How to write great characters in your novel. How to make them lifelike. How to make them dazzle.
What makes a reader glued to a book? What makes that person come back to it again and again?
Well, as a rough guide, people turn the pages because of plot, but they remember a book because of character.
Don’t believe us?
Then answer this. Can you recall, in detail, the plots of:
To Kill a Mockingbird?
The Hound of the Baskervilles?
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?
We’re going to bet not. But do you remember Scout and Atticus? Holmes and Watson? And the badass Lisbeth Salander?
Of course you do. And that’s the aim of this post: helping you achieve the same level of vibrating life that these characters achieved. In effect, we’re going to tell you how to develop a character that can be used for both the protagonist (hero) and the antagonist (bad guy). How to write the kind of characters that will elevate your novel to a whole different plane.
And it’s not magic. It’s just the logical application of tried-and-trusted writing techniques.
But let’s start by figuring out what character development is, and how it works for you.
WHAT IS CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT? A DEFINITION
Character development is two things:
Character development is the the process by which an author develops a detailed character profile. This activity is usually done in conjunction with plot development and takes place as part of the planning process, before the writer actually starts to write.
Character development also refers to the way a character changes through the course of the novel, generally in response to the experiences and events gathered through the course of the story itself. This is known as the Character Arc. (Need more? Get plot structure advice here.)
Those twin definitions are immediately helpful.
Yes: you have to develop a character profile before starting to write, but you also have to knit your character so closely to the story you’re going to tell that the two things seemed joined at the hip. Ideally, the reader won’t be able to imagine any other character occupying your story – just like you couldn’t imagine Girl with a Dragon Tattoo without the inflammatory, exciting presence of Lisbeth Salander.
So: the first question is, how do we choose the right character for the story we’re about to tell? That’s up next.
The two basic character types in fiction – and how to choose the one who’s right for your novel.
There are two basic types of main character (or protagonist) in fiction:
The first type is an ordinary character plunged into the extraordinary. And, by this process, they become a little more extraordinary themselves.
The second character type start out extraordinary – they could make things happen in an empty room.
You need to be careful about identifying which character is which.
You might think that Harry Potter can’t be ordinary, because he’s a wizard. But think about it. He seemed like quite an ordinary boy. And when he gets to wizard school he seems quite ordinary there too (daunted by the school, a bit scared of Hermione, and so on.) He’s an ordinary wizard who finds his inner extraordinary self over the course of seven books.
Lisbeth Salander, however, never strikes the reader as ordinary. She’s a rule-breaking, computer genius with anti-social traits and a scary capacity for violence. You just know she’s going to cause waves, no matter where she goes.
Here’s a quick way to figure out what kind of character yours is:
Will typically refuse adventure, or accept it only reluctantly
Will typically have something of the boy next door / girl next door quality to them. That doesn’t mean they have to be boring (we’re all different after all), but it does mean that they can act as a kind of placeholder for the reader. “That person could be me. That adventure could have been mine.“
Will typically find something heroic or extraordinary in themselves as a result of the adventure. Something that was buried becomes visible.
The adventure has to echo or vibrate with whatever is distinctive about the character. So at the very start of the Harry Potter series, Harry seems like an ordinary boy, except that he’s an orphan. No wonder then that the entire series revolves around Harry completing the battles of his lost parents.
Will often leap into adventure. May even create it.
Will typically seem nothing whatsoever like the nice kid next door
Will have something astonishing in them all the time. Something that probably makes them look awkwardly ill-at-ease in the ordinary world.
But, as with ordinary characters, the adventure will resonate with who they are. Sherlock Holmes is a detective – so let him solve crimes! Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a CIA guy, so drop him into a thriller, not a schmalzy love story!
What a character arc looks like
You can already see how these three things need to intertwine:
Your character’s profile at the start of the book
The story your character plunges into
The way your character develops through the course of that story
So for one hyper-simple example, you might have:
Harry Potter starts out as an ordinary boy, albeit one with natural wizarding ability
He is plunged into a life or death battle against Voldemort
He discovers previously unseen reserves of courage and resourcefulness – he finds his inner extraordinary.
Here’s another example of the same thing, this time from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:
Lizzy Bennet is an ordinary young woman, but somewhat prone to impulsive and immature judgements
She is plunged into a tumultuous love story, and …
Discovers new wisdom and maturity.
These things are beautifully simple when you see them – but needless to say, designing something beautifully simple ain’t so easy. (Just ask Steve Jobs!)
Build your character development arc
Your first task? Simple. Just do the same thing as we’ve just done for Harry Potter and Lizzy Bennet.
Take a sheet of paper and write out – in a few words only – the following:
Your character’s broad start position
The nature of the story
The way your character develops as a result of the story you are telling.
Do that exercise. Make sure you’re happy with it. And when you are – congratulations.
You’ve just taken your first big step in developing your character.
The Ultimate Character Development Sheet
Figuring out who you want to lead your story is the first essential of success.
But the next part – the fun one – is every bit as important. And the rule here is simple:
You have to know your main character better than you know your best friend.
The simple fact is that strong characterisation is based on knowledge. The only way to write a really convincing, lifelike, vibrant protagonist is to know them inside out. If you have this knowledge, you will find yourself using it. If you don’t have it, you can’t.
So the problem of writing character comes down to this: you have to know protagonist. And we’ve got a brilliant technique to help with just that.
If you haven’t yet started your book, then work on the character creator exercise below before you start.
If you have started, but think that maybe you started prematurely, then back up. Do the exercise and then read back through your work, looking for places where your characters seem a little blank.
So. Let’s start.
