Character Development: The Ultimate Writer’s Guide

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It’s no secret that readers love stories with great characters. But how do you craft a character that readers will love? The short answer? You need good character development.

Character Development: The Ultimate Writer's Guide

Now, you might be thinking… Ugh, does that mean I have to know every single detail about your characters down to their favorite color and childhood hobby?

No. Definitely not.

In today’s post, I’m going to walk you through developing a character from the inside out. I’ll show you a few key areas to focus on that will not only help you craft a compelling character but will save you time and energy, too.

But first, let’s quickly talk about what character development is and why it’s important so that we’re all on the same page.


What is Character Development?

Character development means two slightly different (but similar) things:

  • Character development is the process of building a three-dimensional character (from scratch) with a fully developed backstory, a unique personality, and a specific set of goals and motivations.
  • Character development can also refer to the change that a character undergoes throughout a story as a result of their experiences. This is more commonly known as your character’s arc.

In this article, I’m going to show you how to do both of these things — and how they’re both connected, but first, you need to make a few key decisions about the type of character you’re going to develop.


Step 1: Decide What Type of Character You’re Developing

Stories are made up of all different types of characters. Usually, there’s at least one protagonist, one antagonist, and a handful of secondary characters that round out the cast. So, the first thing you need to decide is:

Are you developing a primary or secondary character?

Primary characters make decisions that drive the plot and contribute directly to the central conflict in the story. So, these are characters like your protagonist (or your protagonists if you have multiple) and your antagonist. These are the characters you’ll need to spend the most time developing.

Secondary characters rarely make decisions that drive the plot, but they do have the power to impact the decisions made by the protagonist or antagonist. So, these are characters like friends, family, coworkers, romantic partners, etc. Generally speaking, you won’t need to spend as much time developing your secondary characters as you would your primary characters (depending on the role they play in the story).  

If you’re wondering how many characters a story needs, there’s no one size fits all answer. 

  • If you need help fleshing out your cast of characters more, you can check out this article on character archetypes or look to your genre for inspiration and guidance.
  • If you need help pairing down your cast of characters, ask yourself what specific purpose your character serves in your overall story. If that doesn’t help, keep reading to see if the below steps will help you weed out unnecessary characters. 

Once you know what type of character development, you’ll need to consider whether they are a dynamic character or a static character. 


Are you developing a static or dynamic character?

A dynamic character is someone who undergoes significant internal change throughout the course of the story. In other words, a dynamic character is one who learns a lesson and/or changes as a person for better or worse. Most primary characters are dynamic, but secondary characters can be dynamic, too.

For example, Neville Longbottom is a secondary character in the Harry Potter Series who changes over the seven books. In book one, he’s awkward, shy, and scared of pretty much everything. Through his friendship with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, as well as the conflicts he has with them, he changes. By book seven, he’s brave and willing to fight for what’s right. 

A static character is someone who remains more or less the same throughout the course of the story. The people around them, or their environment may change, but they maintain the same outlook and personality as they had at the beginning of the story. Most secondary characters are static, but primary characters can be static, too.

For example, Lord Voldemort is a primary character in the Harry Potter Series who does not change from beginning to end. Yes, he “gets his body back,” (and eventually dies), but he doesn’t change his outlook, values, or personality from beginning to end. At the start of the series, he wants to kill anyone who gets in his way (including Harry), and his goal remains the same all the way to the end. 

Once you know whether the character development is dynamic or static, it’s time to move into fleshing out relevant character details that will have an impact on your story.


Step 2: Flesh Out Relevant Character Details

As I mentioned earlier, you don’t need to know every single one of these details about every single character in your book, but I would recommend that you do this work for at least your protagonist, antagonist, and any important secondary character. 

The goal of this next section is to help you focus on what’s important in character development — or what details will have an impact on your story. That being said, this work can quickly turn into a form of resistance if you’re not mindful or careful with your time.

Now, If you need ideas at any time during these next few sections, you can look to some of these free resources for inspiration:

  • People you know in real life or people from history. Consider any specific traits, personality types, strengths, flaws, or past experiences that might be relevant to the story you want to tell.
  • Characters from other books or movies. This doesn’t mean you should copy them!  Instead, consider your favorite fictional characters. What do you like about them? What do they all have in common? Are there any personality traits, strengths, or flaws that you want to incorporate into your story?
  • Personality profiles or archetypes. For example, check out something like the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, the Enneagram, astrology signs, or even the Hero’s Journey archetypes. (This is one of my favorite ways to gather character inspiration!)

