How characters grow and change, reach their goals or fail to, keeps us interested. In stories, character development is crucial: If all your characters stay unchanged, even through extreme circumstances, your novel will feel two-dimensional. Developing your characters makes them ring true. Here are 9 steps to creating satisfying character arcs:
1: Decide characters’ goals and motivations
2: Plan external obstacles your characters will face
3: Plan internal obstacles too
4: Give main characters foils
5: Include reversals that move character development
6: Develop characters using action and dialogue
7: Let your characters surprise you and your readers
8: Discover how your characters respond to challenges
9: Compensate for a flat character arc in others
Let’s explore each of these steps further:
1: Deciding characters’ goals and motivations
Character development starts with motivations and goals:
Detective Anna is determined to solve a crime (goal) because she’s new on the job and feels she has something to prove (motivation).
Character Bob, a gambler, loses everything (motivation) and has to start his life over and regain his lover’s trust or admiration (goal).
From the above simple examples, we can outline a few pointers. Character goals and motivations:
- Show cause and effect, action and consequence: Because Anna has not yet proven herself to her colleagues, she feels extra pressure as a recently promoted law enforcement agent. Because Bob has disappointed someone he cares about, he feels driven to reinvent himself and make new choices
- Are linked to desires and beliefs: Peoples’ greatest desires – to be loved, to be powerful, to be wealthy, etc. – are major motivators. Many emotionally-driven desires arise from beliefs. For example, a character could single-mindedly pursue a potential lover because they believe life is best experienced through two pairs of eyes
Characters who oppose your main characters’ goals become tension-creating adversaries. Those who make attaining their goals easier may become allies or friends.
Opposition is one important plot element you can use for character development. Let’s examine obstacles that develop characters:
2: Planning external obstacles your character will face
External obstacles that add to character development come in many forms. They may be:
- Antagonists: A villain or otherwise unsavoury character who has an opposite aim to your main character (for example ‘world domination’ when your character desires peace and harmony)
- Environment: Elements of setting, from the society a character lives in and its dominant (maybe harmful) beliefs to physical setting (e.g. a dangerous mountain overpass). Environmental obstacles a character faces can be temporary (such as a difficult pass) or more enduring (your world’s society’s dominant beliefs, cultures or attitudes)
- Internal obstacles: Characters’ personal struggles: We’ll examine these in the next section
Antagonists (characters who oppose your protagonist or main character) can develop character arcs in several ways.
For one, they may inflict trauma which becomes an emotional and/or physical wound your character must overcome.
They can also create practical obstacles. For example, a double-dealing adviser to a king might thwart an important battle plan without the king knowing, making victory much harder.
These obstacles raise uncertainty for your characters. Will they reach their goal? How will they overcome? As your plot answers these questions, you can show the new skills, beliefs, allies or foes characters acquire while facing external obstacles.
Environmental obstacles also foster character development.
A character who is lost on a mountain trail might use survival instincts and their wits to last until found. In the process, they could discover new strength or wisdom. Or perhaps they return so weakened that another, greater travesty makes a larger impact than it usually would.
What about internal character motivations, characters’ private desires and inner conflicts?
3: Planning internal obstacles in character development
Just like real people, sometimes characters are 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 adversary at times.
- 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 to their tasks
- Self-destructiveness: Gambler Bob in the above example succumbs to an addiction that he knows could hurt his significant other
These are just three examples of internal obstacles but in each case you can find ways for your character to develop and overcome or (in the case of tragedy) succumb to their struggle. [To develop characters whose desires and motivations feel real, get our workbook ‘How to Write Real Characters: Creating your story’s cast’ here.]
4: Giving your main character a foil
‘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.’
Although a foil isn’t absolutely crucial, it is a useful device for character development because:
- If your character changes, contrasting your changing character against a secondary character emphasizes how far they are from their starting point.
- Foils can emphasize both negative and positive aspects of your main character and how these change or consistently trip your character up.
Use reversals – changes of fate or fortune – to develop characters, too:
5: Including reversals that move 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. Because characters, like real people, don’t always act with full knowledge or understanding.
Two examples of character reversals:
- In Detective Anna’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 killer knows her identity but she still doesn’t know theirs.
- In Gambler Bob’s story arc, he meets someone who helps him understand the subconscious motivations behind his 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 pace. Your characters can develop in sudden leaps or baby steps. Variety is the key to sustained drama and intrigue.
6: Developing characters using action and dialogue
How do we know a character has changed?
Often it’s because the character makes choices we wouldn’t have expected them to make. Gambler Bob might drive past the casino without so much as looking in its direction, once he has conquered his addiction, 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. If you were writing Gambler Bob’s story, you could explain his development thus:
‘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. They show the reader in a small space of text that there has been a change. Both have their place. It depends how on-the-nose you want your narration to be.
Like small, revealing actions, dialogue is also useful 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.
Throughout the play (and movie) the dialogue itself reveals Eliza’s development. She moves from speaking in Cockney dialect and slang to speaking in a ‘posh’ manner to speaking in her Cockney accent again. The return to her own mode of speech reflects the important realization that her own worth and value is not dependant 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. A character whose dialogue is full of complaints in your first few chapters might shift to sunnier optimism in later ones, for example, as circumstances improve.
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. Repetition, after all, is a key ingredient of humour. 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. They make us want explanations, so they’re useful for adding 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 others. Perhaps they form new beliefs and opinions or re-evaluate old ones.
Make your character 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 could. If you change a character’s circumstances, brainstorm the possible ways it can affect their existing motivations and goals.
9: Compensate for a flat character arc in other characters’ arcs
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, create interest by giving your secondary characters their own developments. This creates contrast and stops your fictional world from feeling populated by cardboard cutouts.
If you’re ready to brainstorm book characters, try the Now Novel process now.