Six Distinct Ways to Develop Character
Character physical description, along with unique physical characteristics
How a character acts and reacts
What a character says about himself, about others, and about issues
(Here, we'll also show character direct and indirect thoughts during dialogue. This is part of the sixth way we reveal character traits and personality)
"Pizza," Betty shouted back. Whether John realized it or not, she worked just as hard as he did, and she wasn't about to slave over a hot stove, only to see him wolf down his food, fart, and move off to the living room to vegetate in front of the TV.
"What kind of pizza? John asked, irritated that Betty had once again ordered in their food. It better not be pepperoni, he thought. She knows it irritates my colon.
"Pepperoni," Betty said, lowering her voice, almost growling, daring John to complain. She wasn't about to work her ass off for him and never would again, since she'd found out he'd been boffing the secretary—and a good bout of methane gas and bloating would serve him right. Does rat poison look like parmesan? she wondered.We can learn a great deal about the personalities and kind of characters these are by their actions, although nothing in what they say reveals personality traits. We see that the wife Betty has a passive-agressive personality by serving pepperoni pizza to her husband. While she barely does her "wifely" duty as John thinks she ought to, she refuses to really do his bidding, and she is punishing him at the same time, knowing that he will suffer from intestinal distress. The husband of course is a selfish person; he has his "fun" on the side with his secretary and yet still expects his wife to be there for him when he gets home. What I also tried to show is if writers must discuss mundane topics (and what's for dinner is surely among the mundane), it can be done in such a way that we get a great deal going on under the surface, not only by what is not said, but what each character thinks, in both direct thoughts (those that are italicized) and narrated thoughts (written in third person by the story narrator). Further the dialogue description (Betty lowers her voice and almost growls her answer), shows that she is angry. John's actions of slamming the door and almost shouting his question also reveals his state of mind.
What others say about a character and how that character respondsNow, let's continue with another way to develop characters with Leo, Dave the football star, and a bully named Chad to reveal character traits, by what characters say about another character and how a character responds. To avoid cluttering up the example, I'm going to avoid detailed description of setting as the dialogue unfolds. It's still in the coffee shop, and to Leo's dismay Dave the football star has sat down at his table, and he is joined by Chad, the most popular non-athlete in the school.
"So, four eyes, did you get my research paper done?" Chad asked. He leaned forward and grinned widely showing his perfect teeth, and it hit Leo that he probably practiced his million-dollar smile in the mirror.
"Um-yeah," Leo said glancing at Dave and then at Chad. He pulled the still dripping back pack from the floor and rustled through a compartment until he pulled out a rather damp-feeling sheaf of papers. He was appalled at how the ink-jet printer ink had feathered into the paper, just enough to make the type look out of focus. "Um...it's damp. sorry."
Chad snatched the research paper from Leo's grasp and thumbed through it, as both Dave and Leo watched. Chad looked up. "Redo it, you little chickenshit. I can't turn this in."
"Uh—okay. I'll get it to—"
"You're not doing any such thing, Leo," Dave said, flicking the edge of the paper. "You spent enough time." He turned his focus on Chad. "Make do with it, you moron," Dave said directly into Chad's fading million-dollar smile.
In this really bad example, we see that Chad enjoys intimidating others, and of course he comes up with demeaning ways to inflict embarrassment on Leo. We see that Leo is painfully compliant, and this is a personality trait, at least in his overt reaction to what Chad says. We also see that in his mind, Leo sees through Chad's outward personality, knowing that like everyone else, he must practice the kind of mask he wears in public, flashing an obviously practiced smile.
And we see Dave's personality. He's impatient with badly behaving people like Chad, and perhaps his utter lack of self-consciousness allows him to be direct, telling Chad to accept the paper, damp or not, and be satisfied.
We can imagine the three young men's conversation either ending abruptly as Chad takes the paper and leaves the table, or we can see that perhaps he puts up resistance to Dave's demand that he accept the paper. We think that Dave will probably win this round, and we also see that he's rather protective of Leo.
What a character thinks about
In conclusion, writers should realize the value of using private moments and character thoughts to reveal deep, yet subtle personality traits in a story's characters.