Character Development in NovelsJul 31, 2022
Character development is essential to any great novel. In any genre of fiction – from action studded with high-speed chases to philosophical contemplations of the human condition – characters and their goals, motivations and behaviours drive the story.
Character development can also be some of the most time-consuming work you’ll do in fiction writing. For many, it becomes as emotionally demanding as it is laborious. Do you really need to know their entire lifeline, with dates, events and bank account details to create well developed characters?
Fear not! We’re here to help with this comprehensive guide to character development in fiction. And if you’re serious about learning how to depict compelling characters, you’ll find plenty of further reading.
- What is character development?
- Why is character development important?
- Getting to know your characters
- Introducing characters to readers
- Character development for villains
- Growth and transformation
- Top tips
- Further reading
There are two aspects to character development:
- The process by which you create characters you’ll write about
- The way a character changes through the course of a novel
The first relates to the writer’s experience of the characters, and the second relates to the reader’s.
Developing your characters as their author
A well-developed character needs real and recognisable traits. You’ll want to know some stand-out details about their personalities, their mannerisms, their hopes and fears, their likes, dislikes, appearance and backstory. They’ll also need compelling goals and motivations (but more on that later!). Character development is the process by which you conjure up these things.
Some writers envision their fictional characters – including secondary characters – as real-life people before they start writing their novels in earnest.
But don’t worry if you can’t see yours completely clearly yet. Many writers find their characters come to life during their writing, across many drafts. We’re here to help you breathe life into them.
The character arc
For your overall character arc to be believable and engaging, the work you’ve done behind the scenes is crucial: just think of Hemingway’s iceberg principle.
The character’s past, as well as the character’s flaws and strengths, will determine every decision they make and the transformation that character undergoes.
Most importantly, what the character ‘wants’ drives the story and their character arc, and it’s essential you nail this before you put pen to paper or start to develop your story.
What the character ‘wants’ drives the story and their character arc, and it’s essential you nail this before you put pen to paper.
Think of the character arc as your character’s progress from what they want to what they need. The author’s job is like that of a judge, delivering justice in the storytelling. They take the main player on a journey, giving them what they need to live their life.
Identifying with characters, recognising people we know in them, feeling empathy or frustration or even disgust – these all make a book difficult to put down, and impossible to forget.
Reading – and writing – require use of our sympathy and compassion. Why? Well, one of the joys of both is the chance to live another life. So you need to locate us inside the body of a person not just for one moment in time, but over the course of the story. The process of character development, or change, helps us literally walk in their shoes and feel we’re an active participant. It’s a key element of the magic trickery of fiction. We lose ourselves, temporarily, to live this other life.
And remember: your genre needn’t preclude you from taking a heavily character-driven approach and incorporating plenty of character development.
Just look at some of our favourite films: not only dramas, but comedies, fantasies and even sci-fi often have complex characters and character arcs at their heart. So look at some of the best character-driven films for inspiration on how to develop characters!
Do we need to develop characters?
If you’re wondering if character development is really worthwhile, know that world-famous authors can’t do without it.
Take Paula Hawkins, who has written complex page-turning plots like that of The Girl on the Train – the New York Times bestseller which sold over 23 million copies. She maintains that characters are the crux of her works.
A cracking plot is important, particularly in a crime novel, but it is not what tends to make a novel addictive. For unputdownability, you’re better off considering structure and character.
At the end of the day, character and plot can’t be neatly separated. Isn’t a person – at least in part – a product of what happens to them? Don’t a character’s circumstances dictate many of their actions?
And unless readers understand your character’s history, values, fears, desires, strengths and weaknesses, the events of your plot risk feeling arbitrary.
Ultimately, these aspects of character development are what set the stakes of your novel. And no novel is readable (or even writable) without stakes.
Character development makes writing easier
That’s the key takeaway: understanding your characters will almost always make the writing process easier in some sense. You have ‘people’ to lead and guide you, and a set of traits to which you can stay true!
The better I know my characters, the more real they feel and the easier it is to write for them. Dialogue flows more naturally, their actions feel authentic and push the story forward, and if the storyline does get sticky I know it’s because I’m not writing something good enough for my characters to want to engage.
Now that we’ve settled how important fully-formed characters are, let’s think about how you can get up close and personal with yours.
