The hero. The villain. The sidekick. The love interest. The confidant. The mentor.
Each and every character in a story needs their own motives, history, and features. They need to become lifelike and believable through only the text on the page.
For fiction writers, coming up with engaging characters is critical for writing stories that readers will love. Even the most fascinating story can fall flat if the characters are too bland.
Developing a memorable and distinctive character takes skill, and it may require some practice before you get the hang of it. Fortunately, there are some strategies you can use to make sure each character in your book feels fully fleshed-out. Check out the following character development tips to give your storytelling skills a boost.
Give Each Character a Journey
Each of your main characters should complete some kind of journey during the course of the story. This is part of what makes them more interesting to read about—if a character remains unchanged, they aren’t intriguing. Identify who your key characters are and create a summary of their journey through the story.
Include the following points when plotting a character arc for each of the main figures in your story:
Where are they at the beginning of the story?
What are their motives or goals?
What challenges do they face?
What conflicts do they have with other characters?
How do they overcome (or fail to overcome) these challenges and conflicts?
Where are they at the end of the story?
These character arcs will act as helpful outlines as you write your story. Each time one of the characters is present in a scene or chapter, you can refer to their summary to make sure their thoughts and actions are in line with their overall arc.
Where are they at the end of the story?
Create a Character Portrait
Now that you have a general idea of what each of your key characters will do in the story, you can begin to flesh out individual backstories and identities for each one. Start by listing some of the character’s outer features: name, gender, appearance, occupation, etc. You should also include some details about their general disposition, like whether they are kind and gentle, cold and unforgiving, scared and reserved, etc. These are the details that will need to be woven into the story early on so readers can form a picture of the character in their minds.
Next, think about each character’s inner self. How do they view themselves and others? What do they think about? What has happened to them in the past, and what do they hope for in the future? Jot down some notes on these topics so you can keep them in mind while working on your story.
Do you know what your characters look like before you begin? Or are you a mid-chapter people watcher?
Find the Character’s Voice
The way your character speaks helps them to feel more real to the reader. Ideally, you want your characters’ voices to be distinguishable from one another. Since your readers can’t hear them speaking, that has to be accomplished through the words they say. Consider the ways in which the answers to the following questions could inform the way your character speaks:
Do they speak formally and eloquently with flowery language, or are they gonna sound totally laid-back with lots of dope slang when they talk?
Are they a nervous talker who gets super-wordy and says everything that pops into their mind without thinking, or do they give intimidating one-word responses?
Do they speak slowly . . . with long pauses between phrases . . . while they try to figure out what to say, or do they talk in fast, run-on sentences where they barely have time to take a breath?
Think about what your character would sound like in real life, then try to translate that onto the page. A great strategy for this character development step is to complete a freewriting exercise where you write as that character from a first-person perspective. Imagine what they’d say when describing themselves or talking about their childhood, or simply create an interior monologue talking about their commute to work or what they’re making for dinner. Focus on writing in their unique voice, not as a narrator describing them. This exercise helps to further refine each character’s individual voice and mindset.
The background you provided for them in the portrait step will go a long way to helping show you how they speak.
Introduce Each Character
All of the previous tips are types of “behind-the-scenes” work that you’ll do for character development. They help you to shape the character so that, when you start writing, that individual feels more real on the page. Now, it’s time to take the next step and use that background development to help write your story.
When introducing your characters, don’t just list the details from their character portrait. Instead, reveal those things through the course of the story. In other words, “Show, don’t tell.” Here’s an example:
Instead of: “Henrietta had long, reddish-brown hair and a warm, affectionate personality.”
You could write: “Henrietta beamed with happiness as she ran to greet her friends, her long, auburn locks whipping in the wind behind her.”
Think about how to incorporate physical features, demeanor, and other details into the narrative rather than simply listing them off. By tying these descriptors into action that’s going on in the story, it makes it easier for readers to visualize the character in their minds.
