Just the facts, Ma’am. Let’s preface a discussion of character description and development with a short digression on facts and the writer’s Life experience (or staggering lack thereof).
In fact (so to speak), this is one of my major gripes about some authors and what must be a pathological hatred for research (or perhaps it’s due to a very sheltered life). I really enjoy ‘boaty’ stories; so much so that I will do just about anything to include one or more ‘boaty’ scenes in everything I write. Admittedly, I have (so far) avoided small plastic boats floating in a bathtub, but I am tempted to slip that into my next novel. Somehow.
But some writers will go to amazing lengths to avoid researching terminology when writing about stuff they don’t know. In a rush to complete a scene they will throw terms around without any regard for proper usage, when all it would take is a brief phone call to a friend in a relevant trade or industry to verify proper terms to describe what the author wants to include in a scene. It’s not difficult, folks. Don’t be lazy.
Readers will become so upset over improper usage of terms (nautical or otherwise) they will throw your “Great American Novel” directly into the garbage. Certainly, if they do not trash the author to their friends they will never, ever recommend him or her to anyone.
Research is King, boys and girls. Don’t assume you know what you’re writing about; KNOW it. Don’t assume that because you are you that you have all of the facts at your fingertips – you do not. If you don’t handle firearms every day or every week, don’t write about them without some serious research. If you don’t own a boat, or go boating with friends, or build boats, go speak with someone who does before you write a novel with a boatbuilder or boat owner or whatever. If you don’t know about aircraft or flying, don’t write about it.
Research is KING. Research – or the embarrassing lack thereof – will make you or break you as an author. Period.
So now we can deal with character description and character development. Believe it or not, this is very much related to my little diatribe above.
Some authors are plot-driven writers. They come up with these intricate, twisted plots and just have to put them down on paper. They become so wrapped up in their plots they have no time or interest – or space on the paper, for that matter – for their characters. As a result of this concentration on plotting, their characters appear as cardboard cutouts of human beings.
They wind up with totally one-dimensional, and intolerably uninteresting characters. Everything in the story is all about the ‘Plot’ and little or no attention is paid to the characters or their interaction with one another outside of the plot line. The reader gets the idea that the author is completely lacking in human understanding.
People are complex critters; they are driven by fear, desire, inadequacy, unthinking lust, addiction, loneliness, hopes and dreams, desperation, you name it. And all at the same time. Perhaps a little introspection is in order. Perhaps a bit of observation of the behaviour of others.
Again; write about what you know, not about what you think you know. If you don’t know about people and what drives them to make the decisions they do, or say the things they do, or the way they say those things, don’t write about people. Write tour guides, or advertising copy.
That may be a bit harsh, but write about what you know. And if you don’t know how one of your characters should react in a scene, ask someone. Ask two or three people – of any sex – how they would react in that situation, and ask them to be honest when they tell you. I certainly am not suggesting you take any course in psychology or sociology; heaven forbid.
But don’t be afraid to reveal your characters as real human beings facing real situations. Even if your novel is set aboard a starship in the Crab Nebula (lovely place – lots to see and do there), they are still human beings (well, some of them are, anyway).
People want to read about people. You do yourself and your tale and your reader a disservice if you fail to provide enough information about your characters for the reader to see them as human beings.
I do not recommend that you describe each character in complete detail at the beginning of your tale – fifteen pages of character description is a bit much for any reader. But do provide a brief physical description, a brief revelation of what they do and where they come from (background). Just enough for the reader to build an image of that person, and that will convince them to become invested in your tale.
The reader comes to know your characters as people, and that helps him or her to ‘suspend his disbelief’. And through the course of the story, reveal – through the characters actions and dialogue – who he or she is and what drives them.
“Show, don’t tell,” is the key to interesting writing. Show, through action and dialogue what is going on, who is doing what to whom, and why. Write actively – not passively. Stay away from the ‘have had’s’ and ‘had done’s’ and ‘had been’s’. Forget passive anything in your writing.
And the same holds true with your characters. Reveal them through their actions and their speech patterns. You don’t need multiple paragraphs filled with a narrative about why someone is doing something or ‘had done’ something. Historical narrative is guaranteed to put your reader into a coma. Keep it active – keep your writing here and now. That will keep your reader involved in your characters and your tale.