Character Development: 20 Tips for Developing Fictional Characters
Characters are at the heart of any story. They make choices, they struggle, they grow and they change. People can relate to good characters and understand the world they live in. But to create good characters, writers need to start with character development before writing their story.
When most people think of ‘Characters’ in stories they think of common stereotypes and have preconceptions of what a person is or can be. This is a scary way of thinking, as it can lead to the creation of dull or typical characters in stories. Instead, characters should be seen as people – just like you, your friends, your family and anyone else around you. When most writers refer to ‘Characters’, they are actually referring to their traits, rather than their actions. For example, a fictional character can be a person who is a good person, a bad person, or a good person with bad traits or qualities. Character development is much more than traits – It is the story of your character. Everything from their worst memories to the happiest moment in their life. Knowing your character inside and out is what makes a good character.
In this post, we’ll discuss the basics of character development in story-telling, and outline 20 tips for creating remarkable characters with examples.
- What Is Character Development?
- Why Is Character Development Important?
- 20 Tips For Character Development
- 1. Have realistic motives and goals
- 2. Give your characters a distinct voice
- 3. Slowly reveal the character
- 4. Consider both external and internal conflict
- 5. Know your character’s backstory
- 6. Use familiar language to describe a character
- 7. Physical appearance still matters
- 8. Develop Secondary Characters
- 9. Create bad habits and character quirks
- 10. Know both your character’s strengths and weaknesses
- 11. Develop a mix of personality types
- 12. Know the impact of your character’s backstory
- 13. Create a diverse set of characters
- 14. Avoid stereotypes
- 15. Introduce the main character early
- 16. Decide whether a character is static or dynamic
- 17. Use character arcs
- 18. Use your own experience as inspiration
- 19. Don't rush the character names
- 20. Practice makes perfect
- Free Character Development Worksheet
- Common Questions With Answers
What Is Character Development?
Character development is the process of describing the characters in your story or novel in great detail. This description goes beyond the physical appearance of a character. It details many aspects of a character, such as their back-story, strengths, skills, weaknesses, motives, relationships and much more. The purpose of this process is to help you understand every aspect of your characters before you start writing your novel.
You might also be interested in this guide on the hero’s journey stages explained.
Why Is Character Development Important?
The main reason why character development is important is all about impact. You want your characters (especially the main ones) to be relatable, unique and powerful. You want your readers to be rooting for them from the get-go. To be on their side, to feel their pain and to experience their joy. The only way to create such impactful characters is through the character development process.
There are also many other reasons why the character development process is important, such as:
- Consistency: A detailed character profile document can remind you of your character’s flaws, memories and skills and keep them consistent throughout the story.
- Growth: Character development can ensure that your main characters change and grow throughout the story. There’s nothing more boring than a character who stays the same until the very end!
- Conflict: If you know who your character is in detail, then you can create a major conflict to really hurt them. Put your readers on the edge, with a moment of “Will they…Won’t they” – Who knows if the main character will make it or not?
- Realism: You want to create real people that your readers can get to know throughout the story. The problem is that real people can be complicated – so your characters should also have layers of complexity to them.
20 Tips For Character Development
Character development is a complex process. Here are our tips for creating remarkable characters:
1. Have realistic motives and goals
The very purpose of a character in your story is their mission or goal. What are they striving for? What do they want? What is their reason or motive for wanting this?
For example, if your main character is looking for someone – Think about the why. Why are they searching for this person? Is it because they want revenge? Maybe they recently lost someone, and are in desperate need to find a family member who cares? Whatever your character’s goal is, there always has to be a real, explainable reason for wanting this.
2. Give your characters a distinct voice
Voice isn’t just about the way a character speaks. It’s also the way they act or their mannerisms. If all the characters in your story had the same sense of humour and the same attitude, then it would be a boring story, and conflict wouldn’t even exist.
