Character development is one of the often overlooked facets of story planning. This applies equally to short works and long works. So many stories lack depth and realism because the author simply does not know his characters. Knowing your characters is critical to avoid such pitfalls as backstory contradictions and actions out of character. To this end, even before I have developed the plot in more than broad strokes, I am spending time developing my characters.
Of course, no amount of planning will prevent actual errors. The more ambitious your work, the more likely you will make an error. After all, there is only so much information you can keep in your mind at one time. For instance, the character of Aviendha in the Wheel of Time originally had a conflict in her backstory which was later corrected using some semi-clever sleight of words. Still, when you have well defined characters, it shows, even when you make relatively minor errors. Thus, time spent developing characters before writing anything about them is well spent. Of course, too much time spent developing characters and no time spent writing is not helpful but the balance depends on the specific story and the character’s importance to the story.
Normally, characters are developed to fit into a specific niche in the plot. However, at this early stage, there is no plot to fill in. And, without characters, there is no plot. This may seem like an impossible situation but it is really quite simple. Pick one and start working on it. The other will follow. In this case, I decided I needed two characters to drive the plot. I have no reason for this other than I wanted two characters. So I set about creating them.
First, I started with broad strokes. Let me describe the process with one character. I wanted a male character with a somewhat shady past, but also a character that had been wronged in some way. Once I settled on that, I got busy creating the character.
The most obvious thing a character needs is a name. This is not just for realism, either. It is bloody difficult to write about a character with no name for more than a few paragraphs. Inevitably, it degenerates into annoying circumlocutions like “the man with the hair” or what have you. Exactly how to choose a name depends on context. For human characters, it is usually best to pick a name that your readers will have some hope of pronouncing, even if they pronounce it differently than you do. It is perfectly fine to simply make up a name but do not be too outlandish. It is difficult to explain wacky names later if needed in the story. In this case, I simply made up the name “Ogden Ecter”. Because this story is set in the very distant future, it is reasonable that common names today will still be in use then but also that new names will have arisen.
Now that Ogden has a name, he needs some personal details. I decided that he is from Old Earth, which is really just Earth in the distant future with the “Old” business a colloquialism that just happens to be accurate. If needed later, I can make up a story about how it came to be called “Old”. I assume that humans on Old Earth will look very much like humans do today and assume that roughly six feet tall is a fairly average height for a man. So I make Ogden six feet tall with brilliant green eyes. I also give him pure white hair though he is no more than thirty. I further note that the white is not the white of great age but rather a deeper, more vibrant white, and that it is an unusual but not unheard of colour. It assume at this point that it is due to some genetic anomaly but the cause is unimportant at this stage so I pursue the matter no further. I also give him a brownish skin tone such as would be expected from many centuries of interracial breeding. I make him physically fit and healthy for he would hardly be a good candidate for his background if he were not.
Now that I have a basic appearance for Ogden, I must decide on his background. Personally, I find that the easiest way to set a background is to actually write a short biography. So, to that end, I did just that. The initial biography follows, but it is, by no means, set in stone at this point for I have not written a single word of the story yet. You will note that as I write the biography, facets of the story’s setting also become clearer.
Nobody knows exactly how old Ogden Ecter is. He is the most sought after assassin on Old Earth. He is known to have at least 75 successful kills to his name.
He was caught due to bad luck related to timing, location, and a non-functional car, none of which were entirely coincidental. He was set up by his ex-wife, also a skilled assassin, to cover one of her hits and eliminate competition at the same time. The frame was well executed and sufficient officials were bought off to ensure it fit. The entire affair required a very very rich patron with very very good connections.
Eventually, Ogden was convicted and sentenced to death. On the day of his execution, he is snuck out of the prison on Earth and loaded onto the next prison transport to Mal. It is clear that additional resources changed hands to ensure this.
Ogden is an accomplished backwoods survivalist and hs nearly encyclopedic knowledge of many topics ranging from League law to medicine to physics and history. Such knowledge was invaluable when getting close to his marks.
Contrary to the expected character of an assassin, Ogden has a strong moral code and is choosy about the jobs he takes. He must convince himself that the mark deserves death before he pulls the trigger. He has backed out of contracts when he became convinced of his mark’s innocence.
There are several notable things that come from this biography. Most notably, Ogden Ecter is an assassin. That means he is certainly guilty of murder at the least. We also know that he remained free for a very long time to accumulate such an impressive number of kills so we can be certain that he is very good at passing undetected despite his striking appearance.
We know from the opening sentence that Ogden is an orphan. Neither he nor anyone else has any idea exactly when he was born, but we do not know why that is the case. As the author, I should work out at least broad strokes but they are not critically important unless his parents are going to figure into the story later and the details can be created when it becomes apparent that they are required. For now, the fact that he is an orphan is the important bit for it may help explain why he is an assassin in the first place, and may give a hint about his unusual hair colour.
We also know that the justice system on Old Earth is prone to manipulation given sufficient “resources”. The term “resources” crept in while I was writing the biography and, instead of replacing it with money, I decided the implication that something other than money is usable as bribes is potentially interesting.
The biography raises questions about Ogden’s marriage to another assassin but these are unimportant for the story at hand. Should it ever become important, the details of that marriage can be expanded upon. For now, the fact that he was previously married does not affect the story except for the fact that it was his ex-wife that arranged for him to be caught by the authorities.
Another interesting point that arises from the particular word choice that happened unconsciously is that it is not at all clear that his ex-wife is responsible for his transfer to the prison planet even though she was clearly responsible for the frame that put him in jail.
Finally, Ogden has a moral code, thought it might not be one that we, as readers, agree with. This will go a long way to explaining his motivations for actions required to move the story along later. It also serves to make him less of an evil bastard and more of a potentially lovable rogue.
One final point to note is that the prison planet now has a name: Mal. The choice of the name was not a conscious one; it just seemed right after a few seconds thought. The specific nature of the name does raise some interesting questions about who named the planet and why.
This particular biography is likely not the final version of Ogden Ecter’s history. In fact, some details may change as necessary for the story. A rule of thumb is that any detail that has not yet been included in an actual story is malleable so long as modifying it does not eliminate an important motivator or otherwise make the character’s character implausible.
It is also interesting to note that this first biography was the easiest to write because I did not have to take care to ensure that the biographical background information does not conflict with another biography or other bit of backstory.
This particular biography also serves to illustrate the feedback loop between character development, setting or world building, and plot construction. As more pieces of the overall picture are created, the story itself will become clearer.
Next time, the other main character.