Take your time here – for many authors, it’s one of the most enjoyable steps.
Writing characters and getting to know them is one of my favourite parts of working on a novel. It’s where I start, where I go back to if I get stuck, and where I know I can have fun.
It might all sound abstract, much less tangible than a character development worksheet. But it’s indispensable, and usually very fun!
To ground your exploration and get you started, here are some tips and insights on getting acquainted.
Look to character archetypes
It might sound counterintuitive to the writer keen to create unique and memorable characters, but archetypes can spark inspiration.
Think about how a character does or doesn’t reflect different archetypes’ traits, and whether they serve similar functions. After all, these are the elemental building blocks of some of mankind’s most enduring stories!
Some archetypes you might consider include:
- The ancients’ archetypes
- Stock characters from commedia dell’arte
- Literary archetypes
- Television tropes
- Psychoanalytic archetypes
We consider fictional archetypes and relationships between them more fully in this blog post on character mapping.
Spend time with your characters
How do you find out what matters to your characters? Well, just as with anyone else: by spending time with them.
Don’t forget your secondary characters either. Remember, they’re there to serve your story, and the character development of your main characters. Their role is to show the protagonist the pitfalls of the path they’re on, or the extremes of the sort of person they don’t really want to be. The secondary character is an agent provocateur.
To understand what makes characters tick, what they’re scared of, what they hope for, you’re going to have to take your time.
That doesn’t mean you spend hours at your desk having internal (or external!) conversations with your cast. Pearce recommends using your routine to your advantage. Doing the housework, commuting, walking your dog, taking a shower… Explore your characters in these loose moments.
You can even bring them with you for these tasks!
Imagine them in each situation. How do they behave at the supermarket? Did they bring a list? Did they stick to it? Do they opt for self-check-out or human interaction? How did they travel to the shop? Would they change their plan to get home if it started raining?
Think about what you’d notice about real people – their quirks and mannerisms. It can make a compelling character of a previously flat one. Keep it real, too. In real life, we having pressing concerns, debt and borrowing, health concerns, worries about members of our family. What’s on your character’s mind when they’re quiet?
Once you know them well, you can stir the plot, and introduce them to each other! How do they get on? What do they have in common? Where (and how) do they clash?
A top tip when creating minor characters is to think of their driving motivation, their obsessive wants and desires. It’s surprising – perhaps not in a good way – when you listen to people speak in real life, how often they’re pushing the same agenda! By showing the minor character’s hand in almost every interaction, you can bring them to life.
When readers ask me about my characters, I tend to reply as if they are real people. And when they softly chuckle and say, ‘you speak about them as if they’re real,’ I softly chuckle back and say, ‘that’s because they are’. And then we softly chuckle to each other until the chuckling becomes uncomfortable and we wander away in separate directions.
Explore their backstories
To get a strong sense of a character’s thoughts, dreams, terrors and personality, you’ll need to know their personal history.
Again, take the pressure off and have fun. Bestselling author AJ Pearce doesn’t even write it down; it needn’t be formal or taxing. No character development worksheet in sight for her!
If you have a notion of what a character will do, think about things like:
- Why they’re driven to do it
- Why they’re capable of doing it (or think they are)
- What they could give up to do it
Take, for example, Pearce’s heroine in Dear Mrs Bird, the first book in The Emmy Lake Chronicles. Pearce needed to know why she’s compelled to support women who send letters to her magazine. Crucially, Pearce also explored why she considered herself qualified to help.
Pearce dug into her character’s family history to find where she got her convictions and confidence. That way, not only did Pearce understand that character better, she also gained new ones! And the best part is, they all felt like real characters.
Start in the middle for intensive character development
If going back to the beginning hasn’t satisfied your desire to comprehend your character, take them to the middle of your story. Starting at the midpoint is a great way to see your character change, and how and why it happens.
Think of it as the point of no return. It’s time for crisis, followed (probably) by some kind of enlightenment. Your protagonist starts to understand the character growth necessary to reverse their misfortune or pursue their goal.
It’s probably also your main character’s lowest point, and therefore a way to see another, deeper side of them.
The midpoint is the point of no return. It’s time for crisis, followed by enlightenment. Your protagonist starts to understand the character growth necessary to reverse their misfortune or pursue their goal.
