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Writing

How to Develop Fictional Characters: 8 Tips for Character Development

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

In any good novel, a writer creates fictional characters by giving them goals, throwing obstacles in their way, and creating conflict. Writers connect a reader to a story by making characters relatable. Character development is one of the literary terms writers hear a lot, but it’s an essential element of fiction writing, and a hook into the narrative arc of a story.

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What Is Character Development and Why Is It Important?

In literature, character development is the craft of giving a character a personality, depth, and motivations that propel them through a story. Character development is also defined as how a character evolves throughout the course of a story.

Believable characters are unique and three-dimensional. Each has real attributes, like appearance, personality, and a backstory, that make them relatable. A character’s motivations inform their actions and decisions, creating the narrative arc in the story.

8 Tips for Character Development

When writing a work of fiction, from a thriller to a romance novel, prepare to spend a lot of time fleshing out the details of who the characters are, inside and out. Your goal is to create memorable characters by employing literary devices and writing techniques. Follow these character development tips when you sit down to write:

  1. Establish a character’s motivations and goals. Think of Harry Potter’s quest to defeat Lord Voldemort, fueled by his parents’ murders. Great characters are driven by a deep-seated motivation and have a goal they are trying to reach. This creates interesting characters and also creates a story arc. The main character’s driving force should be one of the first story elements you figure out, since the subsequent action will be driven by this motivation.
  2. Choose a voice. Who will be telling the story? First person point of view allows a character, usually the main character, to narrate the story using the pronouns “I” and “me.” Third person point of view is a voice that is outside of the action. The perspective of the narrator will determine how a character’s information is revealed over the course of the story. Learn more about point of view in our complete guide here.
  3. Do a slow reveal. Refrain from revealing too much the first time you introduce a character. Reveal information bit by bit as you tell the story—not unlike the way people get to know one another in real life.
  4. Create conflict. Conflict is a literary device that pits opposing forces against one another, most often involving the main character. There are different kinds of conflicts that will impact your character’s decisions. For example, if you have strong characters, test their resolve by putting them against something that reveals their weaknesses. A conflict can be external—create a bad guy to go up against a good character. A character can also have an internal struggle when they have to act against their morals or grapple with opposing beliefs. Conflict creates tension and is used to move a story forward by forcing characters to make decisions.
  5. Give important characters a backstory. We all have a backstory, and your fictional characters each need one, too. Dig into your characters’ lives and flesh out their histories. Even if most of it won’t make it onto the page, a character’s backstory will help you figure out what makes them tick and will inform their decisions in the story.
  6. Describe a character’s personality in familiar terms. To create believable characters, create a personality for your main and secondary characters based on characteristics of real people—that will help you create a multi-dimensional, round character with recognizable personality traits and quirks.
  7. Paint a physical picture of your characters. Describe your character’s physical appearance: hair color, eyes, stature. What are their mannerisms? What is their body language like? Describe them to help readers envision a more realistic image of your character.
  8. Develop secondary characters. Create different types of characters that contrast with one another. A sidekick (think Watson to Sherlock Holmes) or a foil (Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter books) can illuminate the main character’s traits, strengths, or flaws. If you create a static character—a flat character arc that does not evolve much—contrast them with a dynamic character, one who undergoes a metamorphosis throughout the story.
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