How to Build a Character Development Sheet
Begin with a blank sheet (or screen). And begin to write down everything you know about your central character. Don’t be too concerned to edit yourself at this stage. Just let rip: this will be your character profile. It helps to group your comments a bit under certain themes, but if that inhibits your flow then just write. Group your notes up later.
You should cover all kinds of topics, including:
Where did your protagonist come from?
What was their childhood like? Happy or sad?
What were relations like with their parents? Or brothers or sisters?
If their father was (say) extravagant, what impact did this have? If their mother was (say) easily tearful, how did this affect them?
And what about now, where relations with others are concerned?
Were there key incidents in childhood that shaped this person in a way relevant to your book’s story?
What about more recent backstory? Their move to Arkansas, joining the army, their first girl/boyfriend? Sketch those things out too.
Write how your protagonist’s backstory has shaped their drives, their character arc, and will shape your plot. It helps if examples are concrete, showing your protagonist via actions and choices in specific situations. (And yes: showing matters. If you need a show vs tell refresher, we’ve got it for you.)
Looks and physical attributes
Get to know how your character looks, how they inhabit their body and how they interact with the world:
Is your character tall or short? What hair colour, face & body shape, what eye colour?
Are they physically graceful? Or clumsy? Or what?
What animal do they most remind you of?
If you had to choose one image to represent this person, what would it be? [Hint: the best answers to that question often float between the physical and something a bit more spiritual. There’s often something mobile in the image, not just static. examples: “She was like a deer grazing in snow.” or “He was like an iron sword of the old type. Unbending. Strong. Prone to a sudden, flashing anger.”]
How does your character sleep?
How do they fiddle?
Are they impatient?
How do they eat? What foods do they love and hate?
What do they look like from a distance? Or close up, when seen by a stranger?
What is their voice like? Or their laugh?
Think of an actor or actress who could play your character. If you need a visual image to work from, then look through magazines until you’ve got something you can use. Pin it up close to where you work, and work from that. Or create an inspiration board, either a real one or using a site like Pinterest, to pin images of your characters, of story aesthetic, etc
Your character’s personality
Is your character sunny and carefree, like Lizzy Bennet in Pride and Prejudice?
Or hardened, unforgiving, like Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?
What impression would they make on a casual observer?
Are they screwed up in any way?
Are they conflict-avoiders or conflict-seekers?
Are they sensitive or selfish lovers?
How emotionally involved would they get?
How does all of this feed into their character arc (ie: the way they develop through the story)?
If you answered a Myers-Briggs personality test in character, what would your character’s results be?
Why has your character chosen this partner?
Is he or she like the partners your character normally goes for?
Do they go in for cutesy baby-talk? Or hard-edged flippancy? Or reflectiveness?
What are their pet names for each other?
Do they encourage maturity in the other or bring out the less mature side?
What are their disagreements about? Do they row, and if so, how? How do they mend rows?
What does one love most about the other? What do they most dislike?
What is your predicted future for the relationship beyond the end of the novel?
Goals, Fears, Ambitions
Be sure, most essentially, you know your characters’ deeper goals and motivations.
What’s their deepest wish?
What are they most afraid of?
What would failure mean for them? What voices would they have in their head commenting on that failure? (eg: a critical parent, or a disappointed friend.)
What’s the goal, the thing they most desire?
Does it change? And why?
What’s their motivation for wanting it. What does it say about their nature?
The Ultimate Character Development Sheet
The very best way to get to know your characters is to do this:
Write a list of 200+ questions about your character
Then answer them
Do that, and before too long, you’ll know your character with utter intimacy. You’ll move beyond some mechanical character development exercise into deep, fluent, easy knowledge.
Do note that you have to write the questions before you start answering them, otherwise you end up just asking questions that you already know answers to.
Oh, and it’s incredibly hard to come up with a really long list of questions that really probe everything about your character – so we’ve done it for you. We’ve created the Ultimate Character Builder, and it’s yours for free.
If a character really wants something, and the reader really gets why that thing matters so much to that character, then the reader is committed. They’ll feel intensely involved. They will, if they’re a literary agent, want to represent your novel.
In terms of your character development challenge, that means you need to:
Understand your character’s motivations deeply
Make sure your character really cares (because if they don’t, the reader won’t.)
Make sure your character’s motivations come through in your writing.
And that’s it. Simple, right?
Dialogue: Characters in Relationship
While we’re on the topic of building empathy, it’s also worth remembering that your character doesn’t exist in isolation – they’re at the centre of a particular web of relationships that will be tugging at them with complex and often contradictory forces. That’s quite likely tough for the character – but great for the reader.
And dialogue is where you’ll feel those emotional pulls and pushes most forcefully and in their most alive possible way. Making sure that your dialogue is sinuous and mobile will give a real kick to your character – and add whole new layers to the process of acquiring and retaining the reader’s empathy. More dialogue help right here.
You’ve completed your character development work. Yay!
Truthfully, you’ll be ahead of at least 95% of the other writers out there. Well done you.
If your plot is roughly in shape, then you’re good to start writing, and your first draft (though it won’t be perfect) should be a pretty damn good platform for your final, finished book.
That said, once you have written (say) 10,000 words of your first draft – STOP.
Just stop writing and review what you’ve written so far.
Does your character feel like a fully rounded human? Or a cliche? Do you make plenty of reference (where appropriate) to your character’s thoughts, memories, feelings and physical sensations? Does the character feel fresh or stale? Individual, or just a standard character type?
If your answers are yes, this character feels fresh and individual, then your work has paid off. You’ve created a great character – and your novel is well on its way to being a damn good one.
About the author
Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).
As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)