Character Development

How does a writer work to develop authentic characters and deepen characterization, whether in fiction or memoir?

For this post, I’d like to address a question which comes up often in workshops and classes, and calls for a much longer response than this entry will be, a response from many voices: How does a writer develop authentic characters, and deepen characterization?

My intent for the suggested writing exploration below is that it move us into some of the real work that opens us to our ability to write characters, real or imagined, in the fullness of their being.

We could have a long argument about this central aspect of writing story. There are those who say we can never write from inside a character we are not: that we cannot write from a man’s point of view if we are a woman, or from a black character if we are Asian; basically, that we cannot write any character whose specific group identity we do not share in a categorical way. But the last I looked, these rules established by some Board of Misinformation wipe out most of people’s heritage and history, and do not begin to approach the ways in which people understand their own identities. Nor can we second guess the new information that will surface by happenstance or by hard search for many people as to who they really are. While there are real barbed wire fences and concrete walls between people; seemingly impassable boundaries of ignorance and insensitivity, fear and self-interest, exploitation and guilt; there are also countless instances of the blurring of such boundaries between human beings, in the forms of absolute love and alliance and sacrifice and connection. These crossings may have been born from an act of informed imagination, that very ability to imagine oneself into the world of another.

Poet and teacher Fred Marchant said to me once, “We desperately need the imaginative embrace that does not appropriate.”

Often we are fascinated by a certain character not because of a deep absence of their qualities within our own being, or a sense of the “foreignness” of their experience, but because of a deep connection, sometimes by a kind of oppositional process; for example, we have never owned land or felt at home—they have always “owned” land—though in our story, they will lose it. Not just an opposition, therefore, but a string from gut to gut, from self to character and back, made of desire and loss, memory and yearning, that bears exploration.

I believe that writing authentic characters comes from a process that walks a line between deep reverence and respect for others and deep disobedience and absolute internal freedom; a line between opening the self to its profound aches and yearnings, to what moves it, and allowing what moves us to push forward and connect in a subterranean way to what moves others.

What about this need for disobedience?

Certainly many of us would never write a word if we had not located that ability to be more than disagreeable but rather to solidly refuse to obey—to toe the line—to be parrot—to nod in silence or in language.

In the essay “Stepping off the Path: Disobedience and Story-Making in ‘Little Red-Cap’” (from To Speak or be Silent: The Paradox of Disobedience in the Lives of Women, ed. Lena B. Ross) author Jeanie Watson says,

“Making one’s own story necessitates a move from what is to what might be, that is, a move from the known into the unknown. Without movement, without the ongoing creative process of ‘making’, without an act of the imagination, the individual self stagnates and dies. Moving beyond the limits of the known, moving into an imagined space, constitutes an act of disobedience. Therefore, disobedience must be at the core of any ‘making.’ Little Red-Cap [or Little Red Riding Hood, as many of us know her] steps off the path and, by her act of disobedience, succeeds in making her own story.”

I have mentioned this in my workshop on Claiming Our Stories: The Power of Autobiography and Autobiographical Fiction. Stepping off the path seems a crucial aspect of the work of writing memoir, of writing one’s own story, since many internal boundaries can keep us from accessing our true selves and stories. But this potent disobedience seems a crucial point as well in the development of “fictional” characters. We might, with all the courage and labor it takes to write a character that seems far away from us, do an honest but inadequate job. Still, the character or story we write might help to make a space for others to come forward and fill that space with their truths. Our writing characters who seem experientially far from us might just open discussion, and we might have to take the heat, the criticism, and learn from others’ responses to our work. In this diverse world of flight and exile of many kinds, we are not on solid ground in knowing those we are connected to, but rather live on unknown terrain which is constantly and rapidly shifting. All borders are such, by their nature, whether barriers of physical wall or unjust law or long hatreds or economic and structural apartheid or cultural or geographic isolation. We have work to do to cross those borders.

The following writing suggestion comes from a workshop I taught at Skidmore for The International Women’s Writing Guild in 2004 and 2005, and in Santa Fe in March 2004, Discovering the Unlived Life: Writing Through the Mystery of Human Behavior in Fiction and Memoir. This workshop was actually developed from Yearning and Justice: Writing the Unlived Life, which is part of my series on Writing for Social Change.

I am convinced that the usual idea of the “back story” of a character, that which has happened in the character’s past, is a fundamentally important but also incomplete concept. Much of what moves a person is not that which has happened, but that which has never happened; that which she or he yearns for; that which she or he has never been able to do, or create, or see, or learn, or accomplish. Part of what we yearn for is to accomplish our real mission in life, to create something beautiful and powerful that fulfills us, and yet so many of us are thwarted in this by poverty, overwork, illness, abuse, exploitation, displacement, and wars both big and small.