At the risk of sounding like a broken record… You’ll want to be mindful of falling down “research rabbit holes” here. It’s good to have sources for inspiration if you get stuck, but it’s also super easy to click around the internet and get no writing done. #toughlove 

Now, let’s dig into fleshing out the relevant details of your character (this is the fun part!).


#1. Give your character a fully realized backstory.

Your character’s backstory is everything that’s ever happened to him or her before readers meet them on page one. That might sound overwhelming, but trust me, it doesn’t have to be!

Instead of developing hundreds of pages of backstory, you’ll instead want to look for moments in time or memories that will inform what the reader’s going to see in your character’s “story present.” Everything that happens in the “story present” relates to, and takes root in, your character’s past. 

Let’s look at the Harry Potter books as an example. We know some really important things about Harry’s past, right? Lord Voldemort murdered Harry’s parents. Lord Voldemort tried to kill Harry, too, but he failed and disappeared. As a result of all this, Harry was raised by the Dursleys who never really accepted him or treated him like a part of the family.

All of these things play a huge role in Harry’s “story present,” or Harry’s journey from book one to book seven. Notice how there isn’t anything in Harry’s backstory about who his third-grade teacher was or what color he favors or anything like that. The backstory we learn throughout the series is all relevant to the story present.

So, to develop your character’s backstory, you can ask things like:

  • What was your character’s childhood like? Was it happy or sad?
  • What was your character’s relationship like with their parents, siblings, or friends? How did these relationships help shape your character?
  • What key moments in childhood have helped shape your character in a way relevant to your story? Do they have any past trauma or suppressed memories?

And once you know a bit about your character’s past, you can figure out the worldview for your character development.


#2. Understand your character’s unique worldview.

Your character’s worldview describes how they see life and the world. In other words, based on what your character’s life was like in the past, he or she will have a unique worldview with a specific set of values, interests, fears, beliefs, and more. 

Your character’s worldview is important because what they believe, and the way they interpret the events of the story will affect everything else to come. In other words, their worldview will guide their every action, reaction, and decision.

Without a clear understanding of your character’s worldview, you’ll have a hard time writing realistic decisions, actions, and reactions for them. Not only that, but readers won’t be able to appreciate the events of your story (or their significance) and your story won’t have the kind of impact you’re hoping for.

Let’s look at the Harry Potter books as an example again. Harry has a hard time believing he’s “The Chosen One.” This is a direct result of how he was raised and treated by the Dursleys. When he gets accepted to Hogwarts, he worries that he won’t live up to his reputation as “The Chosen One,” and that people will treat him poorly there, too.

Once Harry settles into Hogwarts and makes new friends, his worldview starts to change. Not only does he finally have somewhere to belong, but he also comes to realize that he really is the only one capable of defeating Voldemort. Without Harry developing a new worldview, the story wouldn’t be as interesting, right?

To develop your character’s worldview, you can ask things like:

  • What primary forces drive your character? Do they want to make up for a past transgression? Fit in with kids at school? Stand out from everyone else? How does this driving force shape them at a core level? 
  • Is there anything that your character believes to be true that is actually a lie? Or is there anything they believe to be a lie that is actually true?
  • What key events from your character’s past have shaped their beliefs, values, “life rules,” assumptions, prejudices, or outlook?

Once you understand your character’s backstory, and how their past helped shape their current worldview, the next step in character development is to think about what your character wants and why. 


#3. Goal and Motivation in Character Development

All good stories are about someone who wants something bad enough that they’re willing to make sacrifices and face hardships in order to get it.

That means your character needs to have a specific goal and a strong enough motivation to pursue that goal in spite of the challenges ahead.

And this is what makes a story (and a character) relatable. We all have something that we think will make us happy or bring us satisfaction, right?

So, first, you’ll want to consider what your character thinks will make him or her happy before they step onto page one. This doesn’t have to be anything big, but there should be something specific they want or something specific that they’re working toward.

For example, when we meet Harry in the first Harry Potter book, he’s hopeful about what life might be like when he starts his new school. What he wants on page one is for the summer to be over so that he can start his new school without Dudley being around to bully him (Dudley’s headed for a private school, thank you very much). 