Researching your characters
While play and exploration are fundamental (and fun!), many writers also turn to more traditional research to better understand characters’ circumstances.
Don’t panic! If scrolling wordy websites or digging through dusty encyclopaedias isn’t your thing, there are lots of other avenues.
For example, Mike Gayle used all kinds of non-conventional resources from his own life when researching characters for All the Lonely People.
You could consult:
- Friends and family
- Activist groups or charities
- Online forums
- Memoirs and diaries
- Personal essays
The great thing about these more experientially-focused sources is that they can reveal intricacies that bring stories to life.
Readers are (generally) not too bothered about exact dates, statistics, and other facts and figures from textbooks. But if one character makes relevant pop culture references, if they buy a certain brand of beans, if they recognise a distinctive smell… These make your setting and characters sparkle. Take a look in their imaginary refrigerator. (Think of a friend's refrigerator. What does it say about them and their life?) How about your character's bathroom cabinet? Snoop around your character's hidden life.
A top tip from our founder is to look for old editorial photos of the homes of famous people and look at what they have in their living rooms in the photo features. You can do the same with TV documentaries. Locate your character in time and place then hang out through media in places that fit the bill.
One thing to remember when researching experiences different from your own (particularly in areas like culture, ethnicity, race, religion, ability, mental health, sexuality and gender identity) is representation and appropriation – we recommend reading this blog post on the topic.
The publishing world is thankfully acknowledging the #ownvoices movement, and uplifting writing by authors from historically marginalised communities and identities. We’re all tired of our bookshelves being taken up by white, cis, straight, neurotypical and/or able-bodied authors who might accidentally perpetuate stereotypes in their writing.
More often than not, these writers don’t intend harm, and aren’t writing stories fuelled by prejudice or vindictiveness.
But intention doesn’t always determine impact. Inevitably, if you don’t understand a community or identity from the inside, you’re more likely to resort to stereotypes. If the only published stories about certain cultures, societies or identities are by writers from outside those identities, then those stories are more likely to be inaccurate, and in some instances, harmful.
Essentially, you can write with the best intentions, and still cause harm. That’s what we want to help you avoid!
How to avoid appropriation in writing
It’s important and worthwhile to reflect on whether the story you’re burning to write is yours to tell.
Granted, a novel is not an autobiography, and you’re not the main character, but prose fiction does allow you to use your experiences and add authenticity.
This isn’t to say we must only write from our own lived experiences. Creativity should be untethered and free. There are so many aspects of existence to explore, the opportunities are abundant.
But when it comes to writing from the perspectives, lived experiences, and history of marginalised communities and identities we need to ask ourselves some important questions:
- Why do I want to tell this story?
- Am I the right person to tell this story? Is this my story to tell?
- What can I bring to this subject matter that no one else can?
- What might the impact be of me writing this story? What could the potential impact be on the community I want to write about?
- Is writing a story that isn’t part of my personal experience or history possibly going to take a marginalised author’s opportunity to share their perspective on their experience and history?
- Could my lack of lived experience and knowledge in this subject cause potential harm, however good my intentions might be?
- Do I have connections to this community or identity? Can I engage with that community to make sure my work is respectful and rings true?
If after asking yourself these questions you want to continue writing your story from a marginalised perspective distant from your own, you must acknowledge the responsibility you’ve taken on to tell your story right: with empathy, respect, sensitivity and oodles of research.
Writing about people who are not like you
Of course, there are also secondary characters to consider, even where you don’t take on somebody else’s perspective. In most novels, we don’t want all the characters to be rooted in identical cultural and social experiences.
When you do include characters whose identities are different from yours, whether they’re primary or secondary characters, keep these tips in mind:
- Your characters’ experiences don’t need to be determined by or even focused on their gender, sexuality, religion, culture, or any other aspect of their identity. You can have a gay character whose sexuality does not affect the plot. You can show someone’s mental illness without making them tragic.
- Hire a sensitivity reader (and we do mean hire: always pay your sensitivity readers!).
Writing about real people
Character research can be especially imperative when depicting people who do or have lived in the real world.
We offer in-depth advice on writing about real people, but essentially: don’t say anything defamatory, don’t make false claims, and treat people’s feelings, legacies and families with respect.
