• Andrew Johnston

Developing Characters: A Relationship-Driven Approach

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

Last time we talked about novel writing, we looked at the overall plot and how one can derive it from character motivation. Today, we're looking at the characters themselves and how we can develop them. Characters are the core of most of what I do; the novels you can find on this site occupy a common setting with characters developed over the course of years.

The earliest of those characters come from my first long-form work, Nerd World. It remains one of my favorite works, and has some of my favorite characters.

As with the last post, we'll be using Nerd World in our model for today.

Character development is another sore spot for new writers. Are my characters well-rounded? Are they sympathetic? Are they interesting? The formula for building quality characters is simple in principle, but harder in execution.

There are a lot of materials on character creation - everything from articles to worksheets to personality tests you're meant to take on behalf of a character. Most of them aren't that useful. Worksheets and templates tend to reduce characters to lists of traits to be shuffled around, which tends to result in flat stereotypes. Personality tests - ranging from legitimate Big Five tests to pseudoscientific writer's obsessions like MBTI to just-for-fun D&D alignment or Hogwarts house tests - tend to have similar problems.

The most useful are probably projective tests - those that call upon the writer to describe how their characters would react in different situations. Leaving aside the more questionable ones ("What's in your character's pocket right now?"), these can be very useful. This is not the approach I'll be using - there are plenty of these floating around right now, and they're not really my style.

This model follows the last one, and features the same minimalist, quick-and-dirty style:

If you plan on printing this out, get the PDF by clicking this link or on the image. You'll probably only need the one copy this time, unless your story is absurdly epic. As before, don't be afraid to make your own notes - this should be a mess by the end.

It's not as convoluted as it looks, I promise. We're going to analyze characters through how they (or, more precisely, their goals) interact. No one's personality is totally stable - we change depending on the circumstances, and that's true for fictional characters just as much as real-life people

We'll start with the central character and their goal at left. Unlike last time, it's probably best to stick with the main protagonist, so we're leaving Aaron Bellamy on the back bench and going with main man Apollo "Paul" Liston for this model. I joked last time that his goal is "Don't crack up," but it pretty much is - he's not even trying to win Trivia Master as much as he wants to survive it.

On the right, we have space for four characters and their goals. These should be the four most plot-critical characters, but you don't need to fill them all out. In this case, we'll have three - Ken Greevey, Jane Anders and Aaron Bellamy, the other POV characters. There's arguably a fourth that should be here, but filling in that name would be a spoiler, and what greater sin is there in the Western world? Their goals are all the same - "Win Trivia Master."

The space between the characters contains three columns, which we'll fill in left-to-right:

  • Conflict? - There's only space here for a Y or an N, describing if these characters have an initially antagonistic relationship.

  • Tension - One word to describe what troubles the relationship between these characters. Tensions exist even between the best of friends, and this becomes the emotional equivalent of the obstacles in the plot.

  • Interactions - This is the real-world nuts and bolts of their relationship. How (and where, and when) do these characters interact? What do their conversations look like? Most importantly, what happens when their goals collide?

Novel Character Development

Let's look at Nerd World, starting with the easiest character:

Aaron Bellamy

Aaron is the chief antagonist for most of the story and a special rival to Paul.

  • Conflict? - He's the villain, so of course the answer is "yes."

  • Tension - The most obvious word here is rivalry. It certainly applies - Paul and Aaron are closely matched in skill and have been competing for many years. But Aaron's view on this is a lot more malicious than one might assume from the term "rivalry." Perhaps revenge is a better word, with Paul as the target.

  • Interactions - Aaron's malice means that any interaction between the two is going to be hostile. A typical encounter will entail Aaron seeking to harm Paul in some way, with Paul either avoiding or enduring the attack because it's not in his nature to retaliate. In this way, Aaron is almost a force of nature with intent, and Paul has no immediate way to stop it.

Jane Anders

Jane is Paul's love interest, but also a competitor on another team.

  • Conflict? - As much as Paul might hate it, Jane is on a rival team, so this is a "yes."

  • Tension - As with Aaron, Jane's tension with Paul can be described as rivalry but that's not the best word. There is a strong romantic tension between the two - unrequited romance, the worst kind (but the best for fiction). It's also an unbalanced tension, as Paul wrongly assumes that Jane doesn't know he's interested in her.

  • Interactions - As you'd expect from the above, interactions between Paul and Jane are going to be painfully awkward. Paul wants some kind of romantic interaction, but that's not likely to happen, and instead we're likely to see a lot of failed and withdrawn attempts. On her side, Jane has the option to use Paul's emotions against him, but that's not really in her nature (or is it?).

Ken Greevey

Ken is Paul's friend and a teammate, which doesn't mean that they always get along.

  • Conflict? - They're on the same team, so this is an easy "no."

  • Tension - This one's tough to put into one word. They have a personality mismatch in that Ken takes Trivia Master very seriously and Paul sees it as a game that he no longer enjoys playing. I'll call this priorities. Both of them want to win, but Ken sees winning as a part of his future plans, which leads him to do things that Paul doesn't really like.

  • Interactions - Paul has more interactions with Ken than anyone else. Often these are friendly, but not always. Ken's fixation on stats and planning can be exhausting to Paul, leading Paul to avoid dealing with his friend. At the extreme, this ends in argument. On occasion, Ken can come across as a more benign version of Aaron, and this can lead to arguments between Ken and Paul over Ken's actions. There's no hostility between them and they are friends, but Ken is going to drive Paul up the wall a few times.

Character is Critical

This is only one method for developing your characters, and I would highly advise seeking out others. Characters are perhaps the most important aspect of any work of fiction, more so than worldbuilding or even plot development. Readers will forgive a lot of mistakes if they have someone compelling to follow.

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