Character Development 101
Next in the Story Development Series! We will explore what it is about characters that make them so darn loveable. How is it that some authors create characters that become part of our reality as well as fantasy?
It’s a well known fact that some authors manage to create characters that are so engrained in our lives they become a part of our reality. We talk about Gandalf, Harry Potter, Daenarys Targaryen, and Mr Darcy as though they’re real people. What’s the deal with that? Well, it’s because the author has created a character that’s so well developed we can analyse them as though they’re real people. We understand the way they think, how their past has shaped them, what their personality traits are, and how that can reflect on their future. Creating a character like this is no small feat and usually takes an entire series to achieve. Today we’re going to look into what aspects of character development matter, and what aspects please the reader the most.
It’s important to note here that there are two main types of stories, plot-driven ones and character-driven ones. Some writers will have a preference and will rarely read the other, but when it comes down to it, the best stories out there are the ones that manage to do both. They create amazing stories that are as complex as they are beautiful; they create characters that are so detailed they take over our own emotions. I prefer tackling a delicate balance that drives a story further, rather than just picking one. That being said, there are certain times when character-driven stories work amazingly well, some of which I mentioned earlier.
There are two main types of characters in any story: statics ones and dynamic ones. A static character is one who doesn’t change over the course of the story, whereas a dynamic character grows and changes as the story progresses. Usually, our main character/s are dynamic. If you have a static main character then you’ll likely have a boring story (not all the time). The most attractive and engaging characters are ones we see change over time, as the best characters are those that are working towards a goal or working through a conflict, where change is inevitable. For example, Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit is working through the conflict of going on an adventure and helping his newly-found, slightly dysfunctional group of friends. We see him grow from cowardly and unconfident into an amazingly brave and loyal companion. It’s one of the reasons he’s such a lovable character. Static characters, on the other hand, are usually secondary ones, like Dumbledore, Gandalf, or Scar (from The Lion King). They tend not to change, and for good reason. Okay, I guess technically Gandalf changes from the Grey Wizard to the White Wizard, but his personality doesn’t change much, at least not in Frodo’s eyes.
We can break this down further if we like, into antagonists, protagonists, and foils. A protagonist is your hero character (or your flawed main character), whereas your antagonist is your villain or central conflict (zombie virus e.g.). A foil is a character who is opposite to our main character. This is often used in subplots, rather than the hero vs villain main plot. The best example I can think of is Draco Malfoy. He isn’t the villain, but he is the direct opposite of Harry, and they therefore do not get along, creating some great subplot moments.
This is actually quite a divided subject, because some people will argue that how a character looks doesn’t play an important part when reading a book, however, others say that it creates imagery and helps the reader focus. For the purpose of this blog and helping you develop your characters, it’s important you know what they look like, otheriwse your imagination and creativity might be hindered. You don’t necessarily have to tell the reader this information, but for the purpose of character development, it’s easier if we know how they look.
So, the first step in creating your characters is to visualise what they look like in your mind. It’s okay if you only form a half picture, a fully coloured and formatted piece, or just a general sketch. Just try to visualise them in your mind. Now that you have your basic build, what are the details? What type of body build do they have? What type of gender do they associate with? What type of hair style do they naturally have? What colour is their skin, eyes, and hair, etc?
Now you have looked at their appearance in a visual sense, try to picture them moving. How do they walk, run, and jog? Are they physically active or are they lazy? Do they have any quirks in the way they walk or the way their hair moves when they run? Try applying the physical traits we came up with earlier to their movements. Did you create any facial scars, then how do they move when the character smiles? You can do this in a general sense, or you can be as detailed as you like. However you choose, I would recommend writing it all down into character profiles. That way you can keep track of everything and refer back to it when you don’t know how a character will react to a certain situation you’ve placed them in.
I would recommend the following for keeping notes on character development. It can be applied to all areas of this blog.
This is where we develop who they are, not on the outside, but on the inside. Thi swill help you decide how they would react in any given situation, not just physically, but emotionally. For example, if you have torturously made one of your characters watch their family die before their eyes, how would they react to a situation like that? People grieve in a multitude of different ways, although everyone goes through the same general process. The important thing here is realism. Make sure that the reactions your characters are giving are natural. There is nothing worse than a character who reacts in a strange way, say never feeling any sadness over the tragedy, and not giving them a reason. This is where some basic psychology knowledge would come in handy.
