There are many ways to approach character development.
Some writers create elaborate profiles, others develop their character through revisions, some discover them via writing exercises, and some mystical unicorns get them right straight from the start.
Characters, whether they be human, animal, or mineral, are the heart of any good story.
If your reader doesn’t like, connect, empathises with, or at least feel intrigued by your character, they probably aren’t going to get that far into your book. (Insert obvious disclaimer).
But for those of us who are not exceptional unicorns, here are ten tiny lessons to consider when constructing or revision your characters.
#1 Where are they and who are they?
Before you slap your reader over the head with an inciting incident, we need to know where in time and space the character is located and we also need to know who the character is.
Not in like a philosophical, who are we all anyway? type of way, but in a name, age, gender, occupation kind of way.
Obviously, what you share and when is completely dependent upon the type of story you are telling, but as a rule of thumb we at least need to know the character’s location and name before we’re willing to follow them into the centre of the earth or save the galaxy.
#2 What do they want?
This may seem like banal writing advice, but ‘What does your character want?’ has become a cliché for a reason — because it’s true and it’s important.
When we know what the character wants, we instantly know what they value — which reveals character.
It also tells us what the plot is going to be about (whether that be on the surface or as subtext).
When you know what that character wants, you know what their weakness is, and a writer can play off this to great effect.
And this my gentle friends, is called tension.
#3 Why can’t they have it?
Of course they can’t actually get what they want, at least not in the beginning, because if the did then your novel would be very short.
When a character doesn’t get what they want, we learn what they are willing to do to get it and what that character is made of.
Will they risk their reputation, their family’s reputation, money, safety, or their life? Will they crumble under pressure, give up, break, or rise to the challenge?
Remember, watching people engage in difficult tasks and overcoming them (or failing) is a beloved human past time. Don’t disappoint your readers by skipping this step.
#4 What aren’t they willing to do
Learning what a character isn’t willing to do is just as interesting as what they aren’t willing to do.
These two factors reveal so much about the character: their values, morals, strength, and determination.
What they aren’t willing to do can be just as powerful as what they are willing to do. Choosing to not sell out a friend- — or better yet, an enemy — in order to be victorious will warm readers hearts even more than a clean easy win.
#5 Likability isn’t that important
It seriously isn’t.
You don’t have to like a character, but readers should at least find them interesting or intriguing. You have to give them a reason to invest in your story, why do they want to follow through until the end with someone they don’t like?
Maybe we want to see them get theirs; maybe we want to see them redeemed; maybe we enjoy vicariously living out our shadow-selves via this character?
Like everything to do with writing, there are no rules, you just have to know why you’re doing the thing that you’re doing.
#6 Have agency (and making bad decisions)
Agency means that the characters have the power to make decisions and take action.
They should not be passive paper people who merely respond to outside stimuli, but that doesn’t mean that every decision they make has to be a good decision.
In fact, it’s better if they make some really bad decision that then result in obstacles they have to overcome.
There is a horrible delight that happens when a reader knows something the character doesn’t — “Don’t go into the basement!” – and seeing characters make mistakes can add freshness to the story through unexpected twists. And as an added bonus, it also makes them more believable.
#7 They should be kinda consistent
Characters should be consistent … mostly.
They need to be consistent enough so that the reader feels as though they know them, but inconsistent enough so that we can be taken by surprise.
All humans contain a unique set of contradictions: vegans who eat bacon on Sunday, neat freaks who let their dogs sleep in their bed, new junkies that make fun of the media…
It’s exciting to see that we don’t know a character as well as we think we do.
#8 Evolution in three easy steps
Ideally, your character should evolve over the course of your novel or series.
This evolution occurs in three stages. Let’s use an example (fun!).
At the start of our novel, the protagonist is an alcoholic, through a series of events they realise they have a problem and they start to make changes; they go cold-turkey, have some success, but eventually relapse. Eventually, humbled by their experience, they realise they can’t go it alone and they join AA and begin their long-term road to recovery.
The character can’t go from A to C, we need to see what happens in B, and this should usually include an obstacle or two which forces or supports the change in C.
#9 Start with archetype, then flip it and reverse it
Modelling your character on a certain archetype is a great way to introduce them to the reader as it supplies them with a lot of information quickly.
Oh, she’s a geeky girl who loves computers and gaming. Oh, he loves sport and parting. Oh, she’s a hippie activist and he’s a trickster etc.
Archetypes are a good place to start, but don’t stay there. Finding innovative ways to subvert or make strange these recognisable characters will keep readers intrigued and reading to the last page.
#10 Get to know them
As mentioned at the start of this blog, there are many ways to get to know your characters, but if you get to the end of your first draft and all the characters sound kind of the same, consider getting to know them outside of the story – everyone’s different when you meet them outside of work!
Give them a birth date, look up their astrological chart, create a profile or template that includes the info you care about, and try experimenting with different writing exercises.
For example, write a few paragraphs about what your MC would do if they were stuck in an open grave. Then write about how their best friend would respond, then the love interest, the antagonist and so on.
There you have it, those are the ten things you need to know about character. Now, I’d like to hear from you, which of these tactics will you apply to your novel? How do you approach character when writing your fiction? Leave a comment below and tell me all about it.
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