How To Develop Your Characters

Interesting stories, exotic settings, witty banter, political commentary, artistic language - there are many things that make an audience love a literary experience. But for many people, the most important element in a play, story, novel, or film is character. We relate to the main character. We hate the villain. We sympathize with the victim. We root for the underdog. Stories with great characters grab readers and viewers and keep them with the writer until the story's end. Developing the kind of characters that will keep your audience enthralled from page one to the end of your story - and beyond - is not easy. But there are some things we writers can do to develop characters that make an impact.

  1. As they say in soccer: focus on the goal. While contemporary writing often delves into the experimental - where things like story and character have a lot of different definitions and functions - the traditional story is still alive and well. People still watch movies and plays and read novels and short stories to follow a character as he pursues a goal - just like the audiences did for Sophocles, Shakespeare, Melville, and Hemingway, to name just a few of the authors I never read when I was supposed to in high school. I really believe the single most important thing a writer should do when developing character is ask that age-old, writing school 101 question: what does your character want? A character is, in most cases, no more and no less than what he wants. What is Ahab without his pursuit of the White Whale? A guy who could audition for a frozen seafood ad. What is Lady Macbeth without her drive for power? A crazy nag. What is Michael Scott on "The Office" without his desire for attention and acceptance? Boring.
    Before you worry about what you character looks like, her political opinions, her love interests, her quirks, her foibles, her fears or her wardrobe, give her a goal and make that goal the center of her universe. That is the first step toward writing a solid story, and the first step toward getting people to care about your character.
  2. Discover how he or she would deal with obstacles. Sometimes when I would teach writing or literature to college kids, I would ask them this question when we talked about character: if someone were to bump into you and spill your drink at a bar, how would you react? Would you push back, accept his apology, ignore it all, laugh it off? How you respond reveals something about who you are. The same is true for characters. The best way to reveal them is through how they fight for their goal. If Ahab turned the boat around when the whale didn't show up on day one, wouldn't that tell us something completely different about him than his obsessive chase does? Yes. So as you are developing your characters, think about the obstacles they will face and how they will deal with them. This will help you figure out who they are so you can then reveal it through your writing.
  3. Plan the character arc. Another writing school 101 thing is learning the difference between a dynamic and static character. A dynamic character changes and grows. A static character stays the same. For example, in "Bridget Jones Diary," Bridget learns to love herself, be herself, and fall in love with Colin Firth. She's dynamic. On the other hand, take an iconic character like The Lone Ranger. I don't know the man's whole history, but it seems to me, from start to finish, that he's always the classic good guy in the white hat. That's a static character. To develop a good character, you will likely want him to be dynamic. To create a dynamic character, you will need to plot out how he changes. This change pattern is called character arc.
    As I described Bridget Jones above, you can see her character arc: she goes from schlubby and unhappy to schlubby and happy and confident. Your job as a writer will be to figure out where you character begins as a person, where he ends as a person, and all the steps in between that get him through this course. Plotting character arc can sometimes be tougher than plotting story.
  4. Be specific with supporting traits. When you develop a character, be sure to give her some specific things which will take her from being a generic person with a goal to a unique individual (with a goal) who will jump off the page for the audience. Every form has its own conventions about how much you can include. For example, novels allow for a great deal of character description, whereas screenplays - which will eventually be cast with actors - usually should not include character hair or eye color descriptions, unless these traits are germane to the story. As they tell us in film school, if you say a character has brown eyes just because you want him to have brown eyes, and they can get Brad Pitt for the role, guess which descriptor is going out the window? 

    What other traits can you include? How does the character talk? Does he use certain expressions, have an accent, talk really quickly or stutter? What about interests? Is she knowledgeable about science? Does she have the world's largest bug collection? Does she enjoy jazz music, but only from a certain era? Be specific with your character - and if the specific traits relate to the character's goals, that's ideal. The bug collector may use her expertise on beetles to track down the location of the villain...or something.

  5. Include strengths and flaws. We're always hearing about "multi-dimensional characters" - and with good reason. A character with both good and bad points, flaws and strengths, will most likely be the most interesting and complex, as well as the most relatable and sympathetic. The world can always use a good "good guy vs. bad guy" action story, but more than likely, the compelling story will be the one where the character is human. That means, if he's a "good guy," he makes mistakes sometimes, and if he's a "bad guy," there's something about him that is somewhat likable. Just make sure you character isn't all evil or perfect. (Perfect characters tend to show up when we're writing characters who are somewhat autobiographical. If you feel your alter ego is coming out a little too much, why not throw in some of your own weaknesses to add believable depth?)

A good character can make a story, while flat characters can sometimes break a story. When you sit down to write your film script, stage play, short story, or novel, spend some real time developing your characters so they'll be unforgettable when your story reaches its audience.


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