character development

10 Tips on Character Development

After plot, character development is the most important element of storytelling you need to think about. But writing strong characters is difficult. It’s an art form unto itself, and if you don’t pay enough attention to it, your readers will enjoy their experience much less. But how do you pull this off? Following are 10 tips that will help you improve your character development and make them appeal to your readers.

character development
This character is still pretty two-dimensional… he could use a little more development, wouldn’t you say? Photo by Flickr user taichi nishida.

1. Experiment with a character sketch
2. Think about motivation
3. Consider their origins
4. Explore Aristotle’s rules of character development
5. Pay careful attention to your dialogue
6. Learn how to write the opposite gender
7. Keep twisting them little by little until they become unique.
8. Avoid extremes
9. Don’t try to make them perfect people. Remember their human flaws
10. Remember that your characters need to change over the course of a story

1. Experiment with a character sketch

A character sketch isn’t actually a sketch in the sense of a drawing. Instead, it refers to a short description that focuses on appearance, origin, background, and anything else that might occur to you.

One way to do this is as an informal written paragraph or list. Start with the most obvious things. Don’t be shy! This isn’t a person you’re chatting up at a party… you’re attempting to bring this person to life. What is her name? How old is she? Where was she born? Who were her parents? Where were they from? What languages does she speak? What city was she raised in? Where did she go to school? First crush? First kiss? First job? First heartbreak? What does she want in life? What is her greatest fear? Jot down anything and everything that occurs to you.

Character development has a lot to do with psychology. The more you understand about the psychological makeup of your character, the stronger that character will be, in a literary sense. Many of the things you write here won’t necessarily make it onto the page, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that you know these things.

Another way to do this is to use a template called a Character Development Sheet. If you Google this term, you will likely find many examples that you can download. There is no right or wrong way to do it, but the more thorough you can be, the better.

Of course, if you’re an artist, by all means, draw your character! The ability to actually see our characters in our minds is hugely important, and this can be a big help. The only reason I don’t do this is because I can’t draw to save my life.

2. Think about motivation

The single most important aspect of your character’s psychology is what motivates them. To motivate means to move. Motivate and motor have the same Latin root word: mot (“move”). This is also the root of the word motion. So, think of your character’s motivation as a little motor inside them that pushes them in a certain direction. Their motion through the story is caused by their motivation.

But what is their motivation? It’s the thing they want above all else, at least right now, at this point in their lives. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated. In fact, sometimes, the simpler it is to express what they want, the better. It can be vague: He wants to find love. Or it can be specific: He wants the blue cup that is on the second shelf of the cupboard.

One of my favorite writers when I was younger was Kurt Vonnegut, who famously said, “Your character should always want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.” At any given point in a story, you should be able to say clearly what is motivating each of your characters.

Whatever that motivation is, we need to know, too. It should not be a secret from your readers. We should know what it is as soon as possible, so that we can follow your character’s journey with interest.

3. Consider their origins

In Point #1, I mentioned that you should think about your character’s origins as one of the points to be fleshed out in their development.

This term is already widely used in the context of superheroes. It’s a very important part of every legend. Every superhero has an origin story, and superhero fans are as familiar with origin stories as they are with present-day exploits. Chances are you know some of them, too, even if superheroes aren’t your thing. You probably know, for example, that Superman comes from the planet Krypton, and it’s the differences between that planet and this that gives him his superpowers. (It’s also the cause of his fatal flaw, for he is only vulnerable when he comes into contact with kryptonite–a really excellent piece of character development.)

You should also know the origin of your main character, even if she’s not a superhero. Why? Simply because it’s an important part of who she is, and it may affect her motivation, her speech, her way of dressing, and anything else you can think of. It’s a part of her psychology. You can think of her origin in terms of significant childhood events. Did she lose a parent while still a child? Were her parents fantastically wealthy, or maybe very poor? Did something happen to put her on a certain path in life?

Again, none of this stuff necessarily needs to be said outright in your story. It’s really for your own information. You can use it as background to decide how to portray your character. The more you know about her as a person, the stronger her development will be on the page. This is something your readers will enjoy, even if they don’t know you’re doing it.

4. Explore Aristotle’s rules of character development

In my article “How Aristotle Can Help You Become A Better Writer”, I explain how Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, had this to say about character development:

For a character to work, four aspects must be developed. First, she must be ‘good’, which means not that she is a nun or a Girl Scout, but that she possesses some innate, redeeming quality that wins the respect of your readers. Second, she must be ‘appropriate’–that is, her various qualities must make sense, based on her identity. For example, a serving girl should not live in a mansion, and a queen should not be washing dishes. The third quality is that she must be ‘believable’, or realistic; we have to believe that this person could exist, even though we know it’s a work of the imagination. The fourth quality is consistency–a character should not be stark raving mad on one page and utterly sane on the next.

