Character development hinges on one idea: The better you know your characters, the better the audience will. The basics heard over and over again: know your character’s goals and motivations, their back story, and everything else. Know what you need to make the story function.
Character goals and back-story can go hand in hand. The better you know where the character has come from, the more accurately you can guess their actions and reactions. Actions and re-actions are more or less what create a plot. Everything connects in the long run, back story to motivation, character development to plot lines.
The “everything else” category contains character psychology, likes and dislikes, physical appearance, mannerisms, and anything else you can think of. Think about a friend you know well. If you sat down and wrote about your friend, what could you write about? The list would be exhaustive. Since you create your characters, how much better do you know them than any of your friends?
So what about outlandish questions like “Should I know if my character had acne when they were twelve?” Yes, you probably should know that. The reasoning: if your character had bad acne throughout adolescence, wouldn’t their self-image be affected*? This in turn would affect the way they act towards others and the way they view themselves in relation to others. A physical trait affects a psychological trait, which could affect the character’s motivations, which could in turn affect the entire plot.
Of course, not everything has a domino effect. Your character having brown hair might not affect anything else. It would however, help in your ability to visualize them. Another important aspect, as a writer you should be able to visualize and animate your character in your mind. They must be real to you, if no one else.
So just how much information should you have on each character? That depends on the character. Trust you instincts. On a cautionary note, if you are truly perfectionist, you’ll never finish writing. However, there should be a voice in your mind that lets you know when you have enough. If not, practice makes perfect. The most you’ll ever learn about writing is when you re-read your first draft. It’ll let you know with brutal honesty where your strengths and weaknesses lie. They say you are your own worst critic-but this also makes you the best critic you have. Be honest with yourself and trust your instincts.
Know that writing takes time. The ground work (character development, outlining, etc) may take as long as the actual writing. However, if done right it should be a great help. The telling sign you’ve done enough ground work is when you can approach your project with confidence. Everyone’s methods are different. Some people don’t even need ground work-they make it up as they go along. Not everyone has that kind of gift. The following articles in this series will give you some opinions and methods to aid in your character development. Know that you’ll have to adapt them to your own needs for them to work properly. Every piece of writing is different and hence has different characters, with different needs.
*idea taken from a lecture given by Steven Ross at the University of Memphis