Character Development: How to Write Characters Your Readers Won't Forget
For any novel to truly connect with readers, the author needs to pay close attention to character development. Even if you’re writing the most action-packed, plot-driven book where the characters are robots, it’s the human element of the story that is going to resonate with people looking for their next read.
Ask yourself: are you more likely to read a book about a voyage to a newly discovered planet, or a book about someone who never saw Earth but knows they will never reach the destination planet of the spaceship they are on? The plot’s concept — traveling in space — may intrigue you, but the characters will hook you in.
This article will help you develop characters your readers won’t forget. Let’s start by looking inside.
Internal character development
A great character is more than just an iconic name. Character development is the process of creating a believable fictional character by giving them depth. You can think of internal character development as a circle: one that starts and ends with your character’s fundamental goals and motivations. All the other decisions you make along the way will be informed by and affect those two things.
1) Establish your character’s story goals and motivations
Your character’s current goal is why the story exists — and why it’s worth telling — right now. It’s what your character wants from the book’s plot and it will propel their inner journey. Without it, the overall narrative arc would fall totally flat.
Let’s look at a few character goal examples:
- Harry Potter’s goal is to defeat Lord Voldemort
- Bilbo’s goal is to help the dwarves reclaim the kingdom of Erebor
- Hamlet’s goal is to avenge his murdered father
Then there are the motivations for your character’s goal. What internal and external influences drive their desires? For instance:
- Harry Potter’s goal is to defeat Voldemort... to ensure the safety of the wizarding world — and because Voldemort took Harry’s family away from him.
- Bilbo’s goal is to help the dwarves reclaim the kingdom of Erebor... after realizing that his life of creature comforts lacks adventure.
- Hamlet’s goal is to avenge his murdered father... and prove he did not imagine his ghost and is capable of making decisions.
If you’re struggling to nail down your character’s goal, try asking, “What would make the character feel happy or satisfied with their life?” This is their motivation. Next, ask yourself, “What could they do to obtain that happiness?” This is their goal.
If you’re struggling to get to the crux of your character’s motivations, try playing the “why” game:
If your character’s goal is to connect with their long-lost sibling, their motivation might be because they are an only child who always longed for a brother or sister. Why? Because they felt lonely as a child. Why? Because their parents moved around a lot and they had trouble keeping friends? Why? Because they eventually got tired of getting close to people, only to say goodbye.
By playing this game to its logical conclusion, we’ve learned that the character wants to meet their long-lost sibling [goal] because they feel it will establish a bond stronger than geography [motivation].
Develop characters by establishing goals and motivations. Ask yourself:
- What is their goal?
- What are their specific motivations?
- What are they willing to risk to achieve their goal?
- What would happen if they simply can’t achieve their goal?
2) Give your character an external and internal conflict
Your character’s goal only becomes interesting once you present it with a few obstacles. If Frodo walked on up to Mount Doom, dropped the ring in the lava, and made it back in time for second breakfast, it wouldn’t make for a very interesting story or a very memorable protagonist. It’s the obstacles — the army of orcs being commanded by Sauron and the power the ring has over Frodo, to name a few — that create conflict and tension in the story. And that’s what makes it worth reading.
You'll notice in the example above that we mention two conflicts. One is Frodo vs. Sauron (character vs. character), and the second is Frodo vs. himself — or his struggle to not lose himself to the ring. Every character should undergo an internal conflict that asks questions of themselves and mirrors the external conflict that they're facing. Even static characters who do not significantly alter over the course of the novel will face an internal conflict — you can find Sherlock vs. self in his communication with people.
Reedsy identifies six primary types of conflict in fiction. While you are developing your character, you should decide which one(s) will make for the most worthy adversaries. The six types are Character versus...
Character. For example, Othello vs. Iago.
Society. For example, Winston Smith vs. Big Brother in 1984.
Nature. For example, Robert Neville vs. the virus in I Am Legend.
Technology. Victor Frankenstein vs. Frankenstein’s monster.
Supernatural. Jack Torrance vs. The Overlook in The Shining.
Self. Every compelling protagonist faces some conflict of the self, but a few examples include Jason Bourne vs. his own past, Harry Goldfarb vs. addiction in Requiem for a Dream, and Bridget Jones vs. self-doubt.
