Character Development: An Introduction

A writer's reflection on where to begin when creating realistic fictional characters.
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Created by kpatterson

Published on Feb 9, 2024
person sitting and sketching in a notebook
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Character development might seem like a challenge, but there are a handful of ways to plan your characters. Human beings are complex in real life, and you should emulate this in your fictional world, making sure that they’re believable and relatable for your reader. After all, you don’t want your dialogue to sound robotic or their personalities to seem unnatural. I’ve found that characters truly make a story wonderful, and in order for your readers to ship them together or connect with them emotionally, they need to feel like their best mates. How should you go about crafting a perfectly flawed little being?

Begin by drawing a picture of them. You could annotate your sketch with small details that come to mind about that character. This was very helpful with my most recent work in progress as I wrote about young people with quite an unconventional look, and needed to visualise their features and clothes exactly. If you’re writing a fantasy or dystopian novel, they might have elf ears or fiery hair, making them quirky. You might add a setting to the background of your drawing, helping you to see their favourite place or a significant location. 

If you’re not a natural artist, try creating a photo collection. On apps such as Pinterest you can find pictures for inspiration and put them all together. You could save photographs that remind you of their distinct features, general aesthetic or hobbies. This allows you to have an entire digital showcase of every element of your characters, letting you catch a glimpse of what your reader sees. This has worked for every novel that I’ve written so far, and I’ve printed out and stuck photos to scrapbooks for different parts of every book. Adding notes to your physical or online boards can bring your story to life. 

Start with a character profile. These are surprisingly fun to make! Or that could be my plotting-loving brain. Work out their full name, age and date of birth, parents and all the technical details first. Add their hobbies, interests and especially their goal in the story. Remember, there is a difference between what your characters want and what they need. They might want to be the ruler of the land but need to be severely humbled. After you’ve worked these out, try adding intricate details that will make them stand out. 

Asking questions about your characters can give them psychological depth and help you to understand them. Online you can find templates with good suggestions to ask your people. Imagine that you’re sitting down with them in an intense interview like an avid journalist. One of my favourite planning activities has been asking my characters the same questions twice with different reactions. For example, I imagine I ask them around twenty questions the first time (“Who’s your best friend?”/ “What’s your darkest secret?” / “Do you like your family?”) and record how they would instinctively answer. I then use the same questions in my head a second time and write their answers if they were being totally honest. In real life, people rarely say what they absolutely mean. People lie to save their reputation, sometimes they aren’t being truthful with themselves or are too nervous to admit their genuine opinions. What would your characters say if they were fully transparent?

Figure out their emotional journey. Every character generally undergoes some sort of development for the better or worse. This will be an obvious change of heart in your protagonist, but for the side characters, it might be a smaller shift in their personality or beliefs. You can ask yourself a few questions about these characters: where they begin, what their turning point will be, and how they end up. An interesting part of stories is that they don’t need to become perfect! Perhaps the ultimate twist will be your protagonist gaining a deadly instinct. Just make sure that this change is relevant to your plot. 

Once you’ve given them motivation and lovely little personalities, you might have to crush their happiness. Characters need flaws. For your antagonists, they might be overflowing with evil and have an ounce of good in them. Altruistic characters still require negative traits because nobody is squeaky clean. A few examples could be: a liar, selfish, easily annoyed, cruel to new people, violent. Let them feel like existing human beings. These traits will likely lead to consequences and therefore the protagonist experiencing growth. Contrary to popular belief, authors don’t always enjoy ruining their character’s lives. Sometimes they have to face reality though, much like the average person does. Sorry!

When your characters are developed, they feel incredibly real and like you’ve known them all your life. They honestly feel like your babies and best mates in one (fictional) person. Your reader will be able to connect with a relatable character a lot more, and that will only increase the impact of crushing their hearts when something bad happens to that character. Question and character profile templates should be available online, but you can always make a set that is relevant to your story. What are you waiting for? Get planning!

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