Just look at your own life. The people you are surrounded by are not all the same. Pay attention to the words they use, the hand gestures and body movements, their accents and their general attitude to certain things. Some people come across as aggressive, others are soft-spoken and there are just some people you’ll probably never understand.
When developing your character, think about the catchphrases and words the character uses, their accent or sound of voice when speaking and whether they use slang or speak in full-proper sentences.
3. Slowly reveal the character
Avoid dumping all the details of your character in the first few paragraphs or even the first chapter of your novel. Keep certain things a mystery. Just imagine in real life, when you meet someone for the first time, the introduction is brief and basic. You can see their physical appearance, and learn about where they are from. You might even know something basic about their interests. But it’s very rare for that person to reveal their deepest, darkest secrets to you in the first introduction. Neither would they tell their weaknesses so quickly.
It’s the same journey in your story. The reader wants to get to know your character, but not everything is as it seems in the first few pages. They’ll need to stick with the character until the very end to really know them – Just like real relationships!
4. Consider both external and internal conflict
Conflict is one of the most important elements of story-telling. When it comes to character development, conflict is an opportunity to show readers how strong your character really is. Their strength is shown in the decisions they make, and how they choose to deal with the conflict. Some characters may run away, displaying a trait of cowardice. While others might make silly decisions causing their loved ones to get hurt How your character deals with conflict says a lot about their personality.
In stories, conflict can be internal or external. External conflict comes from the outside, such as a bad guy fighting against your main character. While internal conflict is a struggle inside your main character, such as overcoming some dark memories or regrets of past decisions made. During the character development phase, it’s a good idea to think about both conflict types that will affect your character.
5. Know your character’s backstory
No person is born out of thin air. There has to be some history, some past behind them. Who were they? Why are they making the decision they are now? How did they become the person they are today? This is absolutely crucial in the character development process.
When thinking about your character’s backstory, you might want to consider the following:
- Good memories
- Bad memories
- Anger triggers
- Friends / Best Friends
- Past Job/Occupation
- Biggest Fear
- Life motto
These elements and more can help explain a character’s backstory. And once you know your character’s history, you can use it to explain their current or future actions in your story.
6. Use familiar language to describe a character
No one uses hoity-toity language to describe a character unless the character is a real snob. Keep it real with your characters. When describing their physical appearance, don’t go overboard with unrelatable features like pointy nose, green skin, pink hair and so on – Unless you’re writing a fantasy story about a fun witch who loves candy floss. Similarly when thinking about a character’s personality. Give them realistic interests, skills and weaknesses.
7. Physical appearance still matters
There’s a lot of emphasis on a character’s personality, backstory or skills during the character development process. But it’s still important to remember how your character looks physically on the outside. Think about their hair colour, skin colour, body shape, posture, hairstyle, clothing style and so on.
The way a person carries themself on the outside can say a lot about their personality. For example, someone who is always wearing neutral coloured clothing tends to be shy or doesn’t want to draw attention to themself. While someone who is boldly dressed, with great fashion sense could be more on the outgoing side.
On the topic of physical appearance, it’s also a good idea to give your main character a unique feature – Something that makes them stand out from the rest of the characters. For example, Harry Potter has a scar in the shape of a lightning bolt on his forehead. While Alice from Alice in Wonderland is the only yellow-haired girl in all of Wonderland.
8. Develop Secondary Characters
It’s nice to pay attention to just your main characters in the character development process. But it’s just as important to develop your secondary characters also. Common examples of secondary characters are sidekicks or foil characters. Sidekicks are normally friends of your main character – They support and offer help in moments of need in the story. While foil characters are normally the opposite of your main character. They have contrasting values and viewpoints which can be a source of minor external conflict for your main character.
You don’t need to explain your secondary characters in great detail. But you should know their relationship to the main character, and how it impacts the plot of the story.
