How to Develop Characters

by | Feb 18, 2024 | Book Writing

Key Takeaways

  • Discover the secrets to crafting compelling character backstories.
  • Learn how to balance personality traits and flaws for dynamic characters.
  • Explore effective character development techniques to enhance your writing.
  • Understand the importance of dialogue and showing versus telling in storytelling.
  • Gain insights into creating deep, complex characters through internal conflicts and interactions.

Creating Memorable Characters

When it comes to writing a book that resonates with readers, one of the most crucial elements is character development. Characters are the heart and soul of your story, and mastering the art of creating them is essential. It’s not just about making up a name and a job for your character; it’s about breathing life into them, making them as real to your readers as they are to you.

Character Backstories

Think of your favorite book. What makes the protagonist so memorable? Often, it’s their history—their backstory—that makes them compelling. A well-crafted backstory does more than fill pages; it shapes the character’s motivations, fears, and decisions. Here’s how to get started:

  • Imagine your character’s life before your story begins. What events shaped them?
  • Consider the environment they grew up in and how it influenced their worldview.
  • Identify key moments that led to significant changes in their behavior or outlook.

Remember, not all of your character’s backstory will make it into your book, but knowing it yourself will guide your writing.

Personality Traits and Flaws

Characters need to be more than just good or bad. They need layers, quirks, and flaws—traits that make them human. Think about your best friend. What are their most endearing qualities? Now, what about them drives you crazy? These are the types of traits that will make your characters feel real.

  • Give your character strengths that will help them overcome challenges.
  • Balance these strengths with flaws that create obstacles and internal conflict.
  • Ensure that their traits influence the story’s direction and their interactions with other characters.

By doing this, your characters will become people your readers can root for, relate to, or even love to hate.

African American man celebrating victory

Character Development Techniques

Now that we’ve laid the foundation with backstories and personality traits, let’s dive into some techniques that will bring your characters to life.

Dialogue and Voice

One of the most powerful tools in character development is dialogue. How your character speaks reveals a lot about them. A teenager from a small rural town will speak differently than a middle-aged lawyer from New York City. But it’s not just about accents and word choice; it’s about their voice. Are they confident or shy? Sarcastic or serious?

  • Listen to how people around you talk and incorporate those rhythms and patterns into your writing.
  • Use dialogue to reveal key character traits and to show how they interact with others.
  • Read your dialogue out loud to ensure it sounds natural and fits the character.

Show, Don’t Tell

You’ve probably heard this advice before, but it’s worth repeating. Showing rather than telling is what makes a story engaging. Instead of telling readers that your character is brave, show them through their actions. Perhaps they run into a burning building to save a stranger, or they stand up to a bully despite their fear.

  • Use actions and reactions to demonstrate your character’s personality and growth.
  • Describe body language and facial expressions to convey emotions without stating them outright.
  • Let your readers draw their own conclusions about your character’s traits.

By showing, not telling, you invite readers to become active participants in your story, making the experience more immersive and satisfying.

Deepening Character Complexity

Characters become memorable when they are complex and layered, much like real people. To deepen your characters’ complexity, you must explore their internal landscape—their conflicts and motivations—as well as their relationships with others in the story.

Internal Conflicts and Motivations

Every person has desires and fears, and so should your characters. What do they want more than anything? And what are they willing to do to get it? But it’s their internal conflicts—those contradictory impulses and desires—that truly bring them to life.

  • Identify your character’s deepest desire and then ask what’s stopping them from achieving it.
  • Explore their internal moral dilemmas and how these affect their choices.
  • Consider how their past experiences have shaped their current motivations and fears.

Understanding these elements will allow you to craft a character who is not only driven but also relatable and compelling.

Interactions With Other Characters

No character exists in a vacuum. They are defined by their relationships—friends, enemies, lovers, or family. These interactions can reveal hidden aspects of their personality, strengths, and weaknesses.

  • Think about how your character’s traits affect their relationships.
  • Create scenes that challenge these relationships and force the character to confront their flaws.
  • Use dialogue and action to show the dynamics between characters, rather than simply describing them.
Man and woman talking while sitting down

Through these interactions, your characters will grow and change, providing a richer reading experience.