Work in a Backstory
A character’s past can be one of the most revealing things about them. It can also help to clarify their motivations and provide context for their disposition and decisions. For instance, maybe one of your main characters is cantankerous and impulsive. He’s constantly alienating the people around him. You’ve detailed that through his actions so far, but readers may be wondering why the character is so prickly and seems to keep getting himself into trouble.
This intriguing setup can be coupled with a satisfying payoff when you reveal something about your character’s past. What events transpired that caused him to develop such a distinctive personality? Giving this character a background story helps to make your character more realistic and believable. It helps to explain their situation and lets the reader feel like they’re getting a secret glimpse at the character’s truth.
So, how can you bring up your character’s past as part of the story? Consider these suggestions:
Write a chapter that functions as a flashback into the character’s past.
Have the character run into someone from their past and discuss a prior event.
Describe your character experiencing a vivid memory or dream about their childhood.
Incorporate a side character who reveals a secret or scandal from the main character’s past.
Include a trial in the story where the character must testify about a traumatic event.
Feature a love letter which reveals a former romance.
Dive Deep into Research
For a writer, it can be a thrill to create a character that’s wildly different from yourself. But in order to make your character feel natural and genuine, you may need to do some research about their lifestyle or their experiences.
If you want to write a mystery that’s told from a detective’s point of view, find out more about what a detective actually does on a day-to-day basis. Consider interviewing a real detective or reading nonfiction accounts of detective work.
For stories told at a certain point in history, research can help you to avoid glaring inaccuracies. How did people speak at that time? What did they wear? What did their daily lives look like? The answers to these questions are incredibly important if you want your readers to feel transported to a specific time period while reading your book.
Don’t forget about researching certain psychological details as well. It’s important to maintain credibility in your story, especially when describing the experience of someone who has gone through a traumatic or life-altering experience. If your character were to lose a child, be diagnosed with cancer, or get into a serious car accident, what would their reaction be? Talking to or reading about people who have actually gone through these trials can help you to form characters that readers can relate to.
For stories told at a certain point in history, research can help you to avoid glaring inaccuracies.
Avoid the Pitfalls of Stereotyping
There are certain tropes that are deeply engrained in our culture. Whether it’s the spoiled socialite, the absentminded professor, or the femme fatale, these stereotypes can easily sneak their way into your writing. Even when you don’t intend to, you could fall back on these character archetypes, causing your story to suffer.
Make sure you think carefully about expectations when creating your characters. Is your socialite character spoiled because that’s an integral part of her character development, or because that’s what you automatically associated with a rich and fashionable person? Push deeper to explore why your character has certain traits. Perhaps you can subvert the stereotype through your character’s words and actions.
Ask for Help
Getting another set of eyes on your story is one of the best ways to make sure your characters really pop off the page. Manuscript critiques and developmental edits are two options for authors who want an honest assessment of their book before submitting it to publishers. Let someone else read your story and tell you if your characters are coming across the way you intend them to. In many cases, small revisions can make a big impact on how well your story is presented.
Creating well-rounded, interesting characters takes a lot of time and effort. You’ll need to think deeply about each of the key figures in your book before you ever put pen to paper (or fingers to the keyboard). But all that work pays off when you end up with an intriguing, can’t-put-it-down book filled with compelling, memorable characters.
Need an incentive? How about 10 percent off a manuscript critique if you mention this blog post when you request your next edit.
about the author
Ashley Henshaw has been a contributing writer for a number of online publications, including The Huffington Post, USA Today, and AOL City's Best. She has a BA in English from Loyola University Chicago and previously worked for a publishing house. She is an avid fiction reader and loves to edit fiction and nonfiction alike. If she could, she'd spend every spare minute on the beaches of Lake Michigan, but Chicago's weather has proven uncooperative.
Check out Ashley’s other blog posts: “Ready to Branch Out? Try Writing Conferences, Retreats, & Workshops” and “How to Use Modern Tech in Your Novel.”