What’s at the Core of Character Development?

Some posts I make are informative and useful and some are just the rambling inside my head type posts that may or may not be of interest to anyone else. This is one of the latter.

 

Luckily, I managed to breeze through my CEUs and finished them up over the weekend. That surprised me after seeing the material I had to cover. I only missed one question out of six test modules. It was one on domestic violence concerning House Bill 1099. It was a trick question.

 

Admittedly, it made me feel pretty good to ace these tests. It affirmed my professional expertise.

 

Monday, I took up some research for a project that’s still in the planning stages. I’ve been re-reading Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Thomas Harris, and a barrage of scientific journal articles on paranormal psychology.

 

Although I am a scientist, I’ve always been interested in parapsychology. For several years of my career, I worked in psychiatric nursing in both crisis stabilization and in a forensics unit that managed the criminally insane and the incarcerated. I’ve seen some really weird things occur in the spiritual realm (not scientifically explainable). I’ve also had personal experience with clairvoyant dreams/nightmares.

 

With the medical model of psychiatry, so much has been scientifically explained through the understanding of neurotransmitters. These are endogenous chemicals that transmit signals across a synapse from one neuron (nerve cell) to another ‘target’ neuron. Their exact numbers are unknown but more than 100 chemical messengers have been identified.

 

Pharmacology and chemistry have worked hand-in-hand to learn the mechanisms of action and create drugs, primarily those that affect monoamines like: dopamine, norepinephrine, epinephrine, histamine and serotonin, which have profound effects on the brain, mood, personality and behavior.

 

Millions of people who would have otherwise been crippled by brain anomalies have received treatment that resulted in them being able to live productive lives. The organic component of human behavior can be changed with mind altering drugs. This organic, or biological, aspect is just one component of who we are. In nursing, my training program was a biopsychosocial model that considers three dimensions. The brain and the mind are considered separately.

 

In considering the mind, one dimension is spirit. Humans are spiritual by nature. Apart from all theological considerations the human spiritual capacity is wondrous indeed. As elusive as its definition, the human spirit includes our intellect, emotions, fears, passions, and creativity.

 

In the two most widely accepted contemporary definitions, human spirit and psyche are considered to be the mental functions of awareness, insight, understanding, judgment and other reasoning powers, entities of emotion, images, memory and personality.

The soul is the self, the “I” that inhabits the body and acts through it.

The soul can be the essence or embodiment of a specified quality, like the soul of a piece of composed music. It is also an immaterial part of a human being, regarded as immortal.

I didn’t set out to write a dissertation on the human spirit and soul, but was seriously considering character development. So often, I read in reviews that characters are one dimensional or not fully developed, and I was pondering over what exactly makes a character well-rounded, fully developed. The ones who stay with us, that we remember forever, that never die, are the ones who have soul. The author has managed to make them immortal. They have awareness, insight, understanding, judgment and other reasoning powers, entities of emotion, images, memory and personality. They will live on long after their authors are gone.

It takes time and words to create spirit and soul in a character. In this day of fast food, fast everything, readers want both. They want fast action and character development. I’ve read tons of character development posts advising people on how to draw up their character profiles, and while there are hundreds that speak to character traits and appearances, few speak to the soul of the character.

The “I” that inhabits the body and acts through it is the most important feature of character development, whether endearing or wicked. This “I” is at the core of character development.

In metaphysics, the “I” is the ego, a conscious, thinking subject, the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity, self-awareness.

I thought of Scarlett, Hannibal, Merlin, Lastat and Louise, Pennywise, Rowan Mayfair, Odd Thomas, Jane Eyre, Chablis, Jack Torrance, James and Catskinner, Ryan Lemmon, Bilbo Baggins, Catherine and Heathcliff…I could go on and on, but the point is that these characters all have soul, good or bad. They have been richly developed so as to be unforgettable. They think and they act. They aren’t characters that I particularly relate to, but they have an admirable depth. They aren’t simply entertaining, but embody complex psyche that penetrates deeply making them memorable.

When you read, do you get invested into the spirit of your characters?

When you write to tell your stories do you consider spirit of the characters?

