Image: Matthew Loffhagen
We’re constantly updating our articles to bring you the best advice on writing, editing, publishing, and marketing your book. This article was originally published on May 3rd, 2013, and has been expanded by Robert Wood.
The first thing to say about character development is that there is no quick and dirty way to breathe life into your characters.
Your characters are people with their own set of complexities, their own opinions, and their own personalities. You need to take time to nurture their growth, development, and relationships.
It has been suggested that character development is a skill that cannot be taught. Well, I’m here to give that idea a resounding thumbs down and to show you some useful techniques to help you along your way.
1. Research is king
I can’t emphasize this point enough, so I decided to put it at the top of the list.
Research is one of your earliest and most crucial steps in the process of character development. Research equips you with the insight and knowledge to give your characters believable features and traits. It adds legitimacy to your novel and shows your readers you care enough about your characters to properly develop them. This will earn you respect as an author and will pave the way for a loyal readership.
Let’s say you are writing a novel about a teenager dealing with a heroin addiction. You would probably start by researching heroin addiction online, which is fair enough, but it is vital that you don’t leave it at that. To develop your character effectively, you need to understand their reason for being addicted, their routines, and perhaps how this is affecting their family. Although you can get some of this information online, reading about it will only take you so far. To truly get an understanding of people dealing with an addiction, why not interview someone who has been through a similar struggle? It’s easier to find willing interviewees than you may think.
This process of gathering information will give you a deeper understanding of who your character is and how they interpret and react to the world around them.
For more insight into researching your character development, I recommend the following articles:
- How To Consult Experts When Researching Your Book
- Learn How To Research Your Book With This Beginner’s Guide
- Your Research Can’t Stop With The Internet – Here’s Where To Go
2. Take it easy
When first introducing your character, be careful not to fall into the trap of relaying too much detail too soon. Many writers start by giving their readers a detailed summary of their characters before moving on with their story (sometimes called a ‘character sketch’), but this is a big no-no.
Less is more when introducing a new character. You want to drip-feed your reader enough information to whet their appetite and to kick-start their imaginations. For example, when you read this sentence, what do you see?
The Dalmatian chased after the birds in the garden.
Can you see the Dalmatian running after the birds? Can you hear the birds squawking as they fly out of his reach? I thought so.
In this very simple example, I have kept the detail and description to a minimum. I am giving you as the reader the chance to use your imagination and to fill in the finer details. You would have surmised that the dog looked like most Dalmatians and the birds were minding their own business when the dog decided to chase after them. I didn’t need to tell you what kind of birds they were because that makes no difference to the story at all.
If this description was part of a larger story, your focus would not shift from the flow of the plot. Now, let’s try the same example again but with a bit more detail:
A large dog with black spots and a white body, jumped up and ran across the garden barking. His blue nylon collar slid back and forth on his muscular neck and his ears flapped heavily against his head as he hurtled towards the crows sitting on the blueberry bush.
Too much detail, right? In this case, I have told you what to imagine and how to imagine it. I didn’t trust you enough to allow you to picture it yourself, so I explained every detail for you. This is a great way to remind your readers that you are a writer hard at work, and it’s a one-way ticket for your book to end up in the trash.
Too much detail is dangerous as it also interrupts the flow of your story. If you place the second description into a larger story, your readers would lose focus on the plot because they would need to stop and think about what you were saying. This kind of disruption will aggravate your readers, which you really don’t want to do. Trust and respect your readers enough to allow them to use their imaginations when introducing a new character. They will appreciate it.
For more insight into introducing your character, I recommend the following articles:
- Is A Character Sketch The Best Way To Introduce Your Characters?
- Is The Halo Effect Exactly What Your Characters Need?
- Save That Cat! The Easy Secret To Introducing A Hero
3. Let the body speak
Body language speaks volumes about what we are truly thinking and feeling as human beings. By simply lowering your eyes, crossing your arms, or biting your nails, you are unwittingly communicating your true feelings.
Research has shown that a surprising amount of our communication comes not from what we say, but from how we say it. In other words, we don’t need to be told what someone is feeling because we are already hard-wired to decode and understand emotions.
The power of body language works incredibly well when it comes to developing your character, and it brings me on to my next point: show your readers what your character is feeling, don’t tell them.
For example, by saying ‘Mary was very angry’ or ‘Gerald felt really stressed out,’ you are telling your readers how Mary and Gerald feel, which gives them no real connection to the moment. However, by showing your readers what your characters feel, you are inviting your readers to participate in the story. A wonderful example of the effect of showing can be found in Ken Follett’s The Fall of Giants:
“My goodness, I remember this,” Fitz said.