Back to the question: how then do you enter your character’s world? I think about this work as the work of crossing borders, as the work of compassion, of “feeling with” another, with its source neither in pity nor in romanticizing or exoticizing, but in deep connection—whether by shared experience or a longing to know another or a mysterious cord that links us. At the border is conflict and challenge, but without the crossing, there is no knowledge of others.

This work has of course also been done by poets, who enter with precision and song into other worlds, even the world of objects, as does Neruda in The Elemental Odes. Entering the world of objects, as he does in writing odes to salt, to his sox, to the book, opens that world to him and allows him to see beyond the external, to see the powerful relationship that exists between the object he longs to know, and his own heart and spirit.

How does one enter another’s world—a fictional world—and for writers of creative nonfiction, a remembered world—with reverence and respect; with knowledge and with openness to its truths; with compassion; with a way into its possibilities? How does one transcend boundaries, get into the world of another, and let its truths speak?

Doing the work of crossing borders and the work of compassion is what poet William Greenway does in “Pit Pony.” The speaker and his family visit an old mine in Wales, and hear the story of the pit ponies born in the mines, who “pulled their trams for twenty/ years through pitch, past birds/ that didn’t sing, through doors/ opened by five-year-olds who sat/ in the cheap, complete blackness….”

The ponies died right in the mines. The speaker wonders about the very last pit pony, taken above ground, and asks questions:

“…when it
dies in the hills, not quite blind, the mines
closed forever….Will it
wonder dimly why it was exiled from the rest
of its race, from the dark flanks of the soft
mother, what these timbers are that hold up
nothing but blue? If this is the beginning
of death, this wind, these stars?”

So, perhaps the first step in creating full and authentic characters, or working deeply with real people that we know, is to take a cue from the speaker of the poem “Pit Pony” and wonder.

Here, then, is my writing suggestion, in a few steps:

  1. Allow yourself to wonder (internally, or in writing), with compassion, about the character you want to know more fully. Get an image of the border between you and the person you yearn to know or need to know. Freewrite this image of the border by writing exactly what you see in your mind’s eye, or simply freewrite an answer to this question: What is between you?
  2. Cross the border to enter this new world, and begin to make the leap (again, internally or in writing) to speak from that place.
  3. Without making any assumptions of knowledge about this character, allow yourself to find a way to wonder what she or he wonders about. Locate the character in a specific moment in which they might be entering a new situation or leaving an old one; or trying to sleep before they go into dreams after a particularly rough day; or at the moment they find themselves in a difficult situation, as in a doctor’s office waiting for a diagnosis; or at the moment when a powerful event is taking over their thoughts.
  4. Then write freely, freewrite, freewrite, allowing yourself to wonder what this character might be wondering about at this particular moment; ask the questions they might be asking, whether in your own voice or in the voice that seems to emerge as their own— whether in 3rd person or, if it happens, in 1st person.
  5. Begin to allow yourself, as you wonder, to follows the turns and flow of the consciousness of the character at this particular moment of shift or challenge or pleasure or loss or fear or confusion, and keep writing, as you wonder with them, as you wonder what they might be wondering about. Race to stay close to their spirit, to their body, to what they see and hear and smell, as Greenway’s poetic voice notices “the warm bag of black milk” at which the pony suckles in the darkness of the mine.

What a powerful step across a border of one kind or another into an opening up of your knowledge of a particular character you will have taken with this writing exploration! There are no limits as to what may happen when the fullness of your being connects to the being of another.


5 thoughts on “How does a writer work to develop authentic characters and deepen characterization, whether in fiction or memoir?”

  1. This exquisitely written piece about charaters and how to cross the line is the essence of Anya. In workshops her energy pulls you into another space. I didn’t think it was possible sitting in my chair in front of a computer listening to traffic and a neighbor’s dog, but I was there in the mine with that pony. She made me, once again, cross over, to see the depth still possible in my main character. I have work to do!


  2. Marcia, this is great to hear. Part of the challenge of writing these postings is to let the discussion come from and recapture the energy of a circle of writers, as well as find its deepest sources in the excitement and mystery of the experience of writing. To come up from some depths where there are no words, and find yourself back up at the top with words in your hands, your hair, your ears, everywhere, and then utter them.
    You do plenty of this. I am amazed at how much you have written and how beautifully in the, well, I think 7 years since we met. How much you have brought forward and with what a positive spirit. AA


  3. Dear Laju, Your comment is so much appreciated — you remind me of what it is so easy to forget — that whether it seems that others stop you from writing, or conditions stop you from writing, or one’s own fear stops you from writing, there is always the possibility of stepping over those lines, and claiming your freedom and claiming your voice.


  4. Interesting discussion is worth comment. I think that you should write more on this thread, it can not be a taboo topic but generally people are not enough to discuss on such topics. To the next. Bye


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