Ask Me Anything: How much character development is enough?

Christa asks:

How do you know when you have adequately developed a character in your story? With a more complex character, the urge to insert more clues and examples as to their inner nature and motivations presents itself often, but how do you know when you’ve accomplished your goal with that character?

Characters are adequately developed when they seem human to me. When they stop being cardboard cutouts I’ve created in service to the plot, and turn into three dimensional people I can envision moving through the real world.

As an author, I need to know my characters’ backgrounds, attitudes, their strengths and weaknesses, biases and loves. I should know how they treat people when nobody is looking. Whether they’d suck up to a celebrity or stiff a waitress on a tip. But I don’t have to tell readers everything. My guideline for characters is the same as it is for research: Know more than you show.

And in a novel, providing examples of characters’ inner nature isn’t the most important thing. The most important thing is to reveal the characters’ nature through the choices they make. I put the characters in action, in conflict with each other and the world. I let them tussle and wail, and see if they’ll cower or rise to the occasion. I throw them into situations where they have to act when the chips are down. That’s when I know if they’re adequately developed. When they fight for their friends or turn tail and run or sacrifice themselves in an act of love.

But here’s the truth. The only way to know if I’ve adequately developed a character is to give the book to readers. Their reactions tell me if I’ve done my job. When readers say they love a character, or hate him, or hate me for what I’ve done to him, or — best of all — want that character to come back in a new book: that’s when I’ve accomplished my goal.

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