Then, you’ll want to consider how the Inciting Incident of the global story will change or speed up their story goal. This is what’s going to drive your character through the rest of the story — and without it, your story will fall flat. 

Now, let’s look at the first Harry Potter book again. When Harry learns he’s been accepted into Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, his goal changes. Now, his goal is to fit in at Hogwarts and learn what it means to be a “good” wizard. He also wants to live up to his reputation as “The Boy Who Lived” (except he doesn’t quite know how to do that yet).

But having a goal is not enough. Your character also needs a believable motivation. Not just believable, but a motivation strong enough to propel them through the story when things get tough (which they will).

Not only that, but a rock-solid motivation is how we can evoke feelings of empathy in our readers. If a reader understands why your character wants something so badly then it’s much easier for the reader to get on board with the story and to root for your character as they chase their goal.

This is especially important for your story’s antagonist. No matter what they want, they need to have a valid (at least in their mind) reason for feeling that way. For example, we know that Voldemort wants to kill Harry. If that was all we knew about him, that would be boring, right? But we learn that Voldemort’s motivated by a prophecy that says if Harry lives, Voldemort dies. So, because of that, he has to kill Harry.

If your primary characters (and your important secondary characters) don’t have a believable motivation, readers are going to end up questioning why the character is doing what they’re doing and this will pull readers out of the story. This is how most plot holes happen, too. So, to avoid all of that, make sure your character has a strong motivation to push them toward their goal. 

To develop your character’s goal and motivation, you can ask things like:

  • What does your character want before readers meet them on page one? 
  • Why does your character want this specific thing? What does this motivation say about the nature of your character?
  • What is her unrecognized, internal need and how will he or she meet it? 

Once you know your character’s goal and motivation, it’s time to think about the conflict that he or she will face and what’s at stake. 


#4. Conflict With Stakes

Conflict describes any external or internal obstacles or challenges that your character will face as he or she pursues their story goal.

There are two main types of conflict:

  • External conflict is the conflict between your character and external elements such as the antagonist, their environment, society, nature, or supernatural forces.  
  • Internal conflict comes from inside your character. So, it could be anything like self-doubt, a specific fear, a deeply held misbelief, indecision, risk avoidance, etc. (Editor’s tip: this is where your character’s backstory comes in!) 

When brainstorming conflict for your characters, you’ll want to consider specific events or circumstances that will challenge your character and force them to face whatever internal doubts, fears, or false beliefs they’re harboring. 

For example, in book one of the Harry Potter series, a lot of Harry’s internal conflict revolves around finding his place in the wizarding world and dealing with his reputation. 

But including conflict for conflict’s sake is not enough. The conflict in your story must also come with high stakes.

Stakes are what your character stands to lose or gain over the course of the story. It doesn’t matter whether your story stakes are big or small, as long as they matter deeply to your protagonist. 

Not all stories come with life or death stakes. In fact, the most impactful stakes are those that matter most (and are uniquely emotional) to your character. In other words, your character doesn’t have to save the world from an asteroid (though they certainly can), but instead, maybe their business is about to go bankrupt or they want to bring their sister’s killer to justice. Ideally, whatever it is, it’s something that your audience can relate to — and what will force the reader to imagine what they would do in your character’s shoes. 

For example, in book one of the Harry Potter series, Harry’s new home (at Hogwarts) is at stake. He likes it there and feels like this is the right place for him. So, if he steps out of line — or even worse if Voldemort gets ahold of the Sorcerer’s Stone — his new life at Hogwarts is at stake, right? 

Here are some questions to help you brainstorm your character’s conflict and stakes:

  • What kind of external conflict will your character face? Who or what stands in your character’s way and prevents them from accomplishing their goal?
  • What internal conflict will your protagonist face? What fears, false beliefs or wounds will your character need to overcome by the end of the story?
  • What does your character stand to lose or gain over the course of the story? What would success or failure look like for your character?

#5. Give Each Character a Hook

Readers often have trouble differentiating one character from another, especially at the beginning of a story. But don’t worry, there’s an easy solution for this!

One way to make each of your characters stand out from the others is to give them each a “hook” — or a description, personality trait, or association which defines him or her and distinguishes them from everyone else. Not only that, but hooks can help you create diversity within your story.