9. Create bad habits and character quirks
Everyone has some kind of bad habit. Sometimes you don’t notice it until someone points it out. But we all resort to doing something when we’re nervous or dealing with something terrible. This could be something simple like biting your nails, chewing a pen or cracking your knuckles. Or it could be something more serious, such as eating disorders and negative self-talk.
When developing your character, think about the following:
- What do they do when they are really nervous?
- What bad habits do they have?
- What good habits do they have?
- What are their eating and sleeping habits like?
Knowing this information can add an extra layer of realism to your character making them more interesting to readers.
10. Know both your character’s strengths and weaknesses
A perfect person is a person with no flaws. How many people do you know with no flaws at all? Really, there is no such thing as a perfect person, just people who try to be perfect! When developing your characters, it’s really important to consider their flaws, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. But a story focused on a weak character would be pretty depressing and cold.
So remember to also create classic strengths and heroic qualities for your character. Something that makes your main character charming and warm. This might be their caring nature, or their ability to look on the bright side of life. The good and the bad can come together to create a real character that your readers can believe in until the very end.
11. Develop a mix of personality types
Avoid developing characters that all have the same or similar personality types in one story. You can’t have a story filled with whimsical characters who are always jolly and looking on the bright side. Similarly, you can’t have a story filled with evil, sadistic types. Just like the real world, a story should include a mix of personality types.
Just look at your own life, and the people around you like your friends. Are all your friends the same? Maybe some are quiet, others are more out-going, some may be smarter, while others might like breaking the rules. Take this approach when developing characters for your story. Mix it up and see how different characters interact with one another and the world they live in.
12. Know the impact of your character’s backstory
We talked about character backstories in point 5 above. It’s one thing to know about their backstory, but another thing to link it to their current actions. For example, imagine a brother and a sister – Both lost their parents in a car accident when they were little. Now as grown-ups one has become a villain hurting anyone who comes close to them. While the other sibling puts all their attention on saving the lives of others to mask their own feelings.
Backstories or traumatic events have the power to change your characters for the better and worse. Think about a major event in your character’s life, and how this event has changed or impacted this character in the present.
13. Create a diverse set of characters
Here we are not just talking about a mixed set of personalities, but more about diversity in other areas. Think about the race, gender, beliefs, disabilities and occupation of your characters. It’s unrealistic to create a story filled with upper-class characters with rich lives unless this is the focus of the story. Similarly, you don’t want to insolate readers by making all the characters male or white in skin colour. Equality is important both in the real world and in your stories.
But don’t worry you don’t need to bang on about equality in your story, especially if the story has nothing to with this topic. Instead, you can indirectly talk about the effects of a character’s difference. For example, a reader can tell if a character is in a wheelchair by the difficulties they may face when completing an action without you having to directly mention that they are in a wheelchair.
14. Avoid stereotypes
Stereotypical characters are characters that have always been portrayed in the same manner and are very typical. In other words, they can be seen as overused characters that the average person has seen many times before. For example a shy librarian or an untrustworthy con artist. Readers know that a typical librarian is an introvert, or a con artist is a liar. What readers may not know is that librarian may be a rock star or a caring con artist who is trying to pay off a debt to a big criminal.
Switch it up a bit and show your readers that there is more to a character than what first meets the eyes. Surprise your readers with characters that are filled with secrets and layers of personalities.
15. Introduce the main character early
There’s nothing more tiresome than waiting for the main character to introduce themselves in stories. Some writers make the mistake of introducing too many secondary characters early on, instead of the main character/s. This causes confusion in the plot and makes the story hard to follow. It is very important that you either directly introduce the main character early on or include clear hints of this main character at the beginning.
For example, a group of characters in a diner might be gossiping about the main character or someone might be reading a newspaper article about the main character. Either way, we should know the main character’s name early on in the story and even include some idea of their personality. This way the readers can easily identify them as the ‘main’ character in the story.
16. Decide whether a character is static or dynamic
Static characters are ones that don’t change over the course of the story. While dynamic characters are characters that experience some growth or change by the end of the story. It is very common for secondary characters in stories to be static, while the main character is normally dynamic. However, this is not always the case.
