Five-year-olds are genius character developers

Most of my stories start out as a scene in a place I don’t know with characters I don’t know. It takes me a lot of work to dig into my characters and figure out who they are, why they’re there, where they’re going, and so on and so forth.

Which means that during the character development phase of writing, I revert to a five-year-old.

I sit down with a notebook, write the character’s name at the top of the page, and ask why over and over again, long past the point of sanity. Why is she wearing long sleeves in the summer? To hide the scars on her arms. Why does she have scars on her arms? Because she tried to break up a knife fight. Why was she breaking up a knife fight? Because she was trying to keep one of the guys from getting killed. Why did she care what happened to him? Because he’s the only person who knows where her brother is who ran away three years ago.

And that’s generally the point where my questions explode. Wait, what? She has a lost brother? Why did he run away? How did she feel about it? Did they get along? Has she been looking for him? Has she heard anything from him since then?

So I take each of those branches and why them to death too. Usually, as my characters develop, so does my plot. Motivations become clear, side plots sneak in, and important details begin to organize themselves for slow reveal.

How do you flesh out your characters? Do they come full of detail, or does it take effort to learn about them?

Although . . . there were the bees disappearing.

“Only mention something if you’re going to bring it up again.”

I can’t tell you how many times my husband has brought this up in our discussions of books, movies, TV shows, anything with a storyline. And you know what? It’s absolutely true.

The best storytellers make every word count. There is no room for extraneous details, because every detail affects the story somehow, no matter how small it may seem at its first appearance.

Prime example: the bees.

Doctor Who, season 4, episode 1. Donna wants to find the Doctor again, but how do you find a man who travels through space and time?

“I just thought, ‘Look for trouble, and then he’ll turn up.’ So I looked everywhere — you name it. UFO sightings, crop circles, sea monsters — I looked, I found them all. Like that stuff about the bees disappearing, I thought, ‘I bet he’s connected.'” (Partners in Crime)

Passing comment, bees stuck in there among crop circles and UFOs. My husband and I talked about it all the way through season 4, though I don’t know that the bees were even mentioned again, maybe once more before the end of the season. But were they important?

Oh, you know. The only way to find Earth in the season finale.

Other examples: Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, inherited in book 1 and vital in book 7. The garlin that Sage rolls across his knuckles in The False Prince. The silver candlesticks that are so dear to the bishop’s heart in Les Miserables.

Those little clues, the details that come back after pages and pages of waiting—those are the things that make a reader squeal and encourage obsessive speculation. Don’t let all that speculation go to waste by leaving loose ends.