“Character” has two relevant definitions. First, characters can be the roles in a fictional piece, the dramatic persona, for example The Father or The Boss. These characters tend to have specific ages and particular physical features. Often, these are the people you wind up with when you use software or questionnaires to define your characters.
Second is the question of character: the ethical or moral standards at the heart of the matter, or the internal landscape that affects the external behavior. Simply, the heart of the person. As writers, when we speak of character, we speak of this internal landscape brought out by behavior. While there may be many roles in any piece, this heart and soul is the character of your hero and also your villain. It always means the sum of the spirit and emotional history of the person and the behavior that we can see as a result. It is deeper and more significant than a role, and it is what you want your main character to have. If we want to touch the soul of our readers, we must share our own. Character is the map of the nooks and crannies of the heart.
For our purposes, character always means this internal map or psychological picture of the person. It is never the physical description of a person in your story, though if the physical descriptors of any sort help guide you to their internal material, that’s useful.
What about all the other roles in your story? Your two main characters need to be well developed and nuanced because the character of the protagonist and antagonist determines a lot of your story. The characters of the other roles do not serve the story, they serve the main characters. In other words, they can be important, but they are ancillary to the core of your story. When you have a story idea and maybe a few other scenes or elements of your finished product, you need only two characters: Your protagonist, the character we will root for, and the antagonist, the bad guy or character that stands in opposition to the protagonist. These two characters will embody the conflicts, both internal and external, that form the core of your writing.
All the other characters, romantic interests, threshold guardians, comic relief, ghosts, mentors, the whole bag full of people you will need later on to tell your story, are just distractions now. Put them back on the shelf, tell them you’ll get to them when you need them, and not a moment earlier than that. We can put in the love interest and the mean boss later. Don’t get sidetracked.
How can you develop great characters? Read on…