Develop characters through conflict. Ask yourself:
- What internal conflict will your protagonist face?
- Will they also face an external conflict? How will the internal and external mirror each other?
- How will the conflict(s) affect the characters’ pursuit of their goals?
3) Decide whether your character is static or dynamic
There's a loose rule that characters have to fundamentally change over the course of a story — in other words, be a dynamic character — or else they're poorly written. But in truth, there are just as many great characters who finish a story almost exactly where they started while also having undergone an internal journey. Let's dig a little deeper into the idea of static characters versus dynamic characters..
Characters who don’t change because that’s just who they are
Captain America, Captain Nemo, and Sherlock Holmes are a few examples of characters who do not significantly alter over the course of the novel. In the case of Sherlock, it is his unchanging nature that makes him a compelling character. Unlike many of us, he does not feel the need to adapt to his surroundings, and that is both his attribute and his flaw: he is always true to himself, but he also often fails to learn from his experiences. This is a “traditional” static character.
Characters who undergo substantial change
A dynamic character is altered by the conflict(s) that they face. This might be a subconscious change, such as Jack adapting to the island in Lord of the Flies by becoming as wild, unconstrained, and “savage” as the nature around him. Or the change might be more of a conscious decision, such as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy overcoming their obstinate pride and prejudice for the sake of love.
Characters who don’t change in order to effect change
Writers often rely on complex, fast-paced plots with lots of external conflict in order to compensate for static protagonists. The world around them may try to shift these protagonists from their core principles, but they will rebel in order to try and alter their circumstances. This kind of character is both a little bit static and a little bit dynamic: even though they might not change much, they effect it. A great example of this kind of protagonist is Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games — read about it in our post on dynamic characters.
Reinforcing your protagonist through secondary characters
Often times, authors write static secondary characters to act as a pillar around which a dynamic character can develop. Think of Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird: he changes little throughout the course of the novel. But it is his steadfast belief in justice that guides Scout from a state of childhood innocence into a young girl with a strong sense of right and wrong.
Or you might want to consider writing a “foil”: a character who contrasts the protagonist, and is used to highlight particular qualities of the main character. For instance, Harry Potter’s foil is Draco Malfoy.
Develop characters by determining the shape of their arc. Ask yourself:
- How much will they change?
- What inspires their change?
- Do they change for the better?
- Do they change for the worse?
- Do they change the world and/or people around them?
4) Give your character a past
Just as your own history has contributed to the person you are today, so does your character’s. You should develop your character’s past as much as possible, but it’s especially important to create and zero-in on experiences and memories that inform the character we see in the story.
Develop characters through their history. Ask yourself:
- What moments from their past have played a pivotal role in who they are now?
- Do they have any suppressed memories?
- What are some of their happiest memories?
Develop external characteristics
Yes, the internal goals and motivations are the "heart" of a character. But that doesn't mean that their external characteristics should just be an after-thought. While the fact that your protagonist has blonde hair may not impact the plot, it can only benefit you as the author to have an exhaustive composition of them.
Early in your character development, put a bit of time into sketching out your protagonist's external features, including their...
- Communication style
- Physical appearance
You can develop characters through physical characteristics as well. Ask yourself…
- What do they look like? Does their appearance play a role in the story?
- How do they interact with others — what is their communication style like?
- How do their mannerisms contribute to how others perceive them?
To help give yourself a more holistic image of your character, check out our ready-made character profile template. It will prompt you to define external elements like posture and distinguishing features, to internal elements like their relationship with their mother and how they’re perceived by strangers.
Or if you prefer to keep your character notes organized online, you can check out the character builder tool over at One Stop for Writers. It's a super-thorough guide to character creation that allows you to fill out their entire backstory, along with how that backstory — old wounds, secrets, and all — ties into their personality/behavior. (You'll need a subscription to access the tool, but trust us that it's worth it.)
In any case, once you’ve established goals and motivations, conflicts, dynamism, history, and physicality, you’re well on your way to nailing character development. When those details are hammered down, put your knowledge of your protagonist to the test with these eight character development exercises. Before you know it, you’ll find you have acquired a new close friend — albeit an imaginary one.
Do you have your own tips for character development? Or any favorite characters from books you feel leap off the page? Leave any thoughts or questions in the comments below!