How I deal with character development

Friends of mine sometimes ask me what I think is the most important key to writing a fiction series. Without even pausing to think of a good answer, I immediately say: character development. I’m sure other writers may have different opinions. Some may say they prefer good plots. Some have even been known to say location, location, location. For a fantasy series, I can see how that would apply. J.K. Rowling created an awesome atmosphere for Harry Potter. However, I would still have to say it was Harry Potter, himself, who kept my interest. The minute he walked out the cubbyhole, I was hooked. The thought of a young boy being confined that way, had me yearning to know his story. And that still holds for me, today. Characters lead the way.

In March of 2009, I was approached by a producer in the entertainment industry. He had an idea that he wanted developed into a screenplay. He also had hopes of turning the idea into a series, even though he had no other plot ideas formed, at that time. He gave me the general idea and nicknames of his characters. The idea was derived from other feature films he loved, and the nicknames were derived from adult fictional characters, or famous individuals – all recognizable. Even though there was nothing unique with the idea, I could see the possibility of success as a parody with a fully developed plot, given that the producer wanted the characters to be teenagers. But, the plot. alone. wouldn’t carry the series. The characters were the key.

Okay, so now I had the idea and nicknames with their attributes, was I supposed to just emulate the adult characters? If I did that, they wouldn’t be unique. So my job as a writer; was to develop real names and back stories to give those eight characters their own individual personalities and make them unique from the “already famous characters” they were derived from.

So, how did I do it? I will use James Bond as a hypothetical.

We all know Bond … James Bond. Some of us have read the books, but we’ve all seen the heroic scenes 007 plays out on the big screen. In Bond, we’ve been introduced to unique villains, came to love Miss Moneypenny, watched Bond defy M, and, waited patiently for Q to demonstrate his latest gadget. The first time I was introduced to James Bond was as Sean Connery in Goldfinger.  I was hooked, and immediately went in search of more. With each film, I was riveted to the screen and watched 007 as he charmed the clothes off dozens of women, whipped out one-liners and showed a total lack of fear. I loved the action. Not to mention, the cool cars and exotic locations. I couldn’t ask for more for two hours of entertainment.  Some of you may have enjoyed the films as pure entertainment, and left it at that, but maybe you were like me, and wanted to know more. As a writer, I was curious to know what Bond was like as a kid, or a young adult. How did he become the perfect action hero?

When Ian Fleming turned 007 into the action icon that he is today, I am sure he knew everything there was to know about the past of his character—the sub characters and villains, as well. He had to have. I mean, how else could he have dreamed up such unique characters without knowing their history? Same goes with Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling knew everything there was to know about Harry Potter, and the characters portrayed in her books, long before she wrote the first one. And that’s the key for me. When I start a series, I want to know as much as I can about my characters.

Let’s say I want to emulate Bond, but make the character a teenage version. Does that mean I should just start writing using Bond’s back story? That wouldn’t work for me. I want my characters to have their own personas. So, I started off by asking myself a few questions…

Who were his parents?

What was their heritage?

What type of work do/did his parents do?

What challenges do/did his parents face that would have an impact on my character?

Where was he born?

What name was he born with? Sometimes, not all, the name can be critical to his personality.

Does he have a nickname that he earned in his early years of growing up?

What traits did his parents have that were passed onto him?

Were there any unusual events that occurred in his parent’s life that would impact him?

There are so many more, but ultimately, the back story of the character’s parents, the genes and traits that were passed onto him, and incidents that occurred while growing up, caused him to have skills, and/or learn certain traits in order to survive and help his family. If his parents are religious. He could be a goody two shoes who followed in their footsteps, or a rebellious teen trying to break free like the teenage girl on Footloose. Events through the years have an impact.

When I completed the screenplay for the producer above, the nicknamed-characters were no longer seen as emulating “already famous characters”. They became unique individuals themselves that could carry their own series.

Sometimes, one simple sentence written somewhere in your story can give you years of information, merely by the content of the words.

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