Hooks can be things like:

  • An accent or specific manner of talking. Depending on where your character is from or what level of education they have, he or she might have an accent or use very specific slang or phrases. For example, consider how Hagrid sounds versus Professor McGonagall versus Professor Snape. You would never confuse their manner of speaking with one another, right? 
  • A unique physical appearance or identifiable feature. Instead of describing every single aspect of a character’s appearance, choose one or two physical traits that are especially unique and focus on them. Readers will fill in the rest with their imaginations. For example, in the Harry Potter Series, Harry has a lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead and glasses. Hermione has crazy hair and buck teeth. Ron has flaming red hair and always ends up with dirt on his face. 
  • Their body language or mannerisms. A character’s physical appearance is more than just what they look like. It’s also about how they move and interact with everything (and everyone) around them. And just like in real life, body language can speak volumes about what someone thinks or feels, right? For example, Harry rubs his forehead when his scar hurts. Draco Malfoy has a permanent sneer on his face that clearly communicates his distaste for everyone around him.
  • A human or animal counterpart. Sometimes another character will act as your character’s “hook” for a character. For example, Fred and George Weasley are twins and they’re always together. Hermione has Crookshanks (who no one wanted) which represents her care and concern for the unwanted. 
  • A unique personality. Every good character needs both strengths and weaknesses. Why? Because every person has strengths and weaknesses and that’s what makes our characters feel human and relatable! Some of the best characters in fiction have a good mix of both strengths and weaknesses. For example, Harry Potter is both brave and loyal. He’s also stubborn and sometimes reckless — which has, more than once, put his life and the life of his friends in danger.
  • A specific role. A character’s role helps readers understand them more easily from the moment they step onto the page. Roles can be anything like a job, a place in the family hierarchy, or a common fictional role like that of a mentor. For example, the Weasleys are like Harry’s substitute family. Stan Shunpike is the conductor for the Knight Bus. Dumbledore is Harry’s mentor.
  • A dominant emotional state – Most characters have a dominant emotional state that they slip into when stressed. For example, Hermione deals with her stress and anxiety by using books and her logical mind to solve problems. Hagrid doesn’t like to be told “no,” so he tends to be a little bit secretive and sneaky in order to get what he wants. Malfoy is almost always judgemental and snarky.

Now that you’ve gathered all the ingredients of your character, it’s time to start using those ingredients to help you shape your character’s arc!


Step 3: Start mapping out your character’s arc.

A character arc describes the change that a character undergoes throughout a story as a result of their experiences.

And the good news is that if you’ve done the work up until now, you should have almost all the pieces of your character’s arc figured out! Congratulations!

Here’s what a character arc looks like at a glance:

  • A character (with a fully realized backstory, worldview, and unique hook)…
  • Wants a specific thing that he or she thinks will bring happiness or satisfaction (goal) bad enough (motivation) that…
  • He or she is willing to pursue it despite the (inner and outer) conflict ahead…
  • And regardless of the cost (stakes)…
  • Who comes out the other side having changed (or having solved a problem).

And if you know your internal genre, you can use these articles to help you flesh out the individual steps of your character’s arc. You’ll also be able to see what kind of obligatory scenes and conventions you’ll need to include, too. 


Final Thoughts on Character Development

Are you still there, friend? That was a doozy!

Hopefully, this article helped you develop a character (or characters) in a way that will help you write a story that works. 

If I could impart any last wisdom, it would be this: give your characters a sense of agency over his or her life. Let your characters take action and make decisions in each and every scene. Then, let them suffer the good and bad consequences of those choices. Craft a story that forces your character to face their deepest darkest fears, and those not-so-nice aspects of their personality that they’d rather pretend didn’t exist, and you’ll be off to the races. 

Not only will you be better equipped to craft a story that readers will love, but you’ll have a much easier time writing a first draft that works, too.

Now, I’d love to hear from you: What did you think about these character development tips? Do you have any methods or strategies for character development that aren’t covered in this post? Leave any thoughts or questions in the comments below!

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About the Author

Savannah Gilbo is a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. Being a writer herself, Savannah understands the challenges and fears writers face when trying to turn their book dreams into realities. Through 1:1 coaching and developmental editing, she works with writers of all skill levels to combat these fears, and take their stories from an idea or messy first draft to a finished manuscript that works. She's also the host of the Fiction Writing Made Easy Podcast that delivers actionable tips, tools, and strategies for writers each week. When she’s not busy creating her own stories, you can find Savannah writing articles for her blog or re-reading her favorite fantasy books over and over again. You can learn more about Savannah and how she helps fiction writers here.
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