Developing Your Characters

It’s been a while since I last talked about writing characters—I was distracted by other things—but fear not, I still have a few things to say on the subject. So, last month, I talked about how to write strong protagonists, antagonists, and side characters. Now, I want to talk about developing these characters: how do you make these characters leap off the page and into your readers’ minds and hearts? Because, in case you haven’t guessed, it isn’t all about their motivation. Your characters can have excellent goals and excellent reasons for pursuing those goals, but no one wants to read about a bunch of stick figures. People want to read about other people.


So how do you turn your characters into real people? You develop them. There are so many ways to do this, and I’m not sure one way is better than another. I know people who write a short paragraph about each character outlining their most prominent traits. I know people who write a simple scene—like an encounter at a supermarket—about each character to get a grip on their voice and their thinking. There are character questionaires all over the internet, or you can create your own. When I was in high school, I used to fill out a 200-question worksheet of my own devising for every single character, but that got to be too much, because I tend to work with large casts, and honestly, no one cares what fruit your character would be if they could be a fruit. So I stopped that.


Now, I honestly tend to wing it. A character’s motivation can tell you a lot about the person, so I figure that out first, and then I extrapolate from that, and then I extrapolate some more. Sometimes, when I conceive of a character, I have a very clear picture of who they are, but other times I need to really dig into their personalities. As I write, who my characters are tend to come together for me, and this is even clearer as I revise. One time, when I had a large group of characters to introduce in one scene for the rest of the story, I spent some time looking at tropes of how personalities within groups break down. I figured out who I wanted to be what kind of personality within the group and then how they overlap, and that gave me a starting point to build their characters. When all else fails, I take long walks or long showers and ask myself one question after another until I figure out the basics. All I need to start writing are the basics. The character will grow on their own as I write and revise.


There are two things I like to think about when it comes to developing my characters, however. The first is character arcs. Like plot arcs, a character arc looks at the character’s path from the beginning of the story to the end. I examine where the character starts in terms of their personality, and I then look at who they are at the end of the story. Finally, I look at the events of the plot and I decide how these events affect the character—their personality and their motivations. A character’s personal journey doesn’t have to be straightforward. It isn’t just, this is who the character is at the beginning, and this is who they are in the end, and they just slowly change over the course of the book. A character can change suddenly. A character can change in a different way before they grow into the person they will be at the climax and finale of the story. A character can, and should, struggle with their growth and their identity. All these things make a character more realistic and thus more relatable.


The other important part of character development for me is looking at personality traits. I hear a lot of talk about character flaws, but I don’t buy that as a way to develop your characters. For one thing, it’s so general and overused that my initial response whenever anyone brings them up is “What does that even mean?” But beyond that, your characters don’t possess flaws. They possess traits. Yes, no one is perfect, and your character shouldn’t be perfect either, but I don’t think looking solely at the ways they are flawed is constructive. It’s much simpler to look at it in terms of traits that have positive and negative sides. For example, someone who is super organized might do really well in school or at work, but the minute something throws a wrench in their perfectly ordered world, they can’t handle it. Or someone who is stubborn or strong-willed might have the perseverance to pursue their goals, even against seemingly unbeatable odds, but it also means they can be single-minded and inflexible, unwilling to consider another approach or that someone else’s goals might be just as important as their own or even that their goals may be impossible. See what I mean? The important thing is the character’s traits and how they can be both positive and negative in any given situation.


So, that’s how I approach character development. This is what works for me, but like I said, there are so many ways you can do this, and I don’t think any one of them is better or worse than the others (except I really don’t think looking at character flaws works). However you develop your characters, it is an extremely important part of the story. You are asking your readers to spend time with your characters, to invest themselves in their lives and their problems, to cheer for them when they conquer challenges, to yell at them when they make bad decisions, and to scream and flail when they suffer. For your readers to do that, they have to feel—really, they want to feel—that these are real people.


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