In some stories, you may notice that the main character remains static throughout the whole story. For example in a mystery novel where the main character is an intelligent detective. By the end of the story, even after solving the biggest case of the century, this detective will still be the same person they were at the beginning.
The choice of whether your main character should be static or dynamic depends entirely on your story’s plot. If you want other elements of the story to take the centre stage, such as the conflict or another character – Then creating a static main character is ideal. However if your story is all about the main character’s struggle, then a dynamic character is the way to go.
17. Use character arcs
A character arc is a tool for describing a character’s journey throughout the story. It can include information on how the character’s physical, mental and emotional state changes at different points in the story. After completing your character arc, you should have a clear picture of how a character has changed or grown from beginning to end. It is recommended that you create a character arc for the main character of your story at the very least.
18. Use your own experience as inspiration
Our final tip for character development is to use your own experiences as inspiration. There’s nothing more real and more relatable than your own life experiences. Think back to your own good and bad memories, and how they have made you the person you are today. Use these experiences to create new characters for your stories. Imagine yourself in the shoes of your main character, how would you react if you were faced with a similar conflict?
19. Don’t rush the character names
Some writers make the mistake of skimming through the character naming process. However, you should never underestimate the power of a good character name. A good name can make your character more believable and relatable. It also enhances their unique personality.
For example, if you’re writing a fantasy story set in a magical kingdom, you might want to choose mystical fantasy names like Norok or Sybella. On the flip side, if you’re writing a tale based in the real world, you’ll want to pick a typical everyday name that suits your character.
20. Practice makes perfect
Practice your character development skills by taking part in our daily character challenge. Each day you will be given a random character image, and your task is to create a detailed character profile for them. If you keep practising your character skills, you’ll become a master at creating remarkable characters in no time!
Free Character Development Worksheet
Develop your characters in detail with our free character development worksheet PDF pack:
Stick a picture or drawing of your character in the middle. Then describe this character in great detail around the picture, and other pages provided. Once completed, you’ll have a detailed profile of your character to use in your stories.
Common Questions With Answers
What is an example of character development?
There are many great examples of character developments. The best example we can think of is Harry Potter in the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Here Harry Potter is introduced as a helpless, 11-year-old boy who is being emotionally abused by his relatives. By the end of the book, Harry has learned that he is a wizard who is not alone. He makes friends and even takes on Voldemort. No longer is Harry, a helpless little boy, he is now a brave young wizard. This is a great example of character development, as it clearly shows a growth in the main character and all the different layers of personality within them.
What are the 4 types of character development?
Characters can be grouped into four main types:
- Dynamic: This is a character who changes throughout the story.
- Static: The character remains the same from beginning to end.
- Round: A round character is one with a range of personality traits.
- Flat: A flat or stock character is a stereotypical character with one or two traits.
How do you identify character development?
You can identify character development in stories in two main ways:
- Direct Characterisation: Through direct statements about the character, you can identify who they are and what they are like. Take this example: Once upon a time, there lived a poor farmer’s boy named David. Here we know the main character’s name, and a bit about their situation.
- Indirect Characterisation: Based on actions, thoughts and dialogue we learn about the character. For example, David went to the market and stole some apples to feed his family. Here we learned from David’s actions that he might be poor and that he has a family.
What are the 5 ways to develop a character?
There are a number of ways to develop a character for stories. Here are 5 ways to develop a character:
- Physical Description: Think about the physical appearance of the character, such as eye colour, hairstyle and fashion sense.
- Action: How the character behaves and acts in situations is a great way to describe a character’s personality.
- Voice: This is the way a character speaks and the words they use.
- Decisions: The decisions a character makes in tough situations can highlight their personality.
- Relationships: THe company your main character keeps, and how they interact with them could also display a character’s personality.
Got a question you want to ask about character development? Let us know in the comments below!