You’ve settled on the idea for your novel. You’ve narrowed it to a sentence or two, and you’re ready to tackle what seems an insurmountable task—breathing life into your lead character.
If you’re an Outliner (one who outlines your novel first), it’s time for character development, an endeavor not for wimps.
Spellbinding stories feature believable characters who feel knowable.
Yes, even if your genre is Fantasy or Allegory or Futuristic. Your character may even be a superhero, but he* must be real and knowable within your premise.
[*I use male pronouns inclusively here to represent both genders only to avoid the awkward repetition of he/she or him/her, fully recognizing that many lead characters are female and so are a majority of readers.]
I’d love to impart some gem that would magically make you an expert at character development. But, sorry, no shortcuts. This is as hard as it sounds. Fail at this task, and it shows.
You cheat your readers when your lead character doesn’t develop and grow. No growth, no character arc. No character arc, fewer satisfied readers.
What About Us Pantsers?
Our name comes from the fact that we write by the seat of our pants. No outlines for us. We write by process of discovery. As Stephen King advises, “Put interesting characters in difficult situations and write to find out what happens.”
I identify as a Pantser, so I’m sympathetic if you can’t imagine creating a character and giving him a personal history before starting to write. My characters introduce themselves to me and reveal their histories as the story unfolds.
To a new writer or an Outliner, it may sound exciting and dangerous to wade into a story counting on characters to emerge and take over. Believe me, it’s both.
Frankly, Outliners have some advantages over Pantsers here. They know a lot about their lead characters before they start writing.
Fellow Pantsers, don’t ignore or discount this training. We must start with some idea who’s populating our stories. And when we get stuck, there’s no shame in going back and engaging in this exercise.
Regardless which kind of a writer you are, character development—character arc—can make or break your novel.
Consider some of literature’s most memorable characters—Jane Eyre, Scarlett O’Hara, Atticus Finch, Ebenezer Scrooge, Huckleberry Finn, Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter. Can you name the novels they come from and what they have in common?
- Larger than life, they’re also universally human
- They see courage not as lack of fear but rather the ability to act in the face of fear
- They learn from failure and rise to great moral victories
Compelling characters like these make the difference between a memorable novel and a forgettable one.
So, what are the keys to making a character unforgettable?
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Getting Started: What Is Character Development?
It’s how your character responds to obstacles—both internal and external, and how he changes by the end of the story.
In the most memorable classics—especially those with happy endings—the character develops skills and strengths that make him heroic.
The more challenges he faces, the better for your story and for his arc. Resist the temptation to make his life easy. Only the toughest challenges transform characters.
Steps to Character Development
- Introduce him early, by name
- Give readers a look at him
- Give him a backstory
- Make sure he’s human, vulnerable, and flawed
- But also give him classic, potentially heroic qualities
- Emphasize his inner life as well as his surface problems
- Draw upon your own experience in Character Development
- Show, don’t tell
- Conduct thorough research
Step 1. Introduce him early, by name
The biggest mistake new writers make is introducing their main character too late. As a rule he should be the first person on stage and the reader should be able to associate his name with how they see him.
Naming your character can be almost as stressful as naming a newborn. You want something interesting and memorable, but not quirky or outrageous. Leave Blaze Starr and Goodnight Robicheaux to the melodramas. (Actually, I wish I’d thought of Goodnight Robicheaux; Ethan Hawke plays him in The Magnificent Seven.)
Allegories call for telling names like Prudence and Truth and Pride, but modern ones should be more subtle. I wrote a Christmas parable where the main character was Tom Douten (get it? Doubting Thomas), and his fiancee was Noella (Christmasy, a believer in Santa) Wright (Miss Right).
For standard novels, typical names are forgettable. Ethnicity is important. You shouldn’t have a Greek named Bubba Jackson.
Your goal is to connect reader and character, so the name should reflect his heritage and perhaps even hint at his personality. In The Green Mile, Stephen King named a weak, cowardly character Percy Wetmore. Naturally, we treat heroes with more respect.
Give naming the time it needs. Search online for baby names of both sexes, and most lists will categorize these by ethnicity.
Be sure the name is historically and geographically accurate. You wouldn’t have characters named Jaxon and Brandi, for instance, in a story set in Elizabethan England.
I often refer to World Almanacs to find names for foreign characters. I’ll pair the first name of a current government leader in that country with the last name of one of their historical figures (but not one so famous that the reader wonders if he’s related, like François Bonaparte).
Step 2. Give readers a look at him
You want a clear picture of your character in your mind’s eye, but don’t make the mistake of forcing your reader to see him exactly the way you do. Sure, height, hair and eye color, and physicality (athletic or not) are important.
But does it really matter whether your reader visualizes your blonde heroine as Gwyneth Paltrow or Charlize Theron? Or your dark-haired hero as George Clooney or Ben Affleck?
As I teach regarding descriptions of the sky and the weather and settings, it’s important that your description of your main character is not rendered as a separate element. Rather, layer in what he looks like through dialogue and during the action.
