enough to wonder, to pause, to continue reading.
Key characters can be very complex and subtle. Many well-known authors are masters at developing their characters in such a way that they become works of art unto themselves. We remember these characters because they have dimension. We can create endless mental images of the character, add each nuance offered by the writer, and refine the process with many of our own musings. As readers, we want to participate in the creation and evolution of the character. We own that character and we care deeply about him or her. A reader needs to take part in your work, to be genuinely involved in your masterpiece. Let the reader be a critical companion in the creation process by offering characters that just won’t stay out of their minds or hearts.
The bottom line is to spend lots of time and energy in developing your characters. Make them multifaceted, fascinating and irresistible. Give them the moods and movements that captivate readers, the little quirks that make them soar beyond the ordinary. To do this effectively, your characters must be more than simple writer-creations. They must live inside you, move around in your brain, tug at your heart, walk with you every day. They must be your constant companions, your foibles, your friends, and your guides. When they take on this kind of reality for you, they will be ready to share with your readers.
When they begin talking to you, when they start to demand script changes, you’ve arrived. They’re ready for others. Or, you need a shrink. Not to worry. You’re a writer, so make it all come out the way that suits you best.
(A short note while revising this article. It seems a little obsessive, right? Perhaps, too much pontification? There’s a reason, or maybe just a compulsion, behind the mystery. See Writers Workshop: The Inner Writer for an attempted explanation.)