Perhaps a better way to say ‘good’ is ‘empathetic’. That is, we should feel along with them as they go through their struggles.

So, to summarize, Aristotle advised us to make our characters empathetic, appropriate, believable, and consistent.

But what about characters who are clearly unbelievable? Nobody really believes that Superman exists, after all… and yet he’s one of the most famous characters in the world. That’s because he is believable according to the rules of the world he lives in, which is very much like ours, except it’s also populated with cartoonish, larger-than-life heroes and villains. People are totally willing to suspend their disbelief if you do a good job of convincing them of the rules of your world. So, we have to believe that your character could exist in the world that you are creating. We don’t have to believe they could live in our world, because after all, the desire to escape our world is one of the main reasons people read.

5. Pay careful attention to your dialogue.

Dialogue is its own art form, and I could (and probably will, eventually) write a whole post just on this topic.

Good dialogue seems to elude a lot of writers. Part of the problem is that we have all been steeped in visual media throughout our lives, and nearly all writers these days have a tendency to imitate the dialogue they hear from the screen. This isn’t a good idea. Screenwriting follows its own set of rules, and the characters we see in movies or TV tend to be overly dramatic much of the time. When I was a kid, I made a game of trying to guess what a TV or movie character would say next, and I felt great satisfaction when I got it right–not because I was trying to master dialogue at the time, but because I was trying to understand the world of grown-ups. I got good at it early. This doesn’t mean I’m some kind of dialogue genius. What it means is that TV and movie dialogue is often extremely predictable.

When writing dialogue, I try to adhere to the following principles:

  • Your goal in writing dialogue is not to make people sound like they do in daily life, with all the “Um” and “Ah”, the interrupted thoughts, the struggling to find the right word. It is instead to advance your story, so try to keep it to the point.
  • Keep most lines of dialogue short. Cut right to the heart of what people are trying to express… even if what they are expressing is uncertainty.
  • As with your other writing, omit needless words and fillers.
  • Each character should have a unique way of expressing himself or herself, but don’t overdo that. You don’t need to give everyone an accent or a lisp or a screech. How they speak will depend on their background, their origins, their level of education, their current mood, and many other factors… just like with real people.
  • Try to limit profanity. It tends to grate on the sensibilities of the average reader. I’m not saying don’t use it. I’m saying to use it for effect, rather than as a casual seasoning.
  • Dialogue should pop with energy. Energy comes from emotion. Each line of dialogue should be expressing some identifiable emotion or sentiment.

The role of dialogue is to advance character development and story. That’s it. Your characters can speak as much or as little as you want them to, but you should always try to limit their speech to things that need to be said. Don’t have them talk just for the sake of talking.

6. Learn how to write the opposite gender.

It would be funny if it weren’t so pathetic: most male writers are not very good at writing female characters. Instead, they tend to write female caricatures. This was recently the subject of a rather hilarious Twitter thread, which is described in this Guardian article.

Is the same true of women writers and male characters? I think that most women writers probably don’t understand men as well as they think they do. They often imbue them with too much confidence and not enough introspection. But their males on the page do tend to be less cartoonish and ridiculous, and to their credit, I’ve never seen a woman writer pen something like “His bulging crotch entered the room long before the rest of him.” If you’re a male writer, for God’s sake, don’t focus on a woman character’s sexual qualities. Think about them as people, not a collection of parts.

I will toot my own horn here: I get a lot of compliments from women readers on how I write women characters. They often want to know how I do it. The secret is simple: I view women as if they were people first, and women second. I do the same with men, too. I see gender as a layer on top of the essence of a person. We all want basically the same things: to be safe, to be loved, to be well fed, to accomplish our goals in life. This is what I believe to be at the core of people. But almost immediately, we encounter obstacles to these things, and sometimes those obstacles are gender-based, and so how we go about getting these things may be strongly influenced by our gender… not because of the limitations contained therein, but because of the expectations the world puts on us for who we are.

Writing gender well is an incredibly complicated topic. There is no way I can hope to do it justice here. However, there are a few don’t I can share with you:

  • Don’t assume that all members of a gender think the same, or will react the same to a given situation. They are individuals first, men or women second.
  • Don’t focus on the erogenous zones. Women do not go around thinking about their breasts all the time. Men are not constantly obsessed with what their penis is doing.
  • Men and women both feel insecurity and fear very often, even if they don’t act like it.
  • In general, don’t think about what makes your opposite-gender characters different. Think about what makes them similar.