This is an absolutely fantastic piece on how to do this well: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/psychology-writers/201109/what-really-drives-your-characters.
First things first, where did they come from? Here’s a tricky one to consider, because it can make you slip into telling really easily. You don’t want to info dump every character’s backstory, but it is often important to understand where a character has come from to understand why they behave the way they do. If you’re writing in first person, then it’s quite easy to slip in information about the main character’s past every now and then, just don’t overload the reader with it. But what about the other characters? This is where relationships come in really handy. The ones closest to the main character have a great opportunity to present their background through their interactions, displays of skills and traits, dialogue, and anything else creative you might think of. Remember, we’re seeing the character through your main character’s eyes, so it’s okay if the reader doesn’t know the whole truth and is limited in terms of information.
But what if your book is in third person? This will depend on the approach to third person narrative you have taken. If you have taken a limited third person approach, then chances are you won’t be needing as much background information anyway. But if you do, then you might have to get creative with things like dreams, flashbacks, dialogue, and character thoughts. If you’re writing in close third person, however, then you have a little more wiggle room, as in terms of character perspective, it’s really similar to person first narration.
Look out for my blog post: ‘POV, does it really matter?’ Where I will be explaining how varying POVs work and how they can massively effect your story.
For now, let’s focus on the basics of character development. The parts you do when you’re writing your first chapter and putting them into silly situations just to see what they’ll do. We’re evil puppet masters really (that would make a great book). We need to know what makes them tick. What is it about their personality that drives them forwards? What is their reason to live? In some scenarios, survival is enough, but in the common world of reality, people usually have other things to live for asides from themselves, such as children, a career, friends, family, pets, a hobby, etc. Consider all these things for your characters and give as much detail as possible. Sometimes it’s more than one, and can be a collection of factors that make their life whole.
What is their main goal? This is really important. A character without a goal tends to create plots without goals, and then you fall into the trap of having characters wander aimlessly around your creation without any real direction, creating a mess of a story. So, identify straight from the get go (whether you’re a planner or not) what their goal is. Are they trying to get through a difficult divorce? Do they need to find the magic sword to defeat the otherwise immortal villain? Do they want revenge for their mother’s death? Whatever it is, write in giant letters and pin it to your writing space. Never let yourself forget that is the goal you’re working towards.
What are they motivated by? This is slightly different to their goal in that this should be a mechanism to aid their achievement of said goal. It could be as simple as hatred or jealousy, or it could be a magical object, a wizard guide, and sense of pride… anything really. What is their internal conflict? This will cause difficulties and challenges when reaching their goal. Are they a sucker for cheesy romance or flimsy one-night stands? Do they want to do things on their own without assistance and reject all their friend’s help? Having conflict will make sure your characters are in-depth and that the story is not straight forward.
Great! Now you’ve got the basics down, you’ll know all about who they are, what motivates them, what they look like, and they should feel as though they are more than just a figment of your imagination, hopefully. At this stage, some people like to commission artwork to be done based on general descriptions. This can be really useful, and even more useful later when considering marketing. You can use various computer programs, real artists, your own hand (if you can draw, which I can’t), photographs, models, google pictures (although these wouldn’t belong to you in terms of copyright). This is not necessary, but it does help to have things in front of you and it feels great when seeing it for the first time.
How a character develops is vital to our story. We’ve identified who they are, what they look like, and their goals and conflicts, but how are they going to develop over the course of your story?
There is one important thing, in terms of character development, you will ever have to do for your story: personal growth. You must show us how they change overtime. A great example of this, which is one I recommend to my clients frequently, is the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J Maas, because she has stunning character development; and not just over one book, but over an entire series. As you have identified your character and built up a particular picture within the reader’s head, you now need to challenge that picture, and the character, so they can change and develop, especially if you’re writing a character-driven novel. Use all the information I have already given you, and apply it in every new situation. Ask yourself, “how would he/she react here?”, “what would he/she say?”, “who would they most likely bond with in this scenario?” etc. Always question your character’s motives. It leads to accurate characterisation that is both relatable and realistic.
