I am often asked, “How to Develop a Character in a Story”. There are two kinds of writers: those who say character generates plot, and those who believe plot gives rise to characters. The truth is that they work together, and should work together in order to keep readers turning the page.
The most critical component of developing interesting characters – whether protagonist, antagonist, or secondary characters–is that they be three-dimensional. In other words, they are not stick figures; they are not flat. They have feelings, likes, dislikes, desires, ambitions, etc. Writing interesting characters is far more than describing what they look like or how old they are. Think about it – can you completely explain a friend or even yourself in a few lines? Not possible. For somebody to describe a character to the fullest (in real life now), a lot of observations and meetings and observations will be necessary to get a clear detail on the person. This same concept applies to the main characters in the stories you write.
The key to developing a multi-faceted or three-dimensional character is the work you do before you even begin writing. The best way to do this is to create character profiles: more detailed for your main characters, less so but still necessary for your secondary characters. And remember, no one person is all black and white. Your protagonist can have flaws, and your antagonist may have some admirable qualities. This is what makes them interesting and believable. An excellent way to do this is with a diagram or chart, and one site that is most helpful for this is: literacyleader.com – it has different ‘maps’ to guide you in developing your character’s traits.
An important point to remember is that while you don’t necessarily have to use all of the details from your character profile in your story, you still need to be familiar with them in order to consistently deliver their quirks, mannerisms and personalities into your story. Inconsistency takes credibility right out of your story. Detailing a character with brown eyes at the beginning of a story and then blue eyes at the end just makes you, the writer, lose your reader because you have shown a sloppy inconsistency that is a turn-off.
“Memorable characters like Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird” or “Carrie” or any number of wonderful characters become memorable because they go hand-in-hand with the forward momentum of plot. They exist for the reader long after the last page, and this is what a novelist should strive for.”Susanne Jaffe
One thing to always remember is that telling your readers about a character is a sure-fire way to get them to put down the book. Action and interaction with other characters; dialogue; putting your character(s) in a scene that reveals personality by his/her reaction or feelings. The age-old advice to ‘show, not’ tell’ is critical to developing three-dimensional characters.
Think about the details you should always understand about your characters. In addition to the obvious demographic details like name, profession and age, think about the type of character and story you are creating and consider psychographic details such as:
- Appearance – looks, hygiene, gait
- Temperament– mannerisms, social behaviors, quirks
- Personality Traits – faults, weaknesses, strengths, sexuality
- Relationships – spouse, children, past relationships, siblings & pets
- Hobbies – interests and pursuits
- Secrets – fears, desires, goals
- Friends – types of friends
For additional insight and detail on character development see the Five Traps and Tips for Character Development.
Developing personality traits
Normally while trying to create a three-dimensional character, all the details you came up with will come together to form personality traits: your character chews gum whenever they are nervous and rescues sick and injured dogs, but the story is more about your character’s love life. A good idea will be to portray the character as an owner of five dogs. Their gum-for-nervousness personality trait can go further and say something like they buy some gum whenever they see their romantic interest.
Creating personality traits based on the story’s plot will make for both dull characters and a too familiar plot. For instance, in a murder story, without developing specific details about the murderer, you might be only portraying him as a cruel and hateful psychopath. Or in simpler terms, you are developing a clichéd killer. Give your characters unique personality traits that make them interesting and memorable to the reader. Normal people have multiple layers of personality; your characters should also have these layers to appear more lifelike. See the best types of characters to develop in the article How to Create a Character.
Too much detail is also bad for your character
While it’s one thing to create a lifelike character with interesting details, it’s another to provide too much information; the result will be a boring character. Even though a particular detail can be interesting, if it is not a textural element that adds to the story’s plot, you should avoid it. If the character isn’t making any important reference to that information, it’s simply useless to the story.
Keep in mind that you only need details that make the character more three-dimensional based on the story’s plot. Intriguing your readers with your character’s personality traits is not the same as educating them on your character’s life history. The profiles you create beforehand are for you, the writer’s benefit, to better understand how your character will act alone, react to situations, and interact with other characters.
Point of view
This is one of the aspects you need to be focused on when developing your character. The point of view of a story refers to how the story is narrated, either first, second or third person. When revealing information to your readers in your story, how you reveal that information is just as important as the information itself. Your story’s narrator can either be experiencing the action or just have an objective point of view.
When it comes to writing fiction, there are over 20 points of view that can be implemented in your story’s narration – to avoid confusion and complications, I would focus on the three main points of view. Check out the site Novel Writing Help for the excellent article the Complete Guide to Point of View.
First Person – The first person point of view is simply affiliated with the term ‘I’ and is usually told by the protagonist. This is a difficult point of view because it means that the reader never gets into the mind of secondary characters except through the first person’s point of view.
Second Person – The second person point of view is like a narration of the first person. It should be approached as if you were directly told the story and experienced the action.
Third Person – Third person narrative or the ominiscient narrator is like telling the story from an observer’s point of view. It is the most popular point of view since it allows multiple characters to reveal themselves.
Conclusion: How to Develop a Character in a Story
To make sure your readers are engaged in your story, you need to provide them with interesting characters who have depth, dimension, and believability. Remember to be consistent with your characters and their details throughout the whole story too – this can be easily achieved with proper planning and detailing before you begin writing. Learn how to develop a character in a story by creating character profiles to help you, the writer, understand them and how the plot and character work together.