Character development: 9 tips for convincing arcs

Character development is crucial in stories exploring how people relate to each other and their environments. If all your characters stay unchanged, even through extreme circumstances, your novel can feel flat; two-dimensional. Developing your characters creates variety and makes characters vivid. Here are 9 steps to creating satisfying character arcs:

1: Summarise your character’s core goals and motivations

2: Plan external obstacles your character will face

3: Plan internal obstacles to character development

4: Give your main character foils

5: Include a reversal that tests your character

6: Use actions and dialogue to develop character

7: Let your character surprise you and your readers

8: Decide how your character will respond to all changes: Cirumstantial, environmental, relational

9: If your main character’s arc is flat, compensate in others

1: Cause and effect: Using motivations and goals

All novels that have good character development show the principles of cause and effect. Because Character A witnesses a crime, she embarks on a single-minded mission to discover the identity of the killers and uphold justice. Because character B is addicted to gambling he loses everything and has to start his life over. Character A is motivated by the desire for justice. Character B is motivated by a reversal of fortune that requires him to re-evaluate his life.

To create believable character development, first decide on your character’s primary motivations:

  • What internal motivations cause them to follow a specific course of action? These could be personality traits such as ambition, vengefulness, compassion or another postive or negative characteristic
  • What external forces cause them to embark on a process of development? A character whose close friend, relation or significant other is kidnapped might find reserves of inner strength and bravery in the process of seeking out the abductee, for example

Your character’s goals create the story’s destination. Character A will expose the perpetrators of the murder at all costs, while character B strives to regain financial stability and control over his own life. In each case, there is a fierce need or desire that takes priority over smaller wants and needs.

When creating character goals and motivations:

  • Give each secondary character a goal and motivation, even if these details don’t feature in your story. It will help you give each character a sense of purpose and personality
  • Pick goals that contain a degree of urgency: In a romance novel, your main character’s goal might be ‘forming a romantic relationship with a new acquaintance’. Adding a ‘before’ to the equation creates more reader investment. Perhaps your character needs to win over the love interest before they return to another country, or before they are obligated to enter an arranged marriage. Limits on how and when goals can be reached increase pace and make stories interesting

2: Plan external obstacles that will develop your character

As people, we have to change sometimes not only thanks to our own desires but because of external pressures. To create a believable character arc, make sure that your character’s obstacles aren’t only internal. In Character B’s character arc, for example, his own addiction might make recovering from his gambling past challenging, but debt collectors could also hinder his chances to remake himself  (or spur him to start improving his life).

Showing how your main character overcomes (or is destroyed by) internal as well as external forces helps to make your fictional world three-dimensional. Readers can see that each character’s life takes place in a complex world where people’s actions and decisions have both immediate and far-reaching results.

3: Include internal obstacles in character development

Just like real people, sometimes characters should be their own worst enemies. In a novel where the protagonist seems beyond reproach and all the other characters villainous, everyone begins to feel one-dimensional. A credible hero has flaws that make him his own villain at times.

What are internal obstacles that can force your character to grow and develop?

  • Anxiety: Your character is fearful and this causes him to step outside of his comfort zone or hug closer to it as the story progresses
  • Self-isolation: Detective and spy novels are abundant with the ‘lone wolf’ type who doesn’t get too close to others. Yet these characters can grow and develop as they let in others whose help proves vital
  • Self-destructiveness: Character B in the above example (the gambler) is drawn towards behaviour by his addiction that he knows is contrary to his own best interests

These are just three examples of internal obstacles but in each case you can find ways for your character to develop and overcome their struggle or spiral down a negative arc that leaves them worse-off than before (the latter is typical of tragedy).

4: Give your main character a foil

Chris Baldick, in the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, defines a character foil thus:

‘A character whose qualities or actions serve to emphasize those of the protagonist (or of some other character) by providing a strong contrast with them. Thus in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the passive obedience of Jane’s school-friend Helen Bums makes her a foil to the rebellious heroine.’

Why is it important for character development that your main character has a foil?