You’ll notice my approach to gender here has been distinctly binary. I have to confess that I don’t really understand the concept of gender as a spectrum… at least, not physically. I can certainly understand it psychologically, but this is another rather huge topic that is beyond the purview of this post, and is also outside my realm of expertise. A study on how gender fluidity has the potential to affect modern fiction would be really interesting.

7. Keep twisting them little by little until they become unique.

One of the most annoying things about amateur writing to me is that characters tend to be right out of Central Casting. Again, I believe this is a byproduct of generations of exposure to crappy screenwriting. One of the best things you can do for your writing in general is to stop watching so much screen drama and start reading more.

After you’ve created a character in your first draft, once a little time has passed, try to see that person objectively and see how easy it is to typecast them. Everyone belongs to one type or another–the point is not to make them type-free. The point is to see if their type is something that has already been seen a thousand times. As just one example, let’s examine the worn trope of the old detective who’s just weeks away from retirement and gets handed one last case that’s going to end up defining his career. This has been overdone for decades, but that doesn’t mean you need to completely scrap the detective. It means you need to keep spinning him and adding or removing details until he’s really something unusual… such as he’s a paraplegic, or he’s planning to commit suicide but gets sidetracked by his desire to help someone, or he has a fondness for racing stock cars, or he runs a frozen yogurt stand in his spare time, or… something that really sets him apart from every other detective we’ve ever seen.

8. Avoid extremes.

A common tendency among amateur writers is to create characters that are far to one end of a spectrum: either very, very good, or very, very bad, or unbelievably attractive, or horrifyingly ugly, et cetera. If your characters are to strike your readers as real people, you should avoid setting them up this way. People are always a mix of traits. The proportions are always unequal, but very rarely do they slide all the way to one end or the other. Of course, some stories do rely on a character that is extreme. For example, a thriller like Silence of the Lambs introduced us to Hannibal Lecter, a character so chilling that he’s been the subject of spin-off TV shows and further movies. Hannibal, who is a cold-blooded killer and cannibal, is interesting to us not because of his extremes, but because of those parts of his personality that balance him out: his cultured air, his erudition, his love of fine wine and classical music. This makes him far more interesting than if his creator had gone whole hog and made him a gibbering lunatic who lived in a cave and crawled out at night to steal children from their beds. So, if your character does possess some extreme trait, balance it out with other traits that make him or her more human to us.

9. Don’t try to make them perfect people. Remember their human flaws.

This is similar to the point discussed above. Your characters will not be perfect–if they were, they would be horribly boring to read about. So, what are their imperfections? You should spend as much time thinking about this as you do their other qualities. It could be something as simple as a bad habit, like smoking. It could be that they harbor a prejudice against a certain type or group. They might be prone to lying in bed for days at a time, eating chocolate. Give them a distinctive flaw that we can relate to. We will like them for it all the more.

10. Remember that your characters need to change over the course of a story.

The single most important aspect of character development is the second word: development. It’s not character portraiture, where a person is depicted in two flat dimensions and remains that way, unchanging, for centuries. They must develop. The word development also implies a kind of maturation, a certain amount of growth in response to events. It doesn’t simply mean a change. Development often means improvement. So, another way to think about this is–how does your character improve over the course of a story?

What does improve mean in this context? It could mean to deepen their perspective, to learn something new about themselves, to come to a greater appreciation of how they fit in the world, to learn to help other people instead of thinking only about themselves, to replace hatred with love, to replace ignorance with knowledge, to transform negativity into positivity.

There needs to be a reason you are telling us this story about this particular point in a character’s life. That reason most probably has to do with the fact that they are undergoing a transformative experience of one sort or another–that’s a very broad description, but in general it holds true. (After all, you wouldn’t bother writing a whole book about a week in the life of someone when absolutely nothing happens, would you?)

People react to different situations differently, and every story is different, so it’s not possible to say how a character should develop. In general, however, reading audiences really like it when a character manages to redeem themselves, or discovers the ability within themselves to overcome a great personal struggle, or when they learn something new about themselves.

So, as you are writing and re-writing your story, keep this question in the back of your mind: how are the events I’m describing going to change the characters I’m writing about? The answer to that question will be immeasurably helpful to you in your quest for character development.

You might be interested in these shorter pieces I’ve written on character development:
Understanding Character Development
More on Character Development
Three excellent methods of character development in HBO’s “The Night Of”