Bringing Characters to Life

By Lu Anne Stewart

Thanks to the magic of Netflix, I’ve been watching a number of Turkish television dramas (with English subtitles) over the past year. (Little-known trivia fact: Turkey is now the second largest exporter of TV series around the world.)   These programs run the gamut from romantic comedies and multi-generational family sagas to crime stories and historical tales from Turkey’s Ottoman Empire era.

In addition to first-rate writing, acting and production, these shows have hooked me because of their incredible skill in developing characters. As a writer, it has been fascinating to see how they use plot twists, backstory and other techniques to make me care deeply about the fate of these characters. Each time my emotions take a roller coaster ride because of a character’s ups and downs, I learn something about how to bring fictional characters to life.

In a show I’m watching now, called “What Happens to My Family,” a widowed father lives in the family’s run-down homestead in Istanbul with his three grown children, each of whom has not yet been able to successfully leave the nest.  In the early episodes, the character traits of each of the children are lightly sketched in.  The daughter is a cold, self-centered and highly ambitious business woman. The oldest son is completing his training as a doctor and, seeing a wealthy future just ahead, looks down on his family’s humble circumstances. The youngest son still acts like a wayward teenager: he has trouble getting out of bed in the morning, can’t keep a job, and makes dumb mistakes that often land him in jail.

While those traits give us a quick fix on each character, the scriptwriters add layer upon layer of nuances as each episode unfolds.  Gradually, over time, we learn key details that increase our understanding of why each of the siblings acts the way they do. The daughter was devastated a decade earlier when her fiancé went off to study in France and promptly forgot her, falling in love with a French girl. The elder son, it turns out, is so driven to become a wealthy doctor and so hateful to his family because his first love broke off their relationship, saying he was “too poor.” And we learn that the youngest son lost his way after being unjustly expelled from school for a year, a setback from which he never fully recovered.

Each of these revelations made me sympathize with these characters and even overlook some of their worst traits. As a viewer, it was so much more satisfying and emotionally engaging to learn this backstory well into the midst of the series rather than having these details provided in a neatly wrapped package right at the beginning. It is more akin to the way we learn about people in real life; as we get closer and hear more about their past and their challenges, we become more understanding, and even fond of, their quirks.

I hope to use these insights in developing characters in the new novel I’m just beginning to shape now. We know it’s important to start the novel planning process with a well-developed profile of each major character, with everything from eye color to favorite foods and odd habits. But thanks to Turkish TV, I now have a heightened appreciation for the power of withholding some details for a key moment, allowing the reader to make a discovery that deepens their emotional connection to the character on the page.

In the coming weeks on Author Lab, our writers will be delving into the subject of character development. Watch this space for more, and please share your comments on what brings a fictional character alive for you.

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One thought on “Bringing Characters to Life

  1. Lu Anne, this was inspiring and fascinating. Who knew Turkish TV shows could yield so many valuable lessons about character development? But I know what you mean. My favorite Netflix TV series have a lot to teach me, too, and it’s a medium I should analyze from that perspective, too. You have me thinking about what inspires my character development for next week’s blog. Happy writing!

    Liked by 1 person

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