Now that you know your characters inside out, it’s time to think about how and when you’ll let your reader meet them.
Tell us their goal, hint at their motivation
What do they want? A story starts here. Great character development – indeed the plot of almost all novels – hinges on characters’ goals and motivations.
It’s important to remember the distinction. In simple terms, goals are external actions, while motivations are internal needs.
It’s often a good idea to treat them a little differently within your story.
Here’s one of many classic character development examples to illustrate the point:
- Harry Potter’s goal is to vanquish Lord Voldemort
- Harry’s motivation is arguably to maintain the ‘goodness’ he believes in; to preserve the wizarding world; to protect those he cares about; to honour or avenge his parents. Probably a combination of all these.
We’re told time and again that Harry’s goal is to vanquish Lord Voldemort. But are we ever expressly told why he’s so determined to do so? Or does J.K. Rowling allow readers to make their own assumptions and deductions?
Allowing us to ruminate on what drives characters often makes novels engaging and characters memorable.
Good character development needs careful disclosure of their strengths
Just like in the real world, fictional characters have strengths and weaknesses. How you depict them is critical. As with all aspects of fiction, you never want to spoon-feed your reader.
Be sparing with the strengths you grant each character. Of course, your protagonist will need a skill, ability or quality that allows them to vanquish whatever antagonist you’re throwing at them. Their triumph (or even their attempt) has to be believable.
And when it comes to letting us know about these strengths, go slow. Illustrate them through action, where your plot calls for it. Returning to our classic example, think of Harry Potter’s defiance and witty teasing of the Dursleys as a quiet precursor to the bravery and self-belief that will let him, ultimately, (spoiler alert!) beat Voldemort.
Characters’ weaknesses are integral to their development
As well as approaching them gently, counterbalance characters’ strengths with negative traits.
Some of these may even be born of the extremes of their strengths: every virtue has its equal and opposite failing. Meticulous planning sometimes becomes paralysing. Incredible valour could bring recklessness or thoughtlessness. Generosity in its extreme can lead to crippling martyrdom or destitution.
Aside from the shadow-side of their virtues, your characters will need some kind of lack, deficiency or failing. After all, your protagonist’s weaknesses are what create tension in your stories. Sure, they have characteristics that make them capable of battling through your plot, but they also have some that make them ill-equipped to triumph.
Plus, having failings, ineptitudes, foibles – this brings characters to life. This makes us feel for them, root for them, even identify with them. It’s also what lets them develop. Without some ineptitude to rectify, how can your plot make them grow?
Your protagonist’s weaknesses create tension in your stories. Sure, they have characteristics that make them capable of battling through your plot, but they also have some that make them ill-equipped to triumph.
Be as thoughtful in choosing their weaknesses as you are in choosing their strengths. It’s not enough to give your protagonist gangly limbs or an irritating laugh unless they impact their ability to achieve their goal. Make their weaknesses as relevant and consequential as their strengths!
Character development requires predictability
If there’s one word most writers hope to avoid in reviews, it’s ‘predictable’. And yet it’s one of the ingredients for a memorable character. Routine – and second-guessing – helps us become familiar with the main player. The reader pre-empts, fills in the blanks, and enters the story. Remember, your job as an author is not to be clever, or be considered clever; it’s to make the reader feel clever.
We’re not suggesting you make the twists and turns of your plot predictable. Rather, it’s about allowing us to form expectations – which are, initially, met – of how your character will behave. Without this, you can’t create an impactful character arc.
If you want your novel to be unputdownable, it helps to have an element of predictability about it. In the early chapters of TGOTT, Rachel’s morning and evening commute gave a definite rhythm to the novel which lured the reader in. They knew exactly where they were, they knew what to expect until – suddenly! – they didn’t.
She also gave the excellent example of films like Groundhog Day. Isn’t anticipating what will change in the midst of repetition what makes it a joy to watch?
We’ve given some thought to creating compelling heroes, but what about villains?
Villains are the most memorable parts of many great stories. In fact, they’re having a bit of a moment; you need only look at Disney’s Maleficent and Cruella, or the Joker films, which explore what made baddies so very bad.
And if the temptation to create a one-dimensional character is powerful for heroes, it’s often almost irresistible with villains. But do you really want to depict pure, uncomplicated evil? (‘Yes’ isn’t a wrong answer! It’s just something to think about.) JM Barrie's Captain Hook in Peter Pan is a good example of a rather loveable nemesis. Everyone has their weakness!
