Friday, July 15, 2011

Missed Aspects of Character Development

Character development is a process unique to every author.  Mostly, because people prioritize the aspects of characterization differently.  Age, physical aspects, and social standing are the average first-picks since they can help determine a target audience.  Moral standing and ethics are big, too, since they help determine personality and the underlying 'message' of a story. 

However, as the title of my post suggests, there's a few aspects that authors tend to miss.  Or, if they do notice them, they tend to gloss over the aspects as trivial details.  They shouldn't.  We shouldn't.  Sometimes the tiniest details are the key element to creating a 3-dimensional character instead of a cliche or a contrivance.

Money:  I'm not talking about class (upper, middle, lower).  I'm talking about cold, hard cash.  The kind of cash that teen characters pull out of their wallets like it's an ATM.  The unlimited funds that adult characters always have in their bank account even though they only work a few hours.  The money that hardworking characters are always saving and rich characters are throwing around.  Face it.  Money makes the world go around, but authors tend to ignore it or tackle it in passing (i.e. Harry Potter just happen to have a huge inheritance and Ron's family stayed poor even with a father working in government.  And no one finds that shallow?)  Don't get me wrong.  I understand how the aspect seems unimportant in the face of limited word-count, but how a character stays supplied with money should be as integrated into the character's life as the fact they have X amount on hand.

Religion:  It's a touchy topic, which is why most people avoid it.  They want every sort of reader to identify with their character, so most characters are religious-neutral.  But this seems a little simple-minded to me.  Religion is part of every world.  It's possible to avoid it in a single stand-alone novel, but characters seem to be cardboard cut-outs when religion is NEVER mentioned.  They never drive by a church?  They never have a friend who can't go out on a certain day because of beliefs?  It seems implausible.  Everyone has an opinion on religion, even if it's apathy.  Everyone encounters it, even if they try to avoid it.  And how a character copes with religion can say more about their opinion toward society than five pages of political dialogue.

Self-Image:  This can be wildly different than actual physical description.  Authors like to keep things neat--the physical description is the only description.  But self-image pops up in more places than scenes where a mirror is available.  "Character X wished she had Character Y's long legs."  This can equal a self-image of "I feel short."  A lot of time, things like this will occur naturally during the course of writing, but intentional exploration of self-image can yield startling results.  Self-image is an open window into a character's psyche.

Food:  Cheeseburgers, pizza, salad, and sandwiches.  Food--the selection, the method of preparation, and the method of eating--says a lot about a person, yet authors tend to give characters something fast, easy, and generic.  But food is more than a prop to bring people together.  It's a basic need in life.  It's inclusion in a story can help show the passage of time (3 meals anyone?).  It can show character (how on earth can the MC's best friend eat sauerkraut, chili, ketchup and relish on a hotdog?).  It can even show status (the crab tastes old--need to fire the caterer.)  So why, when food is mentioned in a novel, is it always perfect?  Why do characters always take what they're given or settle for whatever is on hand?  It's because authors can miss the potential for 'food' as a serious tool for character development.

That's it for now, but I have to ask the other authors out there:
What unnoticed (or often-ignored) aspects of character development do you like to take advantage of?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I definitely touched on the self-image aspect in my book. And the fact that making friends - real friends - is difficult for most people.

cherie said...

Excellent post, Ash! I think tiny details are important. Food for instance, I used it in my WIP to show the controlling mom and her teen daughter. Also to showcase the town they visit.

I have this scene where the mom orders club soda at a small town diner, and the waitress gets confused. So the mom says, "Club soda? Soda water?"
And the waitress goes, " mean, belch water?"