ThrillerFest: Bestselling Authors Talk Character Development

by Emily Wenstrom
published in Writing

Character development was widely (if unsurprisingly) regarded as one of the foundational pillars of writing a good story among the many top-selling authors present at this year’s ThrillerFest. In fact, “character” was the first of Steve Berry’s “6 C’s of Story Structure.”

As Dale Brown said, “What is character? The motivations that drive the story … Character is important, but character is important to drive the story forward.” In other words, character development doesn’t stand alone—its value is in how well it servers the story’s development. Steven James put this in perspective when he said, “There’s no such thing as a character-driven story. There’s no such thing as a plot-driven story. There are only tension-driven stories. Fully developed characters are of particular importance for thrillers, because thrillers so often shift between several different points of view, which means several characters share the spotlight.

Of course, while most writers likely all agree on the importance of character and story development, it’s an indisputable law of writing that authors all have their own ways of working—and when it comes to character development, the legends at ThrillerFest were no exception.

Some authors swore by creating meticulous backstories for their characters before getting down to writing the story. But others preferred more of a big-picture pants-ing approach—take Steven James, for example, who declared more than once that “A character with an attitude is always more interesting than a character with a history.” Regardless of how you prefer to develop a character, Charlaine Harris (who swears by character development exercises to get the creative juices flowing) emphasized the importance of making every character pull their weight for the good of the story: “Everybody has to work, there can’t be any slackers.”

But backstory wasn’t the only important aspect of character development covered at the conference. Another is the art of naming a character.

On this topic, Charlaine Harris advises, “Don’t be the Duggars,” meaning that each character’s name should start with a different letter and have a distinct sound. She also recommends using real-world references to mix and match real first and last names, because it makes the names sound more authentic than making them up.

Many authors also warned against relying on quirks or accents to set a character apart. Gayle Lynds said that when quirks get too heavy-handed, characters lose their nobility. Carla Norton echoed this sentiment, advising that writers should use colloquialisms “sparingly and naturally.”

On a related note about subtlety, Charlaine Harris advised writers to avoid info dumps about backstory. Instead, reveal them slowly—“They’re not there to take off all their clothes, it’s more of a strip-tease.”

Even more important than their distinguishing characteristics, every protagonist needs to have at least one weakness and one thing that they care about, according to Gayle Lynds.

There’s a lot of factors to take into consideration when creating a character, and while there’s plenty of advice to be found about how to do it, most writers must find out for themselves what works best for them. At the end of the day, however you get there, characters simply have to be memorable. “If you can’t make him likeable,” advises Vicki Pettersson, “at least make him interesting.”


ew_007_lowrezBy day, Emily Wenstrom, is the editor of short story website wordhausauthor social media coach, and freelance content marketing specialist. By early-early morning, she is E. J. Wenstrom, an award-winning sci-fi and fantasy author whose debut novel Mud was named 2016 Book of the Year by the Florida Writers Association.

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