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Saturday, March 26, 2005

On the Ergonomics of Character Development

by William Alan Rieser

Once you have names and descriptions for the heroes, villains and incidentals that populate your story, you realize that in order to achieve nuances, humanistic effects and interpretive insights it becomes necessary to flesh them out so that the reader can make certain identifications. Does one go about this systematically or randomly? If you are a formula writer and intend to repeat both venue and genre based upon successful prior efforts, then perhaps a system is not altogether the worst way to proceed. You might begin with certain stock questions that you know require answers within your tale. He is intelligent, so why does he err so often? She is aloof and non-committal, so why is she politically motivated? These are basically designed to show, not tell, why that particular clock ticks. The random developer prefers to do this within or near the more active moments, to keep behavioral reasons close in the mind of the reader rather than rely upon memory.

It is also useful to put your plot to work so that it enhances the character without your having to waste excessive narrative. Flashbacks and visions are common devices for bringing out unsuspected traits that you wish instilled. Interaction between individuals is probably the most lively and informative method of reaching specific meaning and if you can handle it with tight, memorable dialogue, it will assist you in gaining that illusory edge on the flow of ideas that all of us cherish. Another technique that aids a developer is the deliberate creation of curiosities that force characters and readers equally to respond, a real challenge if you've never done it and a rewarding one.

Then there are the various psychological questions pertaining to you. If you answer these truthfully, you've got a good chance to create something fresh that the reader will enjoy. Are you seeing this fellow as an extension of yourself or what you wish you were? Does this man represent the antithesis of what you believe? Is she so nondescript, that more words are moot or foolish? Are you trying to write about people that you thoroughly understand or are you guessing? Most importantly, will the reader emote as intended? Does he truly hate the son-of-a-bitch for his surliness or love her for her raw compassion? Finally, have you adequately conveyed all that is necessary to avoid confusion?

Granted, these little tips are obvious now that I've stated them. But it took me a long time to incorporate them well because tale telling is not entirely natural, considering how many weaknesses we all possess. Use them to make your prose clear and your dramas vivid. Good luck to all of you.

© 2001 William Alan Rieser

William Alan Rieser is the author of the Kaska Trilogy and The Zusalem Chronicles. Visit his website at

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