By Zannie Marie Dyer
Character development is much the same for books as it is for movies. Think of a well-directed movie as a type of power-point presentation, visually showing the construction of a strong character. To make my point, let’s take a look at a fun, book-themed movie, You Got Mail, starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. The plot keeps the audience laughing and crying, and peeking around corners for the next scene, but there’s something more—the characters themselves. Hanks plays the part of a mega-bookstore owner, Joe Fox. Joe is comical, boyish, and loveable but also attracted to shallow relationships. Meg Ryan, Kathleen, is also an owner of a small children’s bookstore. Her honest innocence is endearing, but she struggles with a developing bitterness and letting go of her past. Lovable as they are, both characters have defects, and both are evolving. Most authors know that compelling personalities aren’t enough, and real people are a mix of both endearing and annoying traits. But, there is another necessary dimension.
A character’s weaknesses must not only be shown, but it’s vital to reveal how the personality defects came to be. If a nice guy like Joe Fox is dating an annoying, selfish woman, the audience wants to know why. This question is answered in a scene where Joe is reminiscing with his father. With a touch of derision, Joe reminds his father of how he’d dated each of his childhood nannies, discarding one for the next. A light-bulb moment follows—now the audience understands why Joe behaves as he does. Compassion follows and the bonding between character and audience begins. The same principle applies to books.
Now, let’s take a look at the character, Kathleen. While Joe’s competing bookstore is enjoying great success, Kathleen’s business is quickly diminishing. Despite plummeting book sales and the loss of former customers, she stubbornly holds on. Is this good or bad? While viewers and readers enjoy optimism, they also dislike getting stuck in conflict. Kathleen’s lack of resilience could become an annoyance—new insight is needed to protect her likeability. This happens when Kathleen is shown standing alone in her bookstore, enjoying sentimental memories. As she thinks about her deceased mother, a scene from her childhood flashes across the screen. There, we see Kathleen and her mother dancing and twirling together inside a cozy little bookstore—the very same store she’s now fighting to keep. Instantly, the viewers’ hearts are grabbed. Now, we understand Kathleen’s anger and stubbornness. The same strategy needs to be used in books. A backstory behind a character’s quirks and flaws creates a sense of understanding. The reader begins to, not only want to know more about the character, they begin to care.
It’s also important when writing to show the defining moments of a character’s growth. This is clearly demonstrated in the movie as we watch Joe and his girlfriend become trapped in a broken elevator. As he listens to her gripe about her fingernails, his expression of disdain tells all. He’s had it. Meanwhile, Kathleen is listening to her boyfriend ramble about his political ideals in the middle of a movie. She simply stands up and walks out. These are pivotal moments of emotional growth when both characters decide to move on from failing relationships.
Joe, fed-up with his family’s tradition of superficial relationships, begins to pursue someone new—and you guessed it—it’s Kathleen. She, however, still blames Joe for her shop’s failure and tension grows as she thwarts his advances. The dance of romance becomes intriguing as we watch them interact with new life perspectives, working to overcome past scars of love and loss. These types of scenes keep viewers and readers riveted; we all crave emotional fulfillment, and we want the same for our story friends.
Kathleen makes another leap of growth when she realizes she’s not only good at selling children’s books, but in writing them. She closes her shop and starts a new career as a writer. We applaud this move, for she’s become like an old friend who we want to succeed. Meanwhile, Joe, who we’ve come to love and understand, is wooing her with flowers and intimate talks. And, because we know the backstories, we forgive them their faults and want nothing more than for them to kiss and make-up.
The heart of creating strong protagonists is to make them someone we’d like to spend time with. No one likes a perfect person—they make us feel bad about ourselves. In our flawed human condition, we yearn to be better, to be more like our Creator. These are the same principles we want to see in the people we read about. And as curious, relational people, we also long for the intimacy of knowing someone’s past and how they became the person they are today. This insight bonds the reader to the characters, making them much like dear friends or family members. Using just the right amount of a character’s backstory is the secret ingredient to a likable and multi-dimensional character.
I appreciate Zannie taking the time to share her insights into writing characters. If you have an additional tip share it in the comments.
Zanne Marie Dyer
Zanne Marie Dyer resides in Daytona Beach with her husband and has three young adult children. As a former Christian Clinical Counselor, she became increasingly interested in the psychology of the criminal mind. Her dream to write has resulted in a new mystery murder novel, Dark Motives. She is now working on a sequel, focusing once more on Detective Jet Wholeman, and his unique style of tracking down homicidal killers. Additional projects include a series of devotionals on the mindset of being heaven-bound versus earth anchored.
Zanne is currently a Chaplain for Word Weavers International and provides periodic Christian counseling services at her local church. Her hobbies include water activities, painting, ballroom dancing, and spending time with her children and their families.
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