Character development: 9 tips for convincing arcs

Character development: 9 tips for convincing arcs

Character development - 9 tips for character arcs | Now Novel

Character development is a crucial aspect of writing stories that are interesting and believable. Like us, character grow, change, make mistakes and learn (or don’t).

Read the following 9 tips for character formation and development. You’ll find tips to use goals, motivations, conflicts, emotional types and other character elements to create intriguing arcs:

1: Plan characters’ goals and motivations

Character development starts with motivations and goals. What your characters wants to do, achieve (or avoid) at the start, middle, or end of your story shapes plot. It’s like Ray Bradbury said:

‘Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.’

Ray Bradbury, ‘Zen in the art of writing: Essays on creativity’, p. 152.

Deciding what your characters want, and why, is a crucial step in deciding what will happen next. [It’s why brainstorming goals and motivations is an early step in the ‘Characters’ section of our story outlining tool.]

Character goal and motivation example: Alec Leamas in The Spy who Came in from the Cold

At the start of John Le Carré’s 1963 Cold War spy novel, the British spy Alec Leamas is waiting tensely at an outpost for news from his best double agent:

The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, “Why don’t you go back and sleep? We can ring you if he shows up.”

Leamas said nothing, just stared through the window of the checkpoint, along the empty street.

“You can’t wait forever, sir. Maybe he’ll come some other time. We can have the Polizei contact the Agency: you can be back here in twenty minutes.”
“No,” said Leamas, “it’s nearly dark now.”
John Le Carré, The Spy who Came in from the Cold (1963), p. 3

This simple opening exchange reveals Leamas’ goals and motivations:

  • Goal: Making contact with his man in the field
  • Motivation: (Only implied at this stage) The man is is carrying important information. Further, Leamas is motivated to wait by the ominous portent of how late the man is (‘It’s nearly dark now’)

The fact Leamas is willing to wait late into the night, after a dark, gives initial character development already. It shows us something about the spy’s commitment to his agents, their safety, and his work.

The other man’s continued attempt to persuade him to turn in gives another important element of character development: opposition.

2: Develop characters using internal and/or external conflicts

Conflict is a useful agent of change. In character development, conflicts can test your characters’ resolve (their commitment to their goals), or might add interesting battle scars (trauma) that shape future decisions.

A character who has been in an unhappy or abusive relationship, for example, may well avoid future intimacy due to the perceived risk. We carry our pasts around, to greater and lesser degrees.  And we bring the templates or lessons they’ve given to new obstacles or conflicts, too (whether constructively or destructively).

So how can you create character development using internal and external conflict?

A) Internal conflict and character development

Internal conflict is the inner struggle a person experiences. For example, a character who is often rebuked for being oversensitive may develop a complex about not showing their emotion too much. Interesting internal conflicts that can shape your characters’ choices and actions include:

  • Risk avoidance: What does your character most want to avoid occurring? Why?
  • Indecision: A character who loves freedom and wanderlust might be fearful of commitments such as fixed relationships or work contracts (they may be torn between love of freedom and the comforts of security)
  • Self-doubt: A character who has low self-confidence might doubt their intuition and ignore it, making choices that aren’t ultimately in their best interests

These are just some possible sources of internal conflict. Brainstorming characters’ backstories will help you understand where characters’ internal conflicts come from. Show how your characters grow and overcome internal conflict (or fall into the same habits and patterns – a typical feature of ‘tragic hero’ figures). 

B) External conflicts and character development

External conflict is the conflict between a character and external elements such as:

  • Antagonists: Characters whose goals are opposite – such as a tyrant king (if your main character were a rebellious peasant)
  • Environment: For example, the battle between Santiago, an aging fisherman, and a marlin in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
  • Society: For example, a character who is shunned by their society for non-accepted behaviour, such as Hester Prynne who has a child through an affair and is shunned by puritan society in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850)
  • Supernatural forces: Many horror and supernatural stories involve conflicts between characters and malevolent, inexplicable forces, such as the struggle between the children and the shape=shifting evil that mimics children’s fears in Stephen King’s It

External conflicts develop characters in many ways:

  1. They could inflict trauma which becomes an emotional and/or physical wound your character must overcome.
  2. They create practical obstacles that test characters’ skill, resolve or power. For example, Santiago in Hemingway’s novel is in danger as he grapples with the marlin on the open sea.
  3. They raise exciting uncertainties. Will the old man overcome the marlin? Will the children survive ‘It’? Because external conflicts have force or will of their own, they’re circumstances beyond characters’ control, and this makes them unpredictable and exciting.

