On Character Development – from a Book Doctor

Guest Post by Jason Black, Plot to Punctuation When I first started my blog, I had to face the question of what I should blog about.  It didn’t take long to settle on “practical, hands-on techniques for character development.”  Why?  Because if I’ve learned anything from being a book doctor, it is that everything in a novel affects characterization.

Absolutely everything.Every word choice, the structure of every sentence, all of it matters.  At a larger scale, every choice of path A over path B, every emotional response to a situation, everything in the way the plot unfolds, says something about your characters.


I could make this list considerably longer, except it would turn into a book rather than a guest blog post.

Novels live and die on the basis of how well readers can empathize with the characters, and yet I constantly see my clients sabotaging their characters in ways both large and small, through errors large and small in the writing craft.

I once saw an error in parallel structure create the entirely unintended suggestion that a character hated his mother.  Why?  Because the character’s grandfather was in one grave, while his mother’s body was in the other.  The core nouns delivered an emotional contrast the author wasn’t aware of.  The core noun “grandfather” is emotionally warm, while “body” is emotionally cold.  Subtle, but still a problem.

Such errors are probably to be expected.  This intersection between writing craft and character development remains a dark and mysterious magic.  Few craft books discuss it.  Few blogs discuss it.  Show me a gap like that, and I am constitutionally obligated to fill it.

It may be expected, but it is also tragic because these flaws so often ruin the reader’s ability to fall in love with the story’s characters.  The characters, so lovingly imagined by their authors, are shown to the readers through a distorted fun-house mirror of unintentional writing craft mistakes.

I hate seeing that happen in anybody’s book, whether they’re my client or not.Characters are the most important element of your story.  More important than premise, more important than plot, are the characters.  Without characters we can root for, root against, and care about, we won’t experience that delightful immersion in the imagined world of your novel.

Characters are where your story lives.

I’m passionate about character development because I’m passionate about characters.

What is a book you’ve read with great character development? What did you enjoy about it? Or, how could the character development have been deepened to make you love a book even more?

*Note* The below blog post is a guest blog from our Twitter friend Jason. This content does not necessarily reflect the views of Better World Books (as our lawyers make sure we say). We love having guest bloggers and invite you to email 11@betterworldbooks.com if you are interested in covering a book or topic on the BWB Blog. Thank you, Jason!

One Comment

  1. Andrew Tyukavkin says:

    I don’t know if my example is relevant enough for readers around the world, but as for Russian literature, Turgenev may be one of the best character crafters. What I especially like him for – he rarely actually discloses relationships of his heroes, instead, he makes subtle notes like that one with mother (even more subtle maybe).

    This makes such unintentional craft issues even more important, as the reader may not only subconciously note them and picture the wrong scene in mind (which I believe is what Jason’s talking about), but even suppose them to be intentional, meaningful and mysterious.

    That’s when you end up with “Whoa, what was that?” instead of “Now I see” after reading a book…

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