Hint at just enough to trigger the theater of the reader’s mind so he forms his own mental image.
Thousands of readers might have thousands of slightly varied images of the character, which is all right, provided you’ve given him enough information to know whether your hero is big or small, attractive or not, and athletic or not.
Whether you’re an Outliner (in essence interviewing your character as if he were sitting right in front of you) or a Pantser (getting to know him as he reveals himself to you), the more you know about him, the better you will tell your story.
- How old is he?
- What is his nationality?
- Does he have scars? Piercings? Tattoos? Physical imperfections? Deformities?
- What does his voice sound like?
- Does he have an accent?
Readers often have trouble differentiating one character from another, so if you can give him a tag, in the form of a unique gesture or mannerism, that helps set him apart.
You won’t come close to using all of the information you know about him, but the more you know, the more plot ideas will occur to you. The better acquainted you are with your character, the better your readers will come to know him and care.
Step 3. Give him a backstory
Backstory is everything that’s happened before Chapter 1. Dig deep.
What has shaped your character into the person he is today?
Things you should know, whether you include them in your novel or not:
- When, where, and to whom he was born
- Brothers and sisters, their names and ages
- Where he attended high school, college, and graduate school
- Political affiliation
- Skills and talents
- Spiritual life
- Best friend
- Whether he’s single, dating, or married
- Personality type
- Anger triggers
- Joys, pleasures
- And anything else relevant to your story
Step 4. Make sure he’s human, vulnerable, and flawed
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Even superheroes have flaws and weaknesses. For Superman, there’s Kryptonite. For swashbucklers like Indiana Jones, there are snakes.
A lead character without human qualities is impossible to identify with. But make sure his flaws aren’t deal breakers. They should be forgivable, understandable, identifiable.
Be careful not to make your hero irredeemable – for instance, a wimp, a scaredy cat, a slob, a dunce, or a doofus (like a cop who forgets his gun or his ammunition).
You want a character with whom your reader can relate, and to do that, he needs to be vulnerable.
Create events that subtly exhibit strength of character and spirit. For example, does your character show respect to a waitress and recognize her by name? Would he treat a cashier the same way he treats his broker?
If he’s running late, but witnesses an emergency, does he stop and help?
These are called pet-the-dog moments, where an otherwise bigger-than-life personality does something out of character—something that might be considered beneath him.
Readers remember such poignant episodes, and they make the key moments even more dramatic.
It was George Bailey’s sacrificing his travel-the-world dreams to take over the lowly savings and loan that made his standing up to the villainous Mr. Potter so heroic in the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life.
Want to turn your Jimmy Stewart into a George Bailey?
Make him real.
Give him a pet-the-dog moment.
Step 5. But also give him classic, potentially heroic qualities
While striving to make your main character real and human, be sure to also make him heroic or implant within him at least the potential to be heroic.
In the end, after he has learned all the lessons he needs to from his failures to get out of the terrible trouble you plunged him into, he must rise to the occasion and score a great moral victory.
He can have a weakness for chocolates or a fear of snakes, but he must show up and face the music when the time comes.
A well-developed character should be extraordinary, but relatable. Never allow your protagonist to be the victim. It is certainly okay to allow him to face obstacles and challenges, but never portray him as a wimp or a coward.
Give your character qualities that captivate and compel the reader to continue. For example:
- a character with a humble upbringing (an underdog) rises to the occasion
- a character with a hidden strength or ability subtly reveals it early in the story and later uses it in an unusual or extraordinary way
Make him heroic, and you’ll make him unforgettable.
Step 6. Emphasize his inner life as well as his surface problems
What physically happens in the novel is one thing. Your hero needs trouble, a problem, a quest, a challenge, something that drives the story.
But just as important is your character’s primary internal conflict. This will determine his inner dialogue. Growing internally will usually contribute more to your Character Arc than the surface story.
- What keeps him awake at night?
- What is his blind spot?
- What are his secrets?
- What embarrasses him?
- What passion drives him?
Mix and match details from people you know – and yourself – to create both the inner and outer person. When he faces a life or death situation, you’ll know how he should respond.
Step 7. Draw upon your own experience in Character Development
The fun of being a novelist is getting to embody the characters we write about. I can be a young girl, an old man, a boy, a father, a grandmother, another race, a villain, of a different political or spiritual persuasion, etc. The list goes on and the possibilities are endless.
The best way to develop a character is to, in essence, become that character.
Imagine yourself in every situation he finds himself, facing every dilemma, answering every question—how would you react if you were your character?
If your character finds himself in mortal danger, imagine yourself in that predicament. Maybe you’ve never experienced such a thing, but you can conjure it in your mind. Think back to the last time you felt in danger, multiply that by a thousand, and become your character.
What ran through your mind when you believed you were home alone and heard footsteps across the floor above?
Have you had a child suddenly go missing in a busy store?
