Character Development: A Guide On How To Develop Excellent Characters

Character development is crucial in writing if you want your readers to connect to the story. To develop characters well, you have to make them believable. Good character development, especially of your main characters, can be what takes your novel or short story from okay to fantastic.

Writers need to create characters and then develop them so that the reader will believe that the characters could exist as real people. Everything from their personality to the way you describe them will give most people an idea of whether or not you are any good at creating relatable characters.

This article will provide you with tips, suggestions, and guidelines on how character development works, making your character interesting, and reaching your audience by writing good characters.

The Main Character

The main character, also known as the protagonist, is typically the hero of your story. The main characters are the most important characters to develop fully because the reader is only engaged in the story to discover what happens to them and how the plot affects them.

Engage the Reader

If you don’t know enough about the main character, you don’t care what happens to them or understand why the plot affects them. The main character usually needs a backstory, a physical appearance that is told to the reader in enough detail to picture them, and issues and strengths that will keep their reactions to the plot interesting. Remember that there is no such thing as a perfect person; therefore, there should be no perfect characters in your writing.

You can create character development by giving your character obstacles to overcome and making your protagonist struggle to grow as a person. You can force your characters to fail in some ways throughout your novel or book.

Make Your Reader Care About the Protagonist

Character development occurs when you start with nothing but a name and a short description and turn that person into a well-rounded player in the plot you have created. Real people fail. Real people lie. Real people cheat. Real people curse. Keeping the characters as close to life-like as possible, no matter what genre you write, will aid in your mission of good character development and help your readers grow emotionally attached to them.

Don’t Make The Main Character Perfect

Believable characters have flaws. No one is perfect, and quite frankly, perfect is very dull. Very few people want to read a book about a physically flawless protagonist, who has no issues, internal conflicts, and always reacts calmly and appropriately, no matter the situation. Even Superman, portrayed as a perfect character with no physical flaws or lapses in judgment, had a weakness.

character development

Flaws Trump Perfection

Superman was given kryptonite as a weakness because no one wants to read about a character who always does the right thing, will win every fight, and always gets the girl. Superman saves everyone, whether they deserve redemption and salvation or not. He does only what is just, never falters in the face of danger, and has the support of a loving family who accepts him as he is. The creators of Superman had to give him a weakness so that things didn’t get boring almost immediately. Still, Superman is the one superhero that some people love to hate.

On the other hand, Batman is a far better character in terms of character development because he’s got flaws aplenty. He witnessed the murder of his wealthy parents, was raised by a butler in a large, dark mansion, and has nothing but a need for vengeance and money to turn him into the anti-hero that is Batman.

He’s just a regular guy who can be killed by a bullet, a knife, a fist, or any other thing that could cause bodily harm or death to a person. He is fueled by broody anger, and he facilitates his mission with family money. While Superman is perfectly loyal to Lois Lane, Bruce Wayne (Batman) can’t maintain a relationship and breaks the hearts of several ladies when he refuses to commit.

Flaws are Necessary to Good Character Development

A well-developed character has flaws. Fictional characters need to seem realistic enough to relate to them and for readers to see themselves in them. How a character responds to the world around them, how a character looks, the character’s history, external conflicts, and internal conflicts are all ways to flaw a protagonist to make them more realistic and relatable.

Mark Twain made his well-known and loved character Huckleberry Finn incredibly flawed. He was a liar, a thief, and unliked by many. His personality was flawed, but he seemed like a realistic character because real people have flaws. No one is honest all of the time. All people do what they can (within reason) to get ahead, survive, and thrive.

Twain’s writing of this character showed the reader that they could both relate to Finn and love him because he mimics the flaws you see in the real world. When writers can create these flawed but loveable characters, they create a parallel to the reality that draws readers in.

Character Arc is Crucial

When the main character changes in some way in the story, it’s called a character arc. For example, Harry Potter goes from being a neglected and ignored boy living under the stairs of his aunt and uncle’s house to being introduced to the wizarding world and discovering that he’s a celebrity. He goes from wearing old hand-me-down clothes and no possessions of his own to having a tremendous amount of money in a bank account in this strange new world he’s introduced to.

He makes friends, and he learns that he is the person the evilest wizard in existence is after, and by the end of the story, he has learned that friends and happiness matter more than anything else. He has developed confidence. He goes back to his aunt and uncle’s house at the end of the book, seeing himself differently.

The changes he goes through qualify as his overall character arc. A protagonist without a character arc is an option, but it needs to be intentional. When a protagonist does not have a character arc, they qualify as a static character. While it is possible to have interesting characters with no character arc, it’s often difficult to manage.

