A Book Editor’s Top Tip For Character Development

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Characters can make or break a novel. You can have sublime imagery and an airtight plot, but if your characters are shallow or patchy, the rest of your good work will be undone.

Humans are inherently narcissistic as a species. We look for characters in our literature that we can identify with or understand - searching for our own humanity within the pages of a book.

So it’s always disappointing to read a character who rings hollow.

Fortunately, there’s many things you can do to prevent your characters from being unrealistic and underdeveloped from the offset. I’ve helped a lot of authors with their character development during my time as a book editor, and there’s one crucial tip I always share: show us your characters through the eyes of other characters.

Let me expand.

Internal reflection can only paint so much of a character portrait

Internal reflection–where a character analyses themselves–is powerful. But humans have a biased sense self-awareness, and can only paint so much of a self-portrait.

Giving the reader an insight into your characters from the perspective of others is one of the best tools you can wield as a writer to dig deep into a character.

How to use external insight to build your characters

You can use dialogue, stories, and scenes to show us what a character looks like the perspective of another character.

A well-constructed conversation or argument, for example, can challenge a characters assertions about themselves, as well as the reader’s beliefs about that character. An argument can destabilise a character’s beliefs about themselves, creating an existential uncertainty that renders them more human.

Whether you’re writing from the first or third person perspective, you may like to use a dual narrative to see how the two characters interpret the same scene. Showing two different sides of the same story not only allows you to see how two characters view the same scenes, but gives an indication of where their differences in character lay.

If you’re not using a dual narrated narrative, and are using for example, a single narrated first person perspective, you can use this trick as a double edged sword to either clarify a belief about a character, or obscure it. Your narrator can relay speech, stories and opinions about themselves as shared by others, even if the way they retell it warps truth.

To add further detail to your character, think about how you can subtly warp the truth in a way that is indicative and telling of them as character. What words, phrases or assumptions can your character subtly project onto others when they’re retelling another’s story about them?

Why you should use this trick

A character whose foundations go completely unquestioned, and who is implicitly confident and immutable in their traits, is unrealistic; and your reader will see through them. Your characters need to evolve or devolve on the page: they shouldn’t be the same at the end as they were at the beginning. Every action in their life has consequences, and you must make sure that these consequences affect their psyches accordingly.

Using an ‘outside’ character to illustrate how other characters respond to things and how they fare in the eyes of others is one of the best pieces of developmental advice that I could give.

This is your opportunity to add some richness and depth to your novel. I hope you have fun playing around with this trick, and be sure to ask yourself these 20 out-of-the-box questions to yourself when developing your characters. I look forward to seeing what you produce!

Chloe Murphy