Like real people, memorable characters change and evolve over time. Here are character development questions that will help you link character changes to broader story arcs and make sure your characters aren’t cardboard cutouts:
1. What matters most to your character?
Characters, like flesh and blood people, have histories – backstories that drive their actions and choices. These personal, private histories influence our psychology. They influence our views and values, too.
For example, a character raised in a big family might react particularly negatively to being silenced in a meeting. Why? Because they have a history of having to fight to be heard. They might view other characters who don’t stop talking more negatively than a character who doesn’t have a history of fighting for the talking stick.
When profiling a character for a story, to understand their motives and desires, ask what they value. Then ask why they hold this value. Do they value freedom; independence? If so, why? Perhaps they grew up in a small town that became stifling as they grew. Perhaps they had a needy or unstable parent who behaved more like the child.
These value-creating historical experiences may be positive, too, of course. For example, your character perhaps values family because their parents and siblings have always been their anchor or compass.
You also don’t have to share these details of backstory within your actual story. It helps, though, to have them in the back of your mind as you write.
To develop a character with a motivating, influencing past, first list their values. Then brainstorm possible experience-based reasons for these values. Include:
- What they value most in other people (e.g. compassion, a sense of humour, intelligence, creativity, etc.)
- What they dislike most in other people (e.g. insensitivity, cruelty, dishonesty, etc.)
- Things they like most about themselves
- Things they like least about themselves
The second bullet point will give you ideas for reasons a primary character might clash with an antagonist (or ally), too.
2. What is your character’s biggest desire?
Characters’ desires are key to great plots. Desires underlie characters’ goals and motives. Ray Bradbury defined plot as simply letting characters’ desires unfold and run to their logical ends.
Sometimes characters’ desires are easy to define. For example, a character in an adventure novel whose biggest goal is reaching the summit of K9 has a clear arc (the literal rising action of ascending a mountain) from the start. A tyrant who invades every surrounding territory likely wants more power.
Yet characters’ desires can also change and evolve, as they gain experience or understanding, as our own do.
For example, a shy character in a high school setting might want popularity. Yet when they get a taste of fawning adoration after winning an inter-school sports event, they realize what they really craved all along was authentic friendship, not just admiration.
‘Desire plus change’ is a simple recipe for creating a satisfying character arc. Especially when there are internal or external conflicts along the way that make the reader wonder whether your character will ever fulfill their desire.
To develop characters who have convincing desires that impact their actions, ask:
- Why does my character want this object or event so badly?
- What are potential obstacles to fulfilling this desire my character must overcome? Hurdles supply tension and conflict (for example, harsh weather stopping a climber character ascending a grueling peak)
- What could the effect of not fulfilling this desire be? Some consequences may be life threatening (for example, if a mountain-climbing adventurer gets snowed in near the pinnacle)
3. What’s your character’s greatest fear?
When we acknowledge we want to achieve things, we also face the possibility (however small) of not achieving them. Fear is a powerful character motivator and agent of change, for better or worse.
Pitting your characters against their fears is useful for character development for multiple reasons:
- You create rising and falling action and suspense when characters have to confront ‘worst case scenarios’. For example: A secret crush falling for someone else; a dangerous villain acquiring the magical object they need
- You show your reader how a character reacts in crisis situations. The reader witnesses what a character gains or loses through a trial by fire, and sees their qualities (problem-solving, bravery, anxiety, etc.) in action
If your character’s journey throughout your story is like a passage across a rickety bridge, their fears are the crocodiles snapping at the loose planks beneath their feet. If their own personal worsts comes to pass, will they turn tail and run, or keep going?
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4. What are your character’s flaws?
Of all the character development questions you could ask, ‘what are my character’s flaws?’ is one of the most useful. Why?
- Flaws provide internal conflict: No need to even create an antagonist for tension and suspense if your character is their own worst enemy. The drama of whether a character can overcome their self-sabotage can carry an entire novel
- Character flaws provide explanation for how they interact with others. A character who is always brash and tactless might get on badly, for example, with an oversensitive character
Often characters’ flaws are double-edged too. A character who is a brilliant artist but only functions under pressure, for example, might produce incredible work in a flash of inspiration. Yet they might also leave an important commission too late, endangering relationships with patrons.
Flaws that work both for and against characters are common in novels featuring protagonists who have high-pressure tasks. Flawed detectives, for example, may have unconventional methods that enable flashes of brilliance while also drawing ire from rule-bound, by-the-book co-workers.
As is the case with characters’ desires, think about how your characters’ flaws might prompt change. Is your character’s flaw (for example, an extremely anxious nature) something they must overcome to achieve a crucial task (e.g. blowing the whistle on a public health crisis)? Put your characters in situations that enable you to explore the ways your characters are complex, human, imperfect and interesting.
5. What’s your character’s type or archetype?
Dividing characters into ‘types’ (the lover, the fighter, the friend) isn’t absolutely necessary. Real people are complex and often may be one thing in one situation and something else entirely in another. Yet archetypes – symbolic images that return throughout literary history – are useful for creatingt diverse personalities.
Writers from Cervantes to Stephen King have characters who roughly fit well-known archetypes.
For example, Cervantes’ Don Quixote (in his 1605 epic of the same name) attacks windmills, imagining them to be fearsome giants. You could argue Quixote is the typical ‘Fool’ archetype. His actions are often amusing, yet his determination to stick to his values also has noble qualities. The fool is often a character who possesses the double quality of light, jokey entertainer and wise old soul.
A shorthand way of thinking about your characters and their development might not be perfect but use it as a tool to think about the general characteristics of your story’s cast.
How would a lover – one who seeks harmony and is kind to others to a fault – interact with a warrior-type who is always spoiling for a fight, for example? Knowing your characters’ general qualities will empower you to put them through experiences where they either gain important qualities of other archetypes (for example, the hardened ‘warrior’ finds ‘softening’ love) or are pushed further to the extremes of their type.
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