Writing Tips for Character Development

Written by MasterClass

Dec 21, 2018 • 7 min read

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James Patterson Teaches Writing

Character and event are inseparable, because a person is what happens to them. A novel is a character interacting with events over time. Fictional characters—like real people—have hobbies, pets, histories, ruminations, and obsessions.


What Is Character Development?

To develop your characters, you have to learn about them by observing how they interact with the world around them.

Why Is Character Development Important?

It’s essential to your novel that you understand all aspects of your characters so that you are equipped to understand how they may react under the pressures of events they encounter.

How Does Character Development Affect Story?

Your main character’s goal sets the stakes in your story. It doesn’t matter what the stakes are—they just have to matter to your protagonist. He or she doesn’t have to save the world— perhaps he saves his own family from an eviction, or he fights to keep his business from going bankrupt. Your job is to establish what’s important to your character—ideally, something that your audience can relate to—and help the reader imagine what might happen if he or she loses that important thing.

How to Develop Different Types of Characters

Stories have different kinds of characters. The main character is called the “protagonist.” Every story has one. Some stories have a bad guy, who is called the “villain” or (in more literary terms) the “antagonist.” Secondary characters round out the story and help the reader understand the main characters in deeper way way.

Some specific things you might want to keep in mind when developing each type of character:

1) Protagonist:

  • Give them flaws. Protagonists or heroes don’t have to be perfect specimens of humanity. In fact, those protagonists tend to be boring. Great characters emerge from the trials they encounter, and they must have flaws, so that they are two-dimensional.
  • Give them an arc. A good character undergoes some sort of change over the course of the story. That change is called the character arc. You can also choose to create a main character who doesn’t change, but that decision should be intentional.

2) Villain:

  • Give them morality: The villain’s motivations will create the crisis for your protagonist. In order to be a dynamic character, every villain needs to have his own morality. If a villain spends part of the novel killing people, you need to give him or her believable reasons for doing so. Make the reader understand exactly what desperation or belief has driven him to it.

3) Secondary Characters:

  • Make them complementary: Secondary characters serve the vital functions of assisting the protagonist with alternate skill sets, giving them a sounding board or emotional support, getting themselves into trouble so that the protagonist must help them, and even providing comic relief.
  • Or, make them oppositional: Some of the best sidekicks in literature are oppositional and will even undermine the protagonist. Think of Dr. Watson chastising Sherlock Holmes for his drug use. Giving secondary characters opposing points of view allows you to explore your subjects, settings, and moral gray areas from a wider variety of perspectives, which sustains complexity and keeps the reader interested.

How to Write a Good Character

Characters, like people, are imperfect. They don’t need to be likeable, but they must be interesting.

1) Develop characters who reflect your interests.

You’re going to be spending a lot of time with them, so the rule “write what you want to know”—applies to characters as well. Don’t be afraid to invest your protagonist with familiar qualities, but prioritize your passions and make sure that your main characters emerge from the setting and topics you’ve developed so far.

2) Reveal their physical world through detail.

Different writers focus on different details to evoke character, whether deliberately or not. Balzac focused on his characters’ physical appearance. Dashiell Hammett never fed his characters, while Charles Dickens fed his extravagantly. Some writers are interested in revealing character via clothing, as Flaubert did, while others attend to furniture. Whatever details you choose, it’s important for you to know your characters' physical world intimately, and how they relate to it.

3) Give them the right skills.

Your characters should have skills that will allow them to function in your setting. You’ve chosen to set your novel on the moon? Then make sure your character has a space suit or learns how to use one.

4) Create memorable characters.

When creating important characters that the reader is going to meet more than once, be sure that they’re memorable in some way. Try to give each one a quality that can be used later to help readers recall who they are. This could be a title like “chief of police” or a physical attribute like “ginger-haired.”

5) Give access to their inner conflict.

One way to create intimacy with your reader—and to get them to care about your main character—is to use internal monologue. This means letting the reader see a character’s thoughts as they happen, which exposes that person’s inner conflict, motivations, opinions, and personality. Internal monologue not only reveals character, it’s a neat way to convey information about your setting, events, and other characters.

6) Subvert your reader’s expectations.

The most interesting characters will surprise your readers. Think about it: We don’t have to pay attention to things that are stable. But when something unexpected happens—the wolf comes out of the woods—we pay attention. We remain alert.

3 Writing Exercises for Character Development

1) Fill out a questionnaire.

Use these questions to develop your characters, and learn how they behave. If you’re working on a novel, you can use this questionnaire with your protagonist or any secondary character to learn more about their present state, enrich their backstory, and add to their repertoire of unique gestures and habits.

  • What is your character’s name?
  • What is their gender (at the moment)?
  • When is their birthday? What is their age at the
  • beginning of the novel?
  • What do they look like?
  • What is their general disposition? Are they frowny? Or are they smiley?
  • Where do they live?
  • What do they eat?
  • How do they dress?
  • Do they dress to impress?
  • Do they dress in a way that is appropriate for their age, or do they dress to look younger or older than they are?
  • What major experiences have they had in their lives?
  • Have they had any traumatic experiences?
  • Did they have a bad childhood?
  • Or did they have a good childhood suddenly destroyed by a traumatic event?
  • What are their ruminations?
  • Do they have any obsessions?
  • Are they in love?
  • Do they have any pets?
  • Do they have any medical conditions?
  • What do they like to do in their spare time? (Do they have any spare time?)
  • What are their friends like?
  • What are their hobbies?
  • What they are most embarrassed by?
  • Where they went on their first date? (And with whom?)

2) Write a one-pager.

Choose one of your characters and write a one-page description of them. Use the following tips to flesh out your description:

  • Instead of writing a plain, physical description, try viewing the character through a creative lens. For example, does she have a nickname? What did she do to earn it? Does it refer to her appearance? Her attitude? How does she feel about it?
  • Choose one event from your character’s past and elaborate on that. For example, your hero has a back injury from an accident while he was in the navy. Does he move differently now? Do people treat him differently? What are the psychological repercussions of the accident?
  • Choose one of your main character’s personality traits and list the ways that it’s expressed. If your sidekick is nervous, he might bounce his knee when he’s sitting, pluck at his sleeves, or startle easily.
  • What space has your character created for themselves? This can be offstage: a bedroom, an expensive car with all the right gadgets, the perfectly-stocked kitchen, a private office. Describe your character in that space.

3) Write an interior monologue.
Go to a public place where you can observe other people. Choose one person and imagine a few character details for them. What’s their name? What mood are they in? Why are they there? Write a one-page, interior monologue for them that reveals what they’re thinking.

Use first person, even if you typically write in third person. Show their thoughts, but also show the world around them and how they interact with that world. Try to develop an inner monologue that is at odds with the world around them or with the way they appear to be.