Historical and speculative novelist K.M. Weiland offers tips and essays about the writing life to help other writers understand the ins and outs of the craft and the psychology behind the inspiration.
This week’s video shows you how to make character development easier thanks to one fundamental rule.
Good character development is easy. Writers sometimes approach it as if it’s the hardest thing in the world to create a fully fleshed-out, compelling character. And certainly there’s a lot of nuance involved. But truthfully, there is just one single key to amazing character development, and that can be summed up in one word: contrast. Or two words: conflicting traits.
When we write a plain vanilla character (whether he’s good or bad or funny or pathetic) if he’s just that one flavor—if that’s all he is—then he’s not likely to be a good character. The best characters are like that chocolate-vanilla twist ice cream cone that was always our first pick when we were kids. This is why killers with a conscience and their like are perennial archetypes. It’s not the killing and it’s not the conscience that makes them interesting. It’s the contrast.
This isn’t just true of really complicated characters, it’s also true of characters painted with broad strokes. There is an absolutely fabulous example of this is Pixar’s Toy Story. We’ve got the sadistic neighbor kid Sid, right? And his evil is pretty much unmitigated: he wears black, he rips apart toys, he loves explosives. He’s a prison mug shot waiting to happen. And yet, there’s a great moment late in the movie that, within one single line, humanizes this character into something much more complex and compelling than what we are actually seeing. When nearly roused from his sleep, Sid starts murmuring in his dreams. What could be more revealing of someone’s inner heart than that? And does he say, “Aww, I wanna kill the puppy”—which would be totally in character? Nope. Instead, the filmmakers had him say, “Aww, I want to ride the pony”—something inimitably childlike—and as a result of its contrast with the rest of his personality, inimitably telling and tragic. How’s that for subtle character development?