Character Development – Is there a right or wrong way?
Several years ago, the editor working on The Princess of Greektown sent me a rather terse message that, as he came to the end of the story, he still had no idea what Detroit detective Jill Zannos looked like. I was baffled because I know I’d mentioned that she was a beautiful Greek woman, in her thirties, tall and slender. What more did this guy want from me? Exhausted to have to read to the end to find out she was a loner with no girlfriends or that her boyfriend was a jerk, he also disliked the periodic memories of Jill’s childhood, from the encounters with her odd neighbor, being picked on in elementary school because she was Greek, to the lamb’s head cooking in her grandmother’s apartment. (A memory from my own childhood.)
Reflecting on the type of stories I’ve read, generally I’m satisfied with a short description of a person’s physical attributes and then my imagination fills in the blanks. In my books, I might say someone’s a blond or brunette, that they have big breasts or are overweight. Violet, the daughter of Pam’s ex-husband in Save the Date, is morbidly obese at the beginning of the story but after two books, she’s lost weight and although still overweight by conventional standards, is healthy and happy. I felt it was important for several aspects of the story to define her weight, her hygiene, but little else, at first. As the story grew, we discovered that Violet was intelligent; completing her master’s thesis, shy, quick witted and creative
I might emphasize weight gain or loss as an attribute of their mental health; “she was so upset she couldn’t eat a thing,” or “in a moment of despair, she stuffed a donut in her mouth.”
Last night, I began reading a new series the name of which I won’t mention because I don’t want my critique to be taken the wrong way by any perspective readers. Suffice to say, in spite of some rather detailed character descriptions, I’m getting used to the writer’s style and hope I’ll finish the first volume. In the first chapter, he’s introduced the main characters and I know an exhaustive list of their physical characteristics, their history, what they did in their youth, what subjects they majored in in college, and what their personalities are like, including quirks and limitations. Although it seems a little draggy to me, I can see that I’m being led someplace where this information might be necessary. I’ll let you know.
As my characters develop, I’m just learning about them. I don’t have all of the answers at the beginning of a book so I am unable to tell you everything about them right from the start; the subtle nuances that make up their personalities will be revealed later, as the story grows. I love to send out hints here and there, and careful readers tell me they love it that I force them to read between the lines sometimes. Unlike my fellow author of the new series mentioned above, I tend to piecemeal out to the reader the history of the character through reflection or interaction with other characters.
However, not everyone likes my method. It’s just my way, not the right way I’m sure, as my encounter with the editor confirmed.