Focus on the goals and conflicts we identified earlier. Have they achieved them yet? If not, what will be their next steps? Have their beaten that nasty anger issue or unconfident persona? If not, why not?
Watch out for my blog on series progression later in the series!
You’ve done all the ground work by now, but you still need to show the reader who they are. You might have it all planned out in your head, but how you translate it onto paper is more important, because that is the version the reader will see. There are loads of techniques you can use to show your character developing. We’re going to talk a few of the more important and vital ones. If you think of any others that should have been discussed, let me know in the comments.
This is arguably one of the most important aspects of your character development, as it shows us how they interact in their world. Their relationships, or lack thereof in some cases, are vital in showing us who they truly are. Are they the type that goes to parties and holds conversations with everyone in the room? Do they turn everybody’s head the moment they open the door? Do they lurk in the background, unseen and unheard? Or are they the type that would avoid the party at all costs? This simple scenario, which doesn’t have to be longer than a page or two, can be enough to tell the reader exactly what type of character they are going to be straight from the get go! It won’t release any important details or forge a magically emotional connection between the reader and the character, but it will provide a great start, and hook the reader into the character’s life.
There are multiple ways you can do this. I used a party as an example, but use something relative to your story. Lunch with friends, banter with the guys at work, speed dating, online socialising, a masquerade ball… The list is endless.
Another way of showing who a character is, especially the antagonist or a particularly important secondary character, is using a comparison. This is actually more important than people think in the way of character development, and is a really interesting technique, especially if you have created an entire world that isn’t similar to our reality or if you are working in a different time era. How do we know if a character is acting strange compared to the norm? How do we know if that king is being unfair or unjust? We won’t know anything until you set us a comparison. So, if you’re showing us a mad tyrant king, then the best way to show us how evil he is, is to compare him to another, more peaceful king. This can be helped along by using a character’s perspective of the king as well, but comparison does work best in these types of scenarios.
This also brings up issues regarding morals and ethics. Is Voldemort really evil? Or does it just seem that way because we’re seeing him through Harry’s eyes? Would we still think he was evil if we were seeing things through Bellatrix’s eyes? The best way to show someone’s true nature, especially an evil one, is to see them through someone else’s eyes.
This leads us nicely onto my third method of showing character development: dialogue. We’re seeing more and more books nowadays that are heavier in dialogue than they ever used to be. This is partly down to the natural evolution of what readers are looking for in new books; which has become less descriptive and more action-lead over the last century. Dialogue can tell us so much about a character’s inner thoughts and emotions. For example, we’ll naturally make assumptions about the character speaking the following piece of dialogue:
“I-I d-don’t know h-how to do that s-sir, I’m so s-sorry,” she mummbled.
You immediatley know that she is unconfident, has problems speaking to authority, is probably a little unsocial, and is female. In just thirteen words I have managed to build a pretty good starting point for a character. Your dialogue also needs to match your character, otherwise your readers will just get confused. Using the above example, it would be odd if she was actually head cheerleader, the centre of every social circle, and turns out to be great at manipulating others, right? Because you wouldn’t expect someone with that kind of personality to speak like this, unless they were in an extremely uncomfortable situation. So just make sure that you hit the right mark with your character’s speech, and make sure it flows naturally.
Dialects and accents are another important feature in dialogue, because it’s always best to show how someone is speaking rather than tell. So, if you have someone from India, where English is their second language, then you may want to show them speaking formally, as they probably wouldn’t understand slang, idioms, or other mechanisms of informal speech. If you have someone from Scotland, make sure you show the accent. Try not to overdo the accent, though, or use stutters too often, because it can put the reader off as it’s sometimes hard to read.
That’s all for now folks! I had a great time writing this piece and, as you can tell, I’m very passionate about character development. If you’re struggling with any of this, then I would suggest doing some character development games to help you along a bit. You can find millions on Google. NB: I will be addressing villains and side characters in more detail in my ‘How To Give Your Characters Depth’ blog.
Founder and Editor of Penmanship Editing