Character, or the embodiment of someone’s being, is what draws people together. We find likeness in others, and thus we relate to their situations, actions, decisions, etc. Character development, in writing, entails the creation of multi-faceted, multi-dimensional, likeable, relatable characters so that your reader walks through your story in the shoes of someone they feel they know. That connection between character and reader is critical to sharing a compelling story.
Take in the picture above. The young woman exudes personality—layers of character. Each one of those elements makes her. . .distinctly her. More than her physical features, you as the author and creator of characters can imbue any number of personality traits. She has passion. She’s youthful and creative yet a little shy. With her close friends, she exposes her devilish streak. She knows love. The more layers you add, the more well-rounded your character becomes. An added benefit is when certain characteristics seem to clash, which develops a very real dramatic component as well.
For example, I am a shy, reserved person, but I can be fiercely protective of those closest to my heart. The plot line may follow my mousy persona for a while, and then an action point draws out my bolder side, creating an unexpected plot twist and another believable dimension to myself. Readers will be drawn to that hidden spunk because they either have it already or wish they did. Successful character development would capture all the various facets of my person in a cohesive way as I embark on a journey to exemplify those very parts of myself.
Break Down Your Characters
So how do you develop characters? Your main characters should display growth as they pass through their character arcs. Whether you outline first or simply let your story unfold as you write, you should develop each major character. Consider a rough sketch of them. The obvious is: are they male or female? What physical characteristics do they have? How old are they? What is their family dynamic like? Interests, personality traits, and trends of behavior slowly follow as you bring this character to life.
Some writers prefer to start with the ending; it’s easier to know the journey if you identify the end state. The character arc is very important to character development because there should be a crescendo of personal growth and/or change in your main character(s) to enliven the narrative. It is precisely this arc that exposes a character’s true nature, and readers are inherently curious about that nature—how will people react when presented with certain changing circumstances? This question rests at the center of suspense.
In addition to physical characteristics and quirks of personality, your characters should have expressed or known goals and motivations that drive them to the ending. Your reader should buy in to those goals and cheer for the character along his or her journey. Dedicated readers often live vicariously through the best characters, and we more easily support a courageous nobody on his or her journey to greatness with no risk to ourselves.
The inherent element to your narratives, then, must be some obstacle or challenge that the character(s) face and overcome. Perhaps they don’t always win the war or slay the dragon, but there can be a subsidiary challenge or mental hurdle that they endure along the way, ensuring a kind of success notwithstanding.
Character development is key to great writing because otherwise your reader won’t relate to your characters and, thus, stop reading. The various layers to each character also open the possibilities to reveal hidden secrets or facets; new information can build suspense or sympathy for an otherwise unlikeable character.
Here are some examples of elements of character development. Let’s dive a little deeper into the young woman pictured at the beginning of this post…
- Maybe she has a small tattoo on her lower abdomen that peaks out when she stretches up to reach books on high shelves in the library. BAM, the reader immediately knows a secret (her mostly hidden tattoo) and her love of books.
- Maybe her love of books is so intense she works there too. This is a great relatable job, especially for readers!
- Maybe she works in the library while she’s going to school as a photography student because we already know she’s creative, right? Pictures from her rooftop deck would be pretty epic.
- Or maybe the photographer is her boyfriend, also going to school, at NYU (readers love concrete details), he brings her lunch at the library during her break, and they read poems together. Too much? Ok, fine. But he could still attend NYU and bring her lunches.
- Maybe she moved to New York, wants to be a photographer, and follow her passions because a good friend of hers died young, and she wants to seize every day. We’re getting a little deeper here, but that’s good. It’s personal. You want to facilitate that relationship between your reader and character with emotional strings.
- Maybe that friend died by a drunk driver, so she uses her photography to expose the dangers and realities of alcoholism and driving while drunk. Her activism gives her a voice that she otherwise quiets because she’s shy.
How did I do? could you read a story about—she needs a name, let’s say—Amber? You see, though, that I teased her out with minute details and simply built on her personal relationships and motivations until I created a compelling character with desires and situations that draw out those innermost characteristics.
The Bottom Line
Ever read a story that you just couldn’t stop reading? Every flip of the page brought you closer to each character and each mystery solved. The strength of a reader’s investment in a story is due to the strength of the characters. The character serves as the lens through which your story is told, and if readers can’t relate to that voice, tone, or persona due to a lackluster depth of character development, then the story, no matter how compelling, falls flat. Reading becomes work.
Well-relatable characters can also inspire people to act in real life. People of all races, genders, sexualities, and sensibilities believe in the indelible power of the human spirit. We never tire of learning about new characters, new journeys, and new insights into someone’s mental and physical perseverance.
For an interesting article with tips and tricks on character development, see the Writer’s Digest article “9 Ingredients of Character Development.” It provides some tips and tricks to consider when developing your characters so they seem well thought out and human enough to compel the empathy of any reader.