Practical Exercises for Character Enhancement

To further develop your characters, there are a variety of exercises you can undertake. These practices will help you understand your characters on a deeper level and bring clarity to their actions and decisions in your story.

Character Biographies

Writing a biography for your character can be an enlightening experience. Start from their birth and move through the significant events of their life, just as you would when writing about a real person.

  • Include details about their family, education, and key life events.
  • Describe their personality at different stages of their life and how it has evolved.
  • Note down their successes and failures, loves and losses, and how these have shaped them.

This exercise will give you a wealth of background material to draw upon as you write your story.

Interviewing Your Characters

Another effective exercise is to conduct an interview with your character. Pose questions to them and answer as if you were in their shoes. This can be done in writing or even out loud to help you get into their mindset.

  • Ask about their hopes, dreams, and fears.
  • Inquire about their relationships with other characters in your story.
  • Challenge them with difficult questions to reveal deeper truths about their character.

These interviews can provide insights into your characters’ minds and help you to portray them more authentically in your writing.

The Cornerstone of Storytelling: Character Arcs

A character arc is the transformation that a character undergoes throughout the course of a story. It’s what makes a story satisfying and gives it emotional depth. Let’s explore what goes into defining and crafting a compelling character arc.

Defining Character Arcs

At its core, a character arc is about change. It’s the journey from who the character is at the beginning of your story to who they become by the end. This transformation should be driven by the events of the plot and the character’s reactions to them.

  • Identify the starting point: Who is your character when the story begins?
  • Determine the inciting incident: What event sets them on the path to change?
  • Map out the milestones: What key moments signal shifts in their perspective or behavior?

By clearly defining these elements, you can ensure that your character’s development is both believable and impactful.

The Importance of Character Growth

Growth is the essence of the character arc. It’s what makes a character’s journey meaningful and what ultimately resonates with readers. A character’s growth often reflects the theme of your story and gives it a sense of purpose.

  • Consider how your character’s growth challenges or affirms the theme of your story.
  • Show how the character’s growth affects their relationships and the story’s outcome.
  • Ensure that the growth is earned through struggle and effort, making it more rewarding for the reader.

By focusing on character growth, you create a story that is not only entertaining but also thought-provoking and emotionally rich.

Colorful FAQ letters

 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

When you’re deep in the throes of character development, questions are bound to arise. Let’s tackle some of the most common queries authors have about creating memorable characters.

How do I create a character arc?

To create a character arc, start by identifying your character’s initial state and the transformation you want them to undergo by the story’s end. Then, outline the events and experiences that will challenge them and ultimately lead to their change. Here’s a simple breakdown:

  • Establish the baseline: Who is your character when we first meet them?
  • Inciting incident: What disrupts their status quo?
  • Progression: How do they evolve with each challenge?
  • Climax: What is the pivotal moment that solidifies their change?
  • Resolution: How do they reflect on their journey at the end?

Remember, a character arc should feel natural and earned, not forced or abrupt.

Can a character be too flawed?

Characters, like people, are imperfect. However, if their flaws overwhelm their positive traits to the point where readers can’t empathize or root for them, they might be too flawed. Balance is key. Ensure that your character’s flaws are counteracted with redeeming qualities or the potential for growth.

What is the significance of dialogue in character development?

Dialogue is a powerful tool in character development because it’s one of the most direct ways we get to know a character. It can reveal their background, personality, and motivations. Moreover, dialogue can show how characters react under pressure, interact with others, and evolve over time.

How can I show character development without explicitly stating it?

Show character development through actions, decisions, and how they handle situations differently as the story progresses. For instance, a character who is afraid of confrontation might, by the end, take a stand for what they believe in, demonstrating growth without it needing to be stated.

How often should I work on character development exercises?

Character development exercises are tools to deepen your understanding of your characters. Use them as often as you need to feel connected to your characters. Some writers do these exercises at the start of their writing process; others use them when they hit a roadblock.

In the end, mastering character development is about understanding human nature, being observant, and translating those observations into your fictional world. It’s about making each character distinct, with their own voice, history, and heart. And most importantly, it’s about making your readers care about them, just as you do.

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