Many of the villains we love to hate, those that stick with us and get under our skin, have very clear morality. It may not be our morality, or the one our society strives to uphold. But they’re not straightforwardly amoral, either.
What are their motivations? Why do they believe whatever wickedness they’re up to is necessary, justified, or even right? What in their personal history means this villainous character responds with malice?
Many of the villains we love to hate, those that stick with us and get under our skin, have very clear moralities and personal motivations.
If you want to avoid getting into the weeds of their backstory – especially if you fear it’s too dark for your novel/genre/age range – take a look at Polly Ho-Yen’s great advice on writing villains and evil.
Choosing traits for your villains
To develop great characters that function as bad guys, you’ll also want to think about the traits that make them a seemingly insurmountable opponent for your main character.
Consider, even, whether mutual qualities exist. For example, Voldemort and Harry Potter are famously connected, and have a lot in common: troubled upbringings, a lack of parental support, obstinacy, self-righteousness, daring, cunning, determination…
Often, at the beginning of a novel the villain is more powerful than the hero. Thus, the hero is forced into action and growth – and character development ensues!
For more about the complexities of evil and how it can serve your plot, read our blog post on the conflict between good and evil.
Now we come to the heart of the matter, the thing that so often springs to mind when we think of a character’s development or character arc. How have your characters transformed? How can you show their growth in an interesting, believable and not eyeroll-inducing or Aesop-ish way?
But first, let’s think about whether you even want your characters to grow.
Does the protagonist have to change?
We often assume that a story is, essentially, the hero’s journey to triumph or resolution. Their growth from inept to capable. Their maturation or coming of age or enlightenment. A static character is not a well-developed one.
But a static character can be incredibly engaging. They don’t need a steep character arc to be fascinating.
In reality, most of your players will be static characters: unchanging. Your main character will likely develop and grow, but others remain reliably the same. This helps create the sense of a realistic backdrop to your main character’s life.
Other times, in a treatment we describe as Rumours of a Hero, our hero remains scintillatingly the same and out of reach. It’s the narrator who changes, usually as a result of knowing them. This is a treatment used in novels like The Great Gatsby or Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Static characters are some of the most beloved in literature. The most dynamic character isn’t even necessarily the most memorable in a given work.
Characters’ resistance to change can be their strength, their flaw, and even the driving force of your novel.
Think, for example, of some exalted detectives. How much does Sherlock Holmes change or grow? Nor (perhaps unfortunately) does James Bond undergo much evolution. The power and impact – even goodness – of Atticus Finch rest on the fact that he, too, remains resolute, a stoically static character.
A dynamic character is great to watch grow, but characters’ resistance to change can be their strength and provide a solid and credible bedrock for your story.
Creating fertile ground for growth
If your protagonist is going to be a dynamic character, you’ll need to create circumstances and other characters that force their transformation.
For many writers – particularly of disaster stories – this means throwing characters into challenges they’re not well-suited for. Think of Jaws or The Lord of the Rings: they task a police chief who’s deeply afraid of water with catching the shark, and a tiny hobbit who’s never left the Shire with trekking across the world.
Why do writers turn to such unlikely heroes time and again? Because they have a huge potential for change, and readers relish those metamorphoses! Plus, watching them fail and struggle not only creates tension, but builds sympathy and empathy. We love an underdog.
Conflict engenders character development
As well as giving your protagonist qualities that make them ill-equipped for navigating the perils of your plot, you’ll want to throw conflict their way.
Conflict could be an antagonist your protagonist fights (physically, verbally, passive-aggressively…). But it could also be created by their environment or other external elements, their society’s beliefs, the demands of their job, dystopian technology, supernatural forces... These are all what we’d usually consider external conflict.
Of course, internal conflict is also indispensable. Could your protagonist be metaphorically pulled asunder by opposing beliefs, desires or aspects of their personality? Are they juggling responsibilities? Are they facing their deepest fears? There are innumerable internal conflicts they might face.
Ideally, even the most active and physically-expressed external conflict will be mirrored by some internal conflict for maximum character development. Force your character to question themselves and their abilities, to be their own obstacle at times.