Because if your character changes, contrasting your changing character against a secondary character emphasizes how far they are from their starting point. Character B, after turning his life around, might encounter an old gambling acquaintance who is still in a hopeless situation. These contrasts make your main character’s development and growth appear more decisive. Foils can be used to emphasize both negative and positive aspects of your main character and how these change or remain constant throughout your novel.

5: Include a reversal that propels character development

If you look at real people in your life, how many have developed in a straight line? The truth is that people often take three steps forward and two steps back. Characters, like real people, don’t always act with full knowledge or understanding, and there should be moments of recognition and realization in your novel that show that your characters (unlike their author) have limited awareness of their individual situations.

Two examples of character reversals:

  • In Character A’s story arc, she thinks she is being secretive in how she follows the killer’s trail. Suddenly she discovers she’s in a game of cat and mouse because the killers know her identity but she still doesn’t know theirs. This leads her into hiding as she reevaluates her entire strategy
  • In Character B’s story arc, he meets someone who helps him understand his subconscious motivations for destructive behaviour. The new character inspires him to start making positive changes in his life

The examples above show that character development doesn’t have to happen at a smooth gradient: Your characters can develop in sudden leaps or baby steps – variety is the key to drama and intrigue.

6: Use actions and dialogue to develop your character

How do we know character have changed? Often because the character makes choices we wouldn’t have expected them to make. Character B might drive past the casino without so much as looking in its direction, once he has conquered his urge to gamble, for example.

As Rick Meyer for Nieman Storyboard says, ‘Sometimes you’ll be tempted to develop characters by saying who they are. Show them instead.’

Beginning writers are often tempted to explictly tell the reader how the main character has changed. The same information above (the fact that character B has overcome his urges) could be explained to the reader: ‘He no longer craved the neon lights and the soft-but-coarse feel of the green felt’. Yet small actions such as the gambler not looking as he drives past the casino are more subtle and show the reader in a small space of text that there has been a change.

Similarly to action, dialogue can be a great vehicle for character development. In the classic 1964 musical My Fair Lady, based on the play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, Eliza Doolittle is a Cockney flower girl who takes lessons from a language professor so that she can speak like a lady, a more privileged member of society. As Eliza goes from speaking in Cockney dialect and slang to speaking in an upper class manner to speaking in her Cockney accent again, the way the character speaks mirrors her development and discovery of her own intrinsic value that doesn’t depend on how she expresses herself.

To make your character development complex and believable, consider how changes in behaviour, speech and circumstances all intersect and can be used to paint a more convincing character portrait.

7: Let your character surprise you and your readers

Although character development depends on showing a chain of cause and effect – how your character responds to specific situations – surprise is a useful element of character change.

A character acting out of type unexpectedly can drive home that they are reaching a new point in their narrative arc. If a character who is normally greedy and miserly suddenly acts charitably and selflessly, this new development can spark a change of course in the story.

A character who behaves predictably throughout the arc of your story can be interesting. It can show a predictability that can become humorous via repetition, for example. There is no one way to develop (or intentionally not-develop) your characters. But surprises and twists throw the reader into a state of curiosity and suspense, wanting explanations, and this is useful for adding dramatic contrast and intrigue.

8: Decide how your character will respond to changing circumstaces

Your character’s circumstances might change in many ways in the course of your story. They might travel to a new location, they might form or lose relationships with other actors in your novel’s cast, and they might form new beliefs and opinions or re-evaluate old ones.

Make your character’s development ring true by making each of these elements yield a response. A change in city might change your character’s way of life and emotional life-world just as much as a change of romantic partner or a new realization might. Whenever you change your character’s circumstances, brainstorm the possible ways it can affect existing routines, views and goals.

9: Compensate for a flat character arc in other characters’ trajectories

Sometimes your primary character might step into your story more or less fully formed. This is typical of action thrillers, for example, where the hardened tough guy must simply navigate and solve a new set of dangers.

As K.M. Weiland advises, when you have a flat character arc, you can create variation and interest by giving your secondary characters their own developments. This creates contrast and stops your fictional world from feeling populated by cardboard cutout stock characters.

If you’re ready to brainstorm book characters, try the Now Novel process now.

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