Unlike Harry Potter, who experiences a lot of change and adapts to it fairly quickly, Roland Deschain in The Dark Tower series is more of a static protagonist from most of the seven-book series.

In The Dark Tower series, Roland is a gunslinger who was trained as a child not to have emotional connections to people or things and to focus strictly on the mission at hand. Due to this, the character’s development is more external than internal. His personality and attitude don’t change until he meets other characters and has to accommodate them so they go along with the mission.

Readers discover early on that there is no room for development due to the character’s past because he is focused only on his mission. This series causes the reader to rely on the other main and secondary characters to supply the character arc missing from Roland.

Sometimes a drastic character arc is the entire point of the story. In Charles Dickens’s classic novel A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge goes from being a terrible person who only caters to his own greed to a giving character who understands the need to take new directions in life.

In this novel, he is visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve. Each of them gives him multiple examples of the life he has led, his greedy existence, and the awful situation he is creating not just for himself but for his only employee. He changes significantly at the end of the story and realizes that the world he has created for himself is one he no longer wants to live in.

Give the Main Character Strengths

When you go about the character development of the protagonist, make sure to give this character strengths. Harry Potter had faith in his friends, intense love for his parents, and a need to know his history. All of those qualities came together to give us a well-rounded character who would gladly put his own life on the line for the sake of his friends.

When a character’s strengths are evident, the readers feel as though they can deal with the plot or conflict of the story in a realistic way. Great characters can rise to the occasion when conflict arises because of their inner strengths, just like in real life.

Strong Characters Lend Hope to Readers

Strong characters give a reader hope. We can see examples of ourselves through these characters, and we can develop our own sense of strength. Scrooge proves to us that you can change your personality to one that is more kind and loving. In comparison, Harry Potter proves that you can rise above your background and become a hero. Roland Deschain demonstrates that you can develop relationships with secondary characters in life and not lose focus on your objective.

Describe The Character’s Appearance Realistically

Character development won’t have much impact on the reader if they can’t picture the character in the first place. While even the most well-described character will still look different to each person reading your novel, as a writer, you must explain the appearance of your characters so that the reader sees the people you create in much the same way that you do.

Physical Appearance Can Play into the Plot

Suppose we didn’t have a physical description of Quasimodo. In that case, the story quickly turns into a weird story about an unpopular average Joe who lives in a belfry and obsesses over a pretty girl. His physical setbacks give us reason to understand why his life is the way it is. He is a person who has been hiding for most of his life due to his appearance. Because the writer tells us what he looks like, the story makes a lot more sense.

Wicked by Gregory Maguire plays off the characters’ appearances to emote sympathy from readers, all while making their appearances a way to develop their characters and set them apart. The writing wouldn’t have as much impact if the writer had never told that Elphaba is green. Furthermore, it isn’t just one character who looks vastly different from what we’re used to. Her lover is blue. When characters with these features are created, when most other characters look just like you or me, it makes them stick out in the reader’s mind.

Keep It Real

Your protagonist doesn’t have to be gorgeous and shouldn’t be physically perfect. Characters should mimic real people, and there isn’t anyone in real life who has attained physical perfection. Christian Grey in 50 Shades of Grey by EL James has a gorgeous face and a muscular physique, but he’s also covered in scars and old cigarette burns.

In contrast, your antagonist or villain shouldn’t be downright hideous. Bad people, in reality, look like all sorts of different people. This character should be no different. In Doctor Sleep by Stephen King, Rose the Hat is a child murderer who is actively hunting the protagonist to kill her slowly and torture her in the process.

physical appearance

While it would have been easy to make this woman the old hag you see so often in fairy tales, King chose to write her as a beautiful woman who is kind to those she loves and very physically attractive. Beautiful people can be terrible characters, and ugly characters can save the day.

Develop Conflict

A few things work to establish character development, like throwing an obstacle or conflict at the characters. If you have reached a point in your novel or book and realize that there has been no real character arc, introduce conflict and make the characters work through it.

There are many ways to introduce conflict in your novel that will assist you in the goal of developing characters.

Internal Conflict

Internal conflict is when we can witness how the characters feel about issues or situations in the plot. As real people, we experience internal conflict all the time. Reading about a character who is going through something emotional or psychological at the same time can be a very healthy and therapeutic thing for a reader.

Characters grow when they get through their internal conflicts, and as readers, we often find ourselves within those struggles, and we cheer for the character. If the characters get through the conflict, it gives us reason to think that we can.