Show character development through action
Perhaps the most dog-eared dictum in the world of writing is show don’t tell. But, as is often the case, it’s well-worn because it’s true (sometimes).
It’s no use telling us your main character has a life-altering realisation. Alter their reactions to obstacles and crises. Show us that they’re not quite the same person anymore.
It is the difference between witnessing something from a distance and being right there in the middle of it. It is the difference between readers understanding your story and genuinely feeling it. And we want the latter. We want them to laugh and cry, to be there on those pages with us.
—The Novelry, ‘Self-Editing for Fiction Writers’
Expressing characters’ emotions
A huge part of successful character development is showing how your characters feel, and how that might change through their individual character arc. Again, a thoughtful and individualised approach – and an intimate knowledge of your characters – is vital.
Think about how you express anger. Now think about how your best friend does – probably not in the same way, right? What about your significant other? Your parents?
Some people rage and shout. Others turn chillingly polite. There are people who cry, and people who feel so uncomfortable or guilty with this ‘negative’ feeling that they become sickeningly sweet. Some people treat others cruelly.
Think carefully about how each character responds in each situation if you want to create believable characters.
The same applies in a broader sense. How does each respond to trauma? Do they make frequent jokes? Try to learn everything about the topic? Maybe they refuse to talk about – or even acknowledge – what happened. And don’t be shy about looking into psychological theories or case studies for inspiration!
Remember, what drives our inner motivations is often the way we seek love. We learn techniques in childhood, and we carry them with us. Our founder Louise Dean describes how understanding how characters sought love drove the story for her first novel Becoming Strangers. Some play the martyr, some play the suffering patient, while yet other characters play the hero. We all have our strategies but we’re invariably blind to our own. Another reason you’ll want to ensure that main character is not you.
Here's our favourite advice and insights from our specialist team at The Novelry:
- Think about who the main character is in your story; usually we get an indication of who our main character is because we see or hear from them first.
- Your narrator need not be the centre of attention, but if they experience personal growth that drives the theme of your story, then they are the main character and you will want to begin by telling us something about them to reassure us (sometimes falsely) that their account is reliable!
- Tackle simple character development questions to get to know your characters. How does each of them go about the business of getting love (or attention) in their life?
- Decide who will be a static character and who will be a dynamic one and map the arc of the dynamic character, ensuring it services the theme of your story (or proves the moral of your tale).
- Consider the antagonist as a key player; it’s their role to provoke growth and change in your dynamic main character.
- To make your story easier to write and avoid the pitfalls of getting bored or despondent with your novel, do everything you can to ensure the main character does not resemble you. (As a bonus, you’ll find you're able to use aspects of your experience more freely.)
- Develop your characters for the reader by showing us their associates (who they hang with or look up to), their appearance, their physical gestures and their activity levels. Consider giving them signature phrases or sayings, or recurrent concerns (this tags them for the reader). Show them in action more than you tell us what type of person they are. Ideally, no types in your finished novel. Real people caught on the page!
- Create characters by combining aspects of people you know. Take traits of one and combine with the appearance of another, and ensure at the heart of your photofit person is a small part of your own personality. Ideally, a part of you that you have trouble understanding and want to explore. As F. Scott Fitzgerald put it, what we are most ashamed of usually makes for a good story.
- Those least likeable are often the easiest to write and help you out on a slow writing day. Wheel them into a slow scene with something objectionable to share and mischief to spread!
- Differentiate dialogue depending on age, geography, personality and more. You can tag your characters with speech mannerisms, phrasings, patterns and belief systems that recur lightly in their conversation.
- Finally, remember everyone wants something. Not just in the grander scheme of things but also in every engagement and interaction. Know what’s eating your cast as individuals and in any scene between two characters or more, consider what each wants from the other and how they plan to get it.
Stay curious and open-minded as you develop characters. Character development questions can be a great tool to get you started as you develop characters, sketch character arcs and dig into their personalities.
But the joy of writing is that our characters surprise us and move the story in unexpected directions. The more your characters feel real, and stick to their own guns, the more lively your story will be. Don’t take them out of central casting and expect them to merely service your plot line. Let them live and breathe as real people. Ask not what your characters can do for your story, but what your story can do for them. Put them under stress and we’ll soon find out which has a heart of gold!