On the Importance of Character Development in Novels

It’s simple, really; novels are about people, not plots. The plot of your novel enables you, the author, to illustrate how people behave in different situations. Dashiell Hammett (http://thrillingdetective.com/trivia/hammett.html ), perhaps one of the greatest modern detective writers in America, essentially created the ‘hard-boiled’ school of detective fiction. His main characters were loners, unmarried and unattached, and not afraid of doing violence on the bad guys. On the other hand, his stories are all about people, with the plots and sub-plots used as vehicles to illustrate how his characters conducted their lives. His “Thin Man” stories are almost entirely vehicles for character development.

People want to read about people, not plots. Plots in and of themselves possess no tension and produce no concern in the mind of the reader. The “Life” in any novel comes only through the thoughts, emotions, decisions, actions and reactions of your characters. Note that not all decisions people make are based on correct or sufficient information and are as often as not driven by emotion rather than rational thought. If it is your intention to show how your plots or sub-plots affect your characters, keep that in mind; people are often ignorant of the facts and are often driven more by emotion than is healthy.

People screw up; other people get hurt. Some seek revenge, some suffer in silence, some die and some survive and get on with their lives. Free will may or may not exist; you are free to believe what you will. But people make decisions based on what they know (though they often make decisions based on what they want to know), or what they are told is the ‘truth’…

The more you live (as opposed to simply existing), the more you are forced to interact with other people; the more you are hurt in your relationships, the more you engage with other people in business or war or love or conflict, the more knowledgeable you are of what drives yourself and others and the more capable you are of writing about how people live and love and hate and seek revenge and die in their beds or in an act of bloody revenge (there are other options, you know).

My point is that people are incredibly complex critters. It is your job as an author to paint a realistic a picture of how your characters react to their environment and the situations in which you place them. But – and this is always the sticking point in novels – you have to do this painting of yours with words, and the fewer you use the better your novel will be. You need to give your reader enough information through your choice of words so that he or she can build a picture in his mind of what your character is experiencing at that moment.

Keep in mind that you are not writing a book on psychiatry. “Show, don’t tell”. Do not bore the reader with pages filled with feelings and displays of angst and worry. Trust me on this point; nobody wants to read that. Use instead short descriptive phrases of facial movement or shifts in the characters body or behaviour. Use colour in your phrasing or change the pattern of speech from the character to show a change in feelings or reactions.

The plots you come up with in your novels should be secondary to your characters. You use the plot to provide yourself with opportunities to illustrate what drives your characters to make the decisions they do; to show how they think and feel about themselves, the people around them and their lives.

“Show, don’t tell.” A picture really is a worth a thousand words. Especially in a novel, where you cannot afford to bore the reader with long-winded expositions about what your characters are wearing and why, or about how Mary felt when she saw Jane kiss Billy. Memorize that phrase; “Show, don’t tell.” Since you are supposed to be writing a novel instead of a comic book, you have to use a very few words to paint a picture for the reader; “Marcie saw the flash of anger in Mary’s eyes as Billy wrapped Jane in his arms.”  Since I write mysteries instead of romances, let’s use another example: “Kerry Simple, a down-and-out meth freak, scratched the boil on his neck as he waited in the darkened office, jittery in his skin.” What else do you need to know about Kerry Simple as a character? “He turned from the brutalized and slashed corpse of the woman on the floor, kicking the bloody knife under the couch as he crossed to the office desk and the cash box he’d come for.” Not the sort of fellow you’d want your daughter to bring home for dinner, is he?

“Show, don’t tell”. Keep your descriptions short and sweet so they do not slow down the pace of your tale.

Stay tuned, Boys and Girls. There will be an announcement coming tomorrow…

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About Gary Showalter

Gary Showalter was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. He lived in Aruba, Florida and the Panama Canal Zone before joining the U.S. Army during the 1960s. Following his discharge from the Army, Mr. Showalter picked cotton in East Texas, baled hay in Ardmore Oklahoma, sold light bulbs in Los Angeles, California, and built cattle pens in Fallon, Nevada (during a blizzard, of course). After settling in Atlanta, Georgia, Mr. Showalter worked as a professional gardener before turning his hand to furniture making. In 1981, he moved to Israel, married, and raised four children while working as a furniture maker, silversmith, goldsmith, and ornamental wood turner. He served in the Israel Defense Forces Reserves for sixteen years, and when not on active duty he worked in government and private security. He has also served in senior management positions in two software development companies in Israel. During his time in Israel, Mr. Showalter published articles dealing with international terror and the Israel-Arab conflict in the Jerusalem Post, Israel national News and several political science web sites. Mr. Showalter returned to the United States in the fall of 2003, to care for an elderly parent. He published his first novel, “The Big Bend”, in the fall of 2008. His second novel, “Hog Valley”, is now in print. Mr. Showalter's third novel, “Twisted Key”, was published in the fall of 2011, and his fourth novel, "Lonesome Cove" is now available in Kindle format and should be published in paper near the end of 2012. He currently lives in Deland, Fl, where he is co-authoring "A Silent Star" with Tony Attanasio. "A Silent Star" is the true tale (though novelized, with names changed for security reasons) about the 4-person covert action team sent into Yemen to capture Osama Bin laden immediately after the bombing of the USS Cole in the Aden harbor in Yemen in October of 2000.
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5 Responses to On the Importance of Character Development in Novels

  1. loiswstern says:

    Gary, this is an excellent article! I will be leading a workshop in NY this coming April, with the same title: “Show, Don’t Tell”, but mine is for the development of short stories. (Your advice is equally relevant for short stories.) I just clicked on your Follow button above and look forward to reading more of your blogs.

    Best wishes,
    Lois W. Stern

  2. Sara Flower says:

    This is very true! People over plots, every time. 🙂

  3. dianesloftis says:

    I appreciate the example(s) that you provide. I agree with Lois- your advise can (and should) be applied to short-story character development. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

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