character development

4 Stages of Character Development

When you write a first draft, there are really two novels at that point. There’s the one on the paper and there’s the one in your head and they are not the same.

I know this. But I’m experiencing it again as I’m working through this revision. In order to put on paper what is in my head, I’ve had to pay attention to feedback.

Blurry Characters
Blurry Characters

Blurry Characters. My first feedback told me that my characters weren’t understood. Readers didn’t understand motivations or relationships. I worked on that by checking each scene to make sure the characters were active and the scenes goals were clear. Sometimes, I found that my main character was just an observer and had to give him a more active role. But usually, this did little to help.

Confusing Characters. The second round of feedback told me the same thing: my readers were confused. Here’s the problem: I thought that readers would understand relationships from implications in the text. But that was making them work too hard; they lost confidence in my storytelling. I realized that I had to lay it all out there, in other words, put it on the page.

Now, this does NOT mean that I put in the whole kitchen sink. No. I didn’t want to overwhelm readers with backstory. But naming a relationship was OK: “she’s my almost-adoptive-mother.” The reader still doesn’t know all of what that “almost” means but at least there’s now a frame of reference.

For the secondary character, I added a tiny bit of flashback, only 3-4 lines. It’s active, unusual, with good segues in and out of it. I almost want to take it out, because I don’t like backstory in the first chapter. But I think it’s crucial for the reader to understand the nature of what this character faces.

Deeper Characters. Finally, this third time around, my reader says my characters are deeper, motivations are clear and I’ve created great sympathy for the characters’ plight. Now, I’m just inconsistent.

Inconsistent Characters. My job on the next pass was to make sure the characters’ voices stayed consistent, the characters didn’t do or say anything that was out of character for their age or situation, and that the story itself remained consistent in tone and voice.

Exactly What I Envisioned. Well, almost, anyway. Nothing is set in stone yet, but I’m pretty pleased with how these characters are behaving right now. Pleased enough to move on and not bother my readers with this section again, but wait until there’s a whole revised novel to read.

Do your characters progress through similar stages? Blurry, confusing, deeper, inconsistent, exactly what I envisioned. Notice what was needed at each point: feedback. I only knew how well I was doing by checking in with a reader. Sometimes, especially in the early chapters, I need several rounds of feedback with my readers to make sure I’m making the needed changes. Now, with these chapters as my benchmark, I’m hoping to progress without so much feedback.

How would you describe your character’s progression through drafts? What feeds your revision cycle?

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