Can you name some unforgettable characters that had soul?

48 thoughts on “What’s at the Core of Character Development?

  1. I definitely get invested in the soul of characters when I read. It’s what sets the average character apart from ones you’ll never forget. For me, those include Aloysius Pendergast, Gerald Tarrant, King Arthur, Franics Lymond, and Robin Hood to name a few. I do strive to give my characters “soul” when I write and can only hope that comes across for the reader. An interesting post!

    • Thanks. It is, isn’t it? It sets the character apart. Those are awesome memorable characters. I know Sybil came across as high-spirited and ahead of her times in my book, but I think Moses, with his old black negro self had both spirit and depth. As authors, if we truly want our work to be memorable, we can’t ignore that spiritual component.

      • It’s just one of those awakening moments for me. I like my characters, but being aware of this post could drive me to new heights. Glad you enjoyed Lisa. I’m trying to write her a short story right now.

        • With the emphasis being on developing character driven instead of plot driven stories, how can we possibly tell a great one without a deep examination of what character means. I’ve been very introspective lately trying to figure my own characters and their motives. It shows. Glad you found it useful, Craig.

  2. …And you think you know someone. 🙂 Firstly, congratulations on the CEU’s, and I bet it is nice to know you still got it and more. Secondly, this is an excellent post, Susan. It’s deep, it’s got flavor to spare, and you’ve touched on more than one truth in this little dissertation. I would love to share this.

    • Feel free to share. The recesses of my brain actually get a little exposure now and then. Ha! I have some new characters that I am drawing up profile for in a new project of mine. Putting some thought into what makes them memorable. Thanks Lockie 🙂

  3. As a writer I feel my characters’ souls stirring my heart. I really FEEL them in my soul. It’s weird. I know I’m in touch with my characters’ souls when I hear music I know they would like. 🙂 Or when I know their sense of humor.

    I loved this post and congrats.

    • Thanks! I feel the same. When I’m writing, it is almost as if I am within that charcter, a role play of sorts. I never got into jazz or blues, but in writing my characters, I found myself listening to their music and losing myself in it. You make a great point in how music is deeply vested into soul.

  4. SK, this post really gets me thinking. My brain is too foggy and tired to really pull together to any conclusions for myself right now, but this gets me going. Linking it on my FB page . . . .

  5. Interesting transformation from neuropsychology to character development here in your post! I like the concept of giving a character soul. Seems to take characterization one step deeper. You’ve given me food for thought on how I might do that for my own characters. Thank you. And congrats on finishing up your CEUs!

    • Yay! At least I’m caught up for the next two years, but I have found some other courses I might be interested in checking out. Figures show that one in four people in America have been treated for some type of psychiatric anomaly. It’s rather casual now. I sometimes wonder what that is doing for us as a collective consciousness. In some ways it may be improving, but in some ways it may be detrimental. But that’s another subject. Sometimes my forty pound Lippincott Biopsychosocial Approach to Nursing textbook offers me more insight than writerly craft books. 🙂

  6. I liked the discussion. I think if all writers could put soul into a few of the characters in a book it would be marvelous. The soul development is something to think about. Nice job. Congrats on the CEU test scores.

    • Thanks, John. I’m still studying on how to go about it. Sometimes, for a character, their spiritual self is just so obvious, and sometimes we have to dig for it. Characters with soul truly are a large part of what makes them memorable.

  7. Blanking on examples for some reason. As far as writing, I don’t intentionally pay attention to a character’s soul. I let that develop as I move along because I think it gets molded by their experiences and actions. A big area that can reveal a character’s soul is how he or she reacts to situations too. Something done in the heat of the moment can have an incredible impact on this.

    • The “I” that inhabits the body and acts through it is the most important feature of character development…exactly what I’m saying here. A character that is always reacting and reacting, without any conscious motive or construct is the one that readers will call a cardboard cut-out. Characters that develop insight, awareness, and reasoning power with a strong sense of self can define a body of work.

  8. As always, an insightful consideration of a topic of interest to all of us who write fiction. I know at least one fictional character honored to be included in your list of examples. And congratulations on getting that CE requirement out of the way so quickly and so well!

