Tips on Character Development

By Liberty Forrest, Fiction Author and Anthologist

Last month, I wrote about choosing your story and genre. It might seem silly to have to mention those as starting points in writing a novel (or even a short story) but you’d be surprised at how many people just sit down and start writing in a rambling, unfocused manner. That’s fine for journaling, but it won’t cut it if you want to create a compelling story.
Once you’ve decided on the story you want to tell and the genre you’ll use to do it, it’s time to get clear on your characters and on making them compelling. They are essential to the success of your novel, as they’ll bring it to life like nothing else.
Think about them like the actors in a film. If the sets are beautiful, and the story is good, but the characters are flat, boring, and uninspiring, you’ll hate the film. You won’t be thinking, “It was still a good story!” You’ll just be thinking how painful it was to watch it because you didn’t care about the characters or what happened to them. And if you don’t care about the characters in that film or what happened to them, that means you won’t care about the story. You can see just how important it is to create characters that are compelling and that ignite the readers’ imagination and emotions.

Creating Characters

There are certain aspects of your characters that you must have in place in order for them to deliver your story in the best way possible:

  1. The reader needs to be able to relate to them.
  2. The reader wants to feel invested in them and whether or not they can overcome their obstacles, or if they’ll get what they deserve.
  3. Characters need to be consistent; their actions have to make sense with who they are.
  4. They need to be believable.

It’s easier to do this than you might think. One of the best ways is to think about people you know in real life, or your favourite characters from beloved books or films. Or you can concoct them from stereotypes, or even just from people-watching on a park bench or in a coffee shop. Look at them, how they’re dressed, what they’re doing, and try to imagine what their lives and homes are like, or what they’re like as people or friends or bosses or neighbours.
If someone is carrying a large handbag or a briefcase, or even a shopping bag, contemplate what could be inside. What do these items say about the people carrying them? What kind of quirks, fears, businesses, hobbies etc. might they have? Shopping addiction? White collar crime? Hypochondriac carrying tons of medicines and supplements?
Maybe there’s a handgun in that knapsack covered with peace signs? The possibilities are endless!

All Characters Need A Purpose

Every single character in your story needs to be there for a reason. Extraneous characters can stay home and wait to be called for another book audition. All of the characters in your story must be essential in moving it along in some way. They will add to the colour and flavour of the story; they will introduce and expand on motivations (theirs or others), they will create conflict or they’ll be connectors…in some way, each one needs to have a purpose, even if it’s just a minor role. It has to make sense. This will help your story to be believable and well-rounded.

Characters Need Back Stories

It is essential to write a back story for each of your characters. This is a significant part of creating your story because this is where character issues and motivations begin. What happened or is happening in their lives to make them do the things they do? You’ve got to understand your characters fully in order for your readers to understand the story. The more details you give to your characters, the more personality they’ll have, and the better able your readers will be to relate to them.
It’s a good idea to make sure you write down the details of each character. This will help you to maintain consistency. For example, you don’t want to mention different hair colours or different ages or anything else that is inconsistent; your readers will pick up on those errors and it will detract from the story and the quality of your writing.
Keep a file on character biographies with such details as:

  1. age
  2. height and weight
  3. hair and eye colour
  4. race
  5. gender and sexual orientation
  6. personal background (family, upbringing etc.)
  7. quirks or habits
  8. place of birth/where did they come from
  9. clothing style
  10. particular words or phrases they use
  11. defining features – scars, tattoos etc.
  12. issues/”baggage”
  13. relationship status
  14. purpose in the story
  15. make/model/year of vehicle (if you mention it – or other specific details, make note of them in your file)
  16. anything else that is relevant to them and might be mentioned in the story.

As you write biographies for your characters and create meaning and purpose for them, you will begin to see how they might either support one another or cause friction and intrigue. You will start seeing ideas for how to develop the challenges in your story.

Let your imagination run free and see where it takes you!

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