Inner conflict is key to nearly all great characters. For example, Joe Goldberg in You by Caroline Kepnes narrates his own internal conflicts, and there are a lot of them throughout the novel. Kepnes was able to create a character that readers could love and hate all at the same time. Readers witness Joe’s development through the many examples of his inner turmoil and thought processes.

He grapples with things internally, like how he can justify murder, obsession, stalking, and other awful behavior that he engages in. His justifications make readers of the novel wonder about his cloudy background and whether mental illness plays a role. We develop more interest in Joe because he is well developed, and we witness his life not just through his actions but also through his thoughts.

External Conflict

Creating external conflict is one of the easier things to do when writing fiction. You simply develop a situation using external elements and force the character to deal with that conflict. For example, in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, there are a lot of external conflicts.

Such as when the Mermaids nearly drown Wendy, the children are in an unfamiliar setting and everything from how the lost boys in the story play to how Peter Pan is constantly creating new rules that the children must follow presents conflict after conflict. This aids in showing their character development. They either fold under the pressures, or they can adapt and rise above it.

In Lord of the Flies by William Golding, children are thrown into a situation that none are prepared for. The characters have to fight for dominance, food, shelter, and the necessities to maintain life, and they’re only children. Fighting and murder between the characters themselves become an issue, and while this example shows extreme external conflict, it aids enormously in character development for each of the several characters.

Secondary Characters

Secondary characters also require character development. When you write a story and plan how to develop characters, it’s not enough to stop at the good and bad guys.

character development

Imagine how different the story would be for the reader if Rowling had given Harry Potter and Voldemort character development and left all of the other characters static in the Harry Potter series. Rowling understood that she had to develop characters outside of the main ones to have a well-rounded story. The character development of these secondary characters is vital to the plot’s development.

Longbottom as an Unlikely Hero

Throughout the novel series, Rowling creates character development for many characters who don’t play a vital role in the central plot. One example is Neville Longbottom, a bullied child who is overweight and teased by almost everyone at Hogwarts. He is clumsy, he’s awkward, and he has virtually no social skills.

While his development could have slowed or even stopped there, Rowling took the time to develop this secondary player in the story. Throughout the story, we see Longbottom grow more and more comfortable with who he is. He develops courage and loyalty, and even though his development seems largely unimportant, he ends up an unlikely hero in the last book.

Had Rowling not taken the time to write a background and conflict and description of this character that showcased his development, it would have seemed very odd that he would emerge at the end to save the day. Bad character development of Longbottom would have left the reader feeling as though Rowling just threw him in at the end as an afterthought and didn’t care much about the book’s outcome, which in turn, makes the reader care less about the outcome.

Character Profile Questions

Here are some character profile questions that will guide you in developing your characters for your next story:

  • What is your character’s complete name?
  • Does their name have a backstory?
  • How do they appear outwardly?
  • Who are their family members or relatives?
  • What is their career? Are they happy with it?
  • Who is their best friend? Why do they click?
  • Who does your character love the most?
  • Where do they live or grow up? Is their environment peaceful or chaotic?
  • What is their way of living? Do they adhere to the rules or break them?
  • What are their favorites? Are their choices consistent with their personalities?
  • What are their insecurities or flaws?
  • What do they assume to be true but is false in the story?
  • What makes them happy?
  • Do they advocate for something?
  • How do they unwind?
  • How do they interact with other characters?
  • What do they hate? Are they triggered when they see anything?
  • How do they present themselves through dressing and any other accessories?
  • What is their secret? What childhood memory shaped them that they kept confidential?
  • What are their life goals? What are the steps they do to achieve these?
  • What are their good and bad habits? How do these habits impact their belief system?
  • What are their fears? What are the things they overthink about constantly?

Character Development Creates Realism

You could walk past Christian Grey from 50 Shades of Grey on a sidewalk, and it would be a believable event. He’s a man created by the author to be wealthy, well dressed, a bit arrogant, and attractive. If you spoke to him, he’d most likely be smooth because his career encompasses talking to and dealing with all sorts of different people. If he took you home to meet his parents, you could probably draw a few parallels from them to your own parents in their personalities and mannerisms.

While the tortoise and the hare from the classic fable aren’t people, they possess character traits of real people. If you gave these characters human bodies, you could believe that they were real people. The tortoise is slow and methodical with his work and in reaching his goals, while the hare rushes through everything in life, hoping to get finished first so that he can relax.

When you take all of the tips given in this article, combined with some of your own thoughts for a well-developed character, you end up with characters in a novel that you could almost pluck off the pages and drop into reality. 

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