The Road to Character Development

Characters are the driving force behind your story. They move the plot, and they keep your reader grounded in their world.  If they aren’t engaging, it’s going to put people off. I think there’s more to character development than I can cover in a single blog post, so I’m going to be broad today and we’ll cover more specific points in the future.

From a writer’s point of view, a lot of your character development is going to depend on your writing style. If you’re a plotter, you’re probably going to want to do as much of this up front as you can–but your characters will still surprise you sometimes. If you’re a pantser, like me, you’ll end up discovering their personalities and traits as you go. No matter how you write, editing will give you a chance to review how they’ve developed and refine them until they seem like they live and breathe.

Every story is a journey, both for the reader and the writer. You’ve got your main road that the protagonist follows (the plot), and then you have all the detours and side roads that your characters explore when they get lost or step off the road for a break (subplots). Every step along that journey gives you an opportunity to let your characters grow and show your readers different sides of their personalities.

Most of my stories are about people discovering how they fit into their world, so I almost always have a goal in mind even before I have a character in mind. This makes things really easy for me because reaching the goal–and often discovering that what the protagonist needs is not the same as what they originally wanted–is a massive part of that journey I just mentioned. So instead of dreaming up a fully-formed person who needs something to do, I get to build my person around their dream.

Some people like to use worksheets or make lists of character attributes like physical descriptors, social backgrounds, favorite things, and so on. I don’t. I let things unfold as I write the story, and if I think of something that needs to be added or changed, I make a note in a separate document and address that when it’s time to edit. For me, developing characters goes something like this:

  • Inciting incident–introduce character and goal. I like to start a story by putting the main character in a difficult situation and watching how they navigate that. Conflict is a good way to introduce flaws or insecurities, and any down time gives you a chance to show off any talents and interests, likes and dislikes, etc.
  • Rising action–tensions build and things start falling apart; we see more insecurities and flaws, and the character might start to realize that either something is wrong with them or something is wrong with their world. The character still has their initial goal in mind, although they might be starting to question that. Readers start to get the idea that the character’s current track is unsustainable.
  •  Climax–the character realizes they have to make a change and a big decision, either a personal change within themselves or some major action to change the course of events in their world. (This should be their darkest moment or hardest challenge, and it’s entirely possible that they fail or experience some form of loss).
  • Falling action–deals with the consequences of the choices characters made during the climax. Characters can experience a range of emotions here, with relief and/or guilt probably being a big part of it.
  • Resolution–Ties up some loose ends, but not all of them. This is also where you would set yourself up for a sequel. I like stories that are somewhat open-ended, so I usually don’t put a whole lot of effort into tying everything up into a neat little bow. Life doesn’t work out that way, so why should your book?

That’s a very basic overview for developing a protagonist or main character but, like I said earlier, we’re going broad today. I’ll go over finer points in other posts. Things like physical descriptors aren’t that important to me. I’ll sneak them in here and there when they’re relevant, but it does you no harm to leave blank areas in your story that readers can fill in on their own.

Another thing to remember is that every character is on their own journey. Some of those will branch into the protagonist’s journey and stay the course. Others will intersect with it for a while and then go off in another direction–which readers don’t always need to know about, so do be aware that you’re probably going to end up deleting a lot of stuff later when you find yourself on a long tangent that doesn’t support the main plot of the story. I’m not always great at developing these secondary character arcs. In the rough draft, major and minor characters exist to support the protagonist and I try not to get wrapped up in more development than that. If I do, I end up going down weird rabbit holes and writing pages of material that I just have to cut when I edit.

Once it’s time to edit, I’ll make a list of all of my characters, classify them according to their individual story arcs, and do whatever I need to do to round them out. I usually have my protagonist and then two or three major characters who are also point of view characters that need a lot of development. Each major character needs a distinct voice, a background that they realistically fit into and portray, and a reason to follow the protagonist on their journey. They should all be flawed in some way. Minor characters don’t usually need as much development, but the reader should at least have an idea of why their presence is necessary if they’re going to be around a lot.

Some day, I’ll discuss plot development and go over some of these terms I mentioned today in more detail. I’m not a plotter, so a lot of my plot analysis and work happens when I go back over the story and edit. I have a fun exercise planned for Friday, and next week I’ll be back for another post about your characters. If you have any questions or thoughts you’d like to share, please leave me a comment below!

Image Credit: Emma Matthews Digital Content Production

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  1. This was a great and very interesting article! I really love character building and I think it’s been my favourite part to work on while writing, as you said, while editing a lot get scrapped away from what you initially thought! x

    1. Thank you! I really love creating characters, too. I try to save any extra bits that I have to delete while I’m editing and turn them into short stories or use them elsewhere.

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