Use internal and external conflicts to create circumstances that test, change and grow your characters.

A child who undergoes a harrowing experience, for example, may emerge wizened beyond their years, melancholic, angry – there are many possible ways we can respond to events, and that’s what makes great character development mesmerizing. The fascinating combination of freedom vs choice, the unexpected vs the inevitable.

3: Use characters’ emotions to drive development

Just like real people, our characters have emotional inner worlds. Even if this world consists of a lack of emotion (or rather, of the ability to show emotion), this is still an emotional quality. We can compare it to how other characters feel, handle or display their own emotions.

Examples of emotional states that drive character development

Think about a character you’ve developed or have thought about. What is their dominant emotion? It could be:

  • Anxiety
  • Optimism
  • Melancholy
  • Anger
  • Joy
  • Determination

These are just some examples of emotional states a character might slip into.

How does a determined/driven character act vs a mostly anxious one? What are the pluses and minuses of their emotional makeup when it comes to pursuing their goals? How might these emotions shape their motivations? (An anxious character, for example, will try to avoid situations that trigger their anxiety).

Know your characters emotionally and you’ll have the underlying currents and causes that shape their actions. [Develop believable characters – get our workbook ‘How to Write Real Characters: Creating your story’s cast’.]

character development quote - Ray Bradbury | Now Novel

4: Give your main characters foils who contrast

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.’

Chris Baldick, ‘Foil’, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (2001), p. 98

A foil might not be necessary. But a character like Jane Eyre’s school friend Helen is useful for developing a main character because:

  1. The contrasts between a character and their foil throw each characters strengths and weaknesses into relief, emphasizing their key attributes.
  2. Foil characters can supplement other characters’ strengths and weaknesses, providing contradiction, argument, or help when most needed. This element work in, for example, the figure of the ‘straight man’ in comedy – the straight-laced, level-headed character who brings a flighty, kooky character back down to earth.

Reversals – changes of fate or fortune – help to develop characters, too:

5: Include reversals that shift character development

If you look at real people in your life, how many have developed in a simple, continuous line? In career, relationships and more, many people change, some more often than others.

Character reversals are larger changes of fortune that suddenly shift conditions, for better or worse.

Two examples of character reversals:

  • In J.K. Rowling’s successful Harry Potter series, there’s an early reversal in book one when the orphan title character, who lives with his unkind aunt and uncle, finds out he has been chosen to attend a magic school. This reversal takes Harry out of their malignant guardianship every school season, allowing him to grow and discover his worth and power.
  • In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), characters raised in a home for children discover first that they are raised to donate organs (but there is a deferral system), then that deferrals aren’t allowed (in a horrifying twist)

The first reversal is a positive reversal – a character’s life develops for the better. The second is a negative reversal, in that the sudden change in circumstances portends tragedy.

Sea changes such as these are useful for suddenly taking characters in new directions that give them space to confront new challenges, discoveries and struggles.

Irvine Welsh quote - character development | Now Novel

6: Develop 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. The coward defends the bullied kid. The bully shows vulnerability that reveals the underlying causes of his behaviour.

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 explicitly tell the reader how the main character has changed. Revealing actions are subtler and can add up over time to convey a sense of development.

Dialogue is also useful for this element of gradual change:

Example of using dialogue to develop characters

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 dependent on class conformity.

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.

Developing characters - infographic | Now Novel

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.

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. However, moderation (as in many things), is key.

Having your characters change mood, motivation or habit every other chapter could make them seem too inconsistent. If you do this, make sure there is an explanation that upholds your story’s internal logic.

8: Decide how your character will respond to changing circumstances

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 of change shift your character’s inner world, too. 

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 motivations,  goals, hopes and dreams moving forwards in your story.

9: Compensate for static characters 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 (or static character), create interest by giving your secondary characters their development of their own. Round characters who have depth and complexity can add surrounding dimension to an otherwise ‘typical tough guy’ protagonist. Contrast between characters is key to creating an ensemble of well-developed characters who feel real.

Brainstorm book characters and start the Now Novel process now.

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