Have you ever had to muster the courage to finally speak your mind and set somebody straight?
There’s nothing like personal experience to help you develop characters.
Step 8. Keep Character Arc in mind throughout
Step 8. Show, don’t tell
You’ve heard this one before, and you’ll hear it again. If there’s one Cardinal Rule of fiction, this is it.
It also applies to character development.
Give your readers credit by trusting them to deduce character qualities by what they see in your scenes and hear in your dialogue. If you have to tell about your character in narrative summary, you’ve failed your reader.
Your reader has a mind, an imagination. Using it is part of the joy of reading.
As the life of your character unfolds, show who your character is through what he says, his body language, his thoughts, and what he does.
Would rather be told: Fritz was one of those friendly, gregarious types who treated everyone the same, from the powerful to the lowly.
Or be shown this: “How’s that grandson doing, Marci?” Fritz asked the elevator operator. “James, right?”
“Jimmy’s doin’ great, thanks. Came home from the hospital yesterday.”
“Vacation was the tonic, Bud,” Fritz told the doorman. “You’re tanned as a movie star.”
As he settled into the backseat of the car, Fritz said, “Tell me your name and how long you’ve been driving Uber…”
Show and you won’t have to tell.
For more on this, see my blog post: Showing vs. Telling: What You Need to Know.
Step 9. Conduct thorough research
Resist the temptation to write about something you haven’t experienced before conducting thorough research.
Imagination can take you only so far. But you can bet the first time you guess at something, astute readers will call you on it. For instance, I can imagine myself as a woman. I had a mother, I have a wife, I have daughters-in-law and granddaughters, a female assistant, women colleagues.
So I can guess at their feelings and emotions, but I’ll always be handicapped by the simple fact that I’m not a woman. I recently ran into an old friend who told me she was homeless.
I mentioned to some women friends that I doubted her because she looked put together, as if she’d been to the beauty shop.
I said, “If you were living in your car, would you spend money on getting your hair and nails done?”
Naturally that’s the last thing a man would think about. But women in my orbit said, sure, they could see it. Camouflaging your predicament and maintaining a modicum of self-respect would be worth skipping a few meals.
Say you’re writing about what you’d feel if you lost a child. I hope you would only be guessing about such a horror, but to write about it with credibility takes thorough research.
You’d have to interview someone who has endured such a tragedy and has had the time to be able to talk about it.
Is your character a teacher? A police officer? A CEO? Or the member of another profession with which you have no personal experience?
Spend time in a classroom, interview a teacher, arrange a ride-along with a cop, interview a CEO. Don’t base your hero on images from movies and TV shows.
The last thing you want is a stereotype readers cannot identify with and whom some would see through instantly.
You’ll find that most people love talking about their lives and professions.
We all have a favorite (unforgettable) book, television, or movie character.
A well-written novel that follows a Classic Story Structure plunges its main character into terrible trouble quickly. Then it turns up the heat and fosters change and growth in the character from the beginning. That’s the very definition of Character Arc.
A classic example is Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. So specific was the author’s portrayal of this character that the very name Scrooge has become synonymous with a selfish, miserly, miserable curmudgeon.
Yet what reader can fail to thrill at the brilliant character arc that sees him become an entirely new man—joyful, generous, and loving—who learns to feel again?
In the popular binge-worthy TV series Breaking Bad, Walter White begins as a nerdy, naïve, kind, and thoughtful high school science teacher who learns he has cancer.
Because his insurance won’t cover enough of his treatment costs to keep from bankrupting him, out of desperation he uses his skills to develop and sell quality methamphetamine, which allows him to afford the treatments and dig his family out of a financial hole.
Even after he finds his cancer is in remission, he embraces the illegal drug culture and in the end destroys his own life, his family, and many other lives.
There’s possibly no better example of character development than in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
Huck narrates the tale with humor and brutal honesty. He escapes Widow Douglas’s efforts to reform him and a miserable life with his drunken father, joining his new friend Jim, a runaway slave.
Huck lies, cheats, and steals his way down the Mississippi River, learns to survive, perseveres through difficulty, and matures into a young man who chooses to do what’s right, regardless the consequences.
Character Development Worksheet
If you’re an Outliner, a character arc worksheet like this one can help you get to know your hero.
If you’re a Pantser (like me), you may not have the patience for it and might rather dive right into the writing. Do what works best for you.
Click here to download my character arc worksheet.
The #1 Mistake Writers Make When Developing Characters
Making a hero perfect.
What reader can identify with perfect?
Potentially heroic, yes. Honorable, sure. With a bent toward doing the right thing, yes!
But perfect, no.
In the end your hero will likely rise to the occasion and win against all odds. But he has to grow into that from a stance of reality, humanity. Render a lead character your reader can identify with, and in your ending he’ll see himself with the same potential.
That way your Character Arc becomes also a Reader Arc.
You can do this.
Develop a character who feels real, and he could become unforgettable.
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Questions about character development? Ask me in the comments below.