“The first vintage I ever tasted, and probably the greatest.”
He felt conscious of the maid’s presence, leaning close to him and peering at the bottle that was many years older than she. To his consternation, her nearness made him slightly out of breath.
In this example, Ken Follett has invited his readers to imagine Fitz secretly enjoying the closeness of his maid in spite of himself. This non-verbal explanation and use of body language is very engaging and far more effective than simply saying, ‘Fitz felt excited by the maid’s closeness.’
For more insight into writing body language, I recommend the following articles:
- “Show, Don’t Tell” – What It Means And How To Do It
- How To Express Your Characters’ Thoughts – With Exercises
- 8 Clichés That Are Killing Your Dramatic Dialogue
4. Express mood through situation
As I mentioned above, your readers don’t want to be told that ‘Rory was crippled with fear,’ they want to feel Rory’s fear. They want to connect with Rory in some way.
A great way to start building this connection is by showing how your characters react to the world they inhabit. What your characters value and how they perceive the world around them reveals more about their feelings than an adjective ever could.
For example, a starry night could be interpreted as romantic by a woman in love but could also be interpreted as a reminder of loneliness by a woman who has just lost a loved one.
My point here is that emotions are layered and complex. You can try to coldly describe this complexity in paragraph after paragraph, or you can explore it through your character’s interpretation of their world.
In The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver explores Leah Price’s determination to rise above all the strife that life in the Congo has thrown at her. In the below passage, Leah is describing her current living quarters in a way that invites readers to sympathize with her as well as admire her courage:
Our house here is mud and thatch, plenty large with two rooms and a kitchen shed. A happier place, for sure, than the tin-and-cement box that packaged us up with all of our griefs in Kinshasa. There, the cranky indoor plumbing constantly grumbled at us like God to Noah, threatening the deluge…
I am sure you’ll agree that the above description is far more effective than simply saying, ‘Our new house is much bigger and more comfortable than our old house in Kinshasa.’ This sentence leaves no room for imagination and reveals nothing about how Leah actually feels.
For more insight into expressing your characters’ emotions, I recommend the following articles:
- Primary and Secondary Emotions Can Unlock Your Characters
- Not Sure How To Make Your Characters Come Alive?
- Sympathy Isn’t Empathy – Here’s Why That’s Your Problem
5. Reject cliché
Clichés are dangerously easy to use, but they also undermine your characters before they have a chance to develop. We are all familiar with the mad scientist, the stoic Russian spy, and the bulimic ballet dancer. In most cases, these characters end up being as unoriginal and uninspiring as we would expect. By using a clichéd character, you are signaling to your reader that no imagination and therefore no interaction is required. Boring!
It’s easy to fall back on familiar clichés, even those that aren’t true to life or even our own experiences. If you find yourself taking the easy option, go back to my first tip and put in some research. Real life will always present you with a unique take on even the most well-worn stereotype.
For more insight into rejecting cliché, I recommend the following articles:
- The Best Ways To Root Out A Cheesy Villain
- What To Consider When Writing Mental Illness
- Why Authors Need To Take Care When Writing Outside Their Gender
6. No man is an island
While every character should be a complete, psychologically complex individual, they also shouldn’t exist in a vacuum.
The people around us shape how we see the world, how we develop as individuals, and even how we express our thoughts and beliefs. Because of this, one of the final things to consider when developing your character is how they fit with other characters to tell a compelling story.
Almost any combination of similarities and differences can lead to a workable character dynamic, but only when managed by an author who is conscious of how the characters fit together.
For example, a group of characters may struggle to gel if they have two sarcastic, cynical characters who fulfill the same narrative purpose. Likewise, a love triangle that includes two potential partners who are basically identical is unlikely to be as compelling as one where the characters in question are widely different (and thus offer the other character different things.)
Like situation, characters give each other opportunities to express who they are, so be sure to use this tool, but also be sure to include a step in your character development where you ask not just who each character is in isolation, but how they interact with and influence each other as a larger cast.
For more insight into developing complementary characters, I recommend the following articles:
- How To Write Characters Who Actually Like Each Other
- Get To Know Your Characters Better With This Novel Device
- This Is The Blueprint For A Perfect Cast Of Characters
Packed with character
It takes work to develop a truly complex character, but that effort pays off quickly. Once your characters exist, you’ll even find they start taking over the plot, refusing to do things you now know aren’t realistic for who they are and even surprising you with actions and thoughts that emerge from characterization rather than plot necessity. This is no cause for alarm; as Ray Bradbury once said:
Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.– Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
How do you bring your characters to life? How do you research your character development? Let me know in the comments below!