And you are... ?

So how important is character development, anyway?

When it comes to your main characters, most will agree that it’s crucial.  But what about the peripheral characters? 

Like the extras in a film, they serve a purpose and even if that purpose is to offer a small peek to a single thread of information.  No matter what their role, they need to be believable.  The need to have as much (or in some cases, more) depth than characters that the reader gets to know over the course of the story because the reader spends so little time with them.  The writer, on the other hand, often spends a great deal of time getting to know them.  Why are they there?  Where did they come from?  How did they happen upon this information?  Do they have an ulterior motive?

I compulsively collect reference material.  

I compulsively collect reference material.  

Even if all the little details never make it into the story, they’re important.  Like the fact that the character’s father was killed by a milk truck on the first day of school or how they take their coffee or their habit of never wearing matching socks.  These little facts will have an impact on how that character interacts with others and how they may react to events that take place.  What’s important is that you as the author know these things because that is precisely how you can determine how large or small a role they will have in your story.  These details will also help your characters evolve from a cardboard cutout to a memorable part of the story and perhaps make the reader want to know more about them.

I write commercials and part of that job often means voicing them, as well.  I enjoy character work much more than I do "straight reads”.  One question I often ask is “what is my motivation”?  I have under 30 seconds to establish the character, make it believable, and sell it to the listener.  But it doesn’t end there.  They all have a backstory.

Here’s an example.  The lines in the script are : “She painted her bathroom cotton candy pink!  Can you imagine?”

This can be read in many different ways.  But in my head, the character believes one can never be too rich or too thin.  She is a gossip and can often be found at charity events with a martini in one hand and one of those long thin cigarettes made especially for women in the other.  She has black hair, often done in a French twist, is impeccably dressed, and finds children “sticky and obnoxious”.  She speaks with an affected English accent, although she’s from Massachusetts.  She drops the Kennedy name into casual conversation, yet has never even met them.  No one challenges her on it because she’s so intimidating and the less you dig the better off you are.  All that for two lines.  But it works.

The same goes for literary characters.  You never know where they will take you, if they will pop up again later in the story, or if you will only ever get two lines out of them.  But if they are developed properly, they will always fit no matter where they decide to show up or what they have to say.