    • Thanks Patrick! I believe I worked at developing the spiritual aspects of certain characters in Red Clay and Roses, almost to a fault. Moses and Sybil, in particular, seemed to have soul and they are the two characters that readers seem to focus on in reviews. In Naked Alliances, while the characters are colorfully developed, they have flaws and some memorable attributes, they lack soul. They react and develop accordingly with some character growth (seen in both dialogue and action), but something is missing, and I believe it to be soul. I wanted a fast paced action-oriented novel, and in writing neglected them in narrative…a missed opportunity to develop their spiritual aspects. I think that’s one reason I remain dissatisfied with work.

  9. First of all, congrats on near-perfect test results. I had no doubt that your scores would turn out this way.

    About your questions – A character without soul cannot hold my attention either as a reader or writer. Recently, the character of Sarah Moore Grimke and her handmaid, Handful Grimke lodged in my psyche because of Sue Monk Kidd’s detailed characterization in The Invention of Wings, historical fiction. My challenge: showing the spirit of the main characters of my memoir, current WIP.

    I admire your mind acrobatics, blending medical, psychological, and literary aspects of characterization. 😉

  10. Great post, Susan.

    Characters stay with me long after I’ve read a story. Margaret Mitchell’s vividly drawn Scarlett O’Hara – love her or hate her, but can anyone resist her? I don’t think so. Jane Eyre stays with me to this day: an intrepid soul, one who decided that she cared more for her OWN good opinion of her self-worth than settling for the good opinion of lover (Rochester) or reformer (St. John). You have to admire this poor orphan who somehow found her way and drew sustenance from her own self worth.

    You mentioned a favorite of mine: Rowan Mayfair. I am more fan of the first book in that trilogy by Anne Rice than the succeeding entries. Even so, who can turn away from Rowan? She captured me right from the beginning.

    Memorable? You bet. And so these characters continue to captivate us.

    • The Witching Hour will always be my most beloved book. Anne Rice still writes the old-school way. I am of a mind to toss the new school genre conventions aside and just write. More and more the media and marketing experts and scholarly writerly “pros” are telling us to drop the exposition, avoid any back story that can’t be trickled in in tiny bits along the way, focus on movement and actions of characters and dialogue. Yet, in most all of my beloved books there are copious amounts of all of the above. I think narration is where you do find most of the soul of the character through the author’s voice. Anybody can write action and dialogue, but depth comes from that voice and that is the soul of the characters.

  11. Congratulations on passing your tests with such great scores! I had no doubt that you would.

    Characters have to have soul for me, or why read the book? I want to be totally convinced that they are real people, and I want to be swept up in their lives and worlds. Of course, I would agree about Jane Eyre and Catherine and Heathcliff that you already mentioned. Anne Shirley (as in Anne of Green Gables, along with Matthew and Marilla and the rest of the characters) was the first character–I wanted to write person–that I thought of.

    And here’s a curious one–the narrator of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier is so real, but we never even learn her name.

    • Thanks Merril, I loved Rebecca. That was clever. I’ve gotten real picky about my reading lately. I’ll read lots of reviews before I purchase. I used to not be like that, but I have read so many books that just didn’t stay with me…because the characters had no depth. I feel like I’m wasting my time. I want to write memorable books, so I need to be reading them.

  12. What an interesting point, and a good topic!

    When I read characters, I get invested in them, and I think that the ones I remember the most have that extra depth, that ‘soul’.

    Something I will really have to think of for my own characters 🙂

    • Thanks Mishka. I was telling Kate Loveton how I feel about the trend to focus on action and dialogue. It seems in doing that we are losing some of the narrative exposition the aids in creating character depth. There is so much to consider in drawing new characters.

  13. Have you heard of the “three dimensions of character”? It’s a great tool to help make characters more rounded. 1st dimension: The false facade they show to the world. 2nd: What the character wants people to believe about them. 3rd: Their true character, their soul, fears, etc. As with real people characters should possess all three. I, too, have been concentrating on this in my own work.

    I didn’t realize you’re a scientist. How interesting!

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