The Warrior Writers’ Roadmap to Success: Character Development
Did you know that characters provide the reason for stories? Think about it: the story is the problem that the protagonist (a character) must solve. In other words, in between the problem your protagonist faces and the solution to that problem is the story. So, in essence, without dynamic characters, we may have the skeleton of a book, but it will have no life, no soul.
People connect to people. It’s that simple. So when we pick up a book, we’re looking for people to connect to. We put ourselves in their shoes and relate their stories to our own experiences. And that’s what makes characters so important. Without them, there’s no connection, no empathy, no reason to read the book.
Here’s how it works: The protagonist has a problem, but she’s faced with complications (external) and limitations (internal). She travels through this maze of complications and limitations to accomplish her goal, and this journey is the story.
But wait! What about the antagonist? Your antagonist (or antagonistic force) is what gets in the way of your protagonist getting what she wants/needs. Think about it like this: your protagonist wants to get from the problem to the solution, but as she embarks on her journey, the antagonist gets in the way, blocking the protagonist’s path, which creates escalating conflict.
PRO TIP: Most antagonists don’t view themselves as villains. When we look at the story through the perspective of the antagonist, we see that they have their own problem that they are trying to solve. In other words, they see themselves on their own journey of having a goal and traversing a maze to achieve that goal.
Characters are complex, and each one has their own goals, desires, problems, and, thus, their own solutions¾even minor characters. All characters in a story are challenged by their own limitations and complications; we just won’t see their entire stories play out in the forefront.
In other words, the story may ultimately be about the protagonist’s journey, but it’s important to remember that the antagonist and other supporting characters are three-dimensional people as well, living their own complete and complicated stories in the protagonist’s world.
How to Develop Your Main Characters
We’re going to begin by naming our main character. Think carefully about the name you choose, because once you start writing your character, you’ll get to know her pretty well, and the name you give her becomes an integral part of her identity. After that, it’s very difficult to change the name. Trust me, I’ve tried. My co-author and I had named a character in one of our books but didn’t fully think through all the people we knew with that name. About halfway through the book we realized we couldn’t use that particular name, and to this day I still make the mistake of referring to this character by her original name.
Once we have a name picked out, it’s time to describe her physical appearance. I tend to write a few paragraphs of summary about each of my characters, but if pages of character interview works for you, then go for it! One thing to keep in mind is that small details may change as you get to know your character better. No part of this process is carved in stone.
Now that you know what your character looks like, ask yourself what it is they want or need. What is their goal?
Below is a list of questions I use as a guide to create my summary. I don’t fill in each answer per se, but I do use the questions as a prompt as I flesh out my descriptions.
- How do others perceive this character:
- Physical appearance:
- Who are they at the beginning of the story?
- What’s their family look like?
- Is she a go-getter or does she tend to hold back?
- Does she prefer comfort over accomplishment?
- Does she come across as happy and as if she has it all together all the time, regardless of how she feels?
- Is appearance important to her?
- Does she tend to feel melancholy at times?
- Does she hesitate starting something, afraid of failing?
- Is she a perfectionist?
- Is she moody?
- Can she handle a crisis situation or does she fall apart?
- Would she allow herself to be controlled?
- Is she overly self-absorbed or dramatic?
- Does she see the glass as half full or half empty?
- Is she more focused on the needs of others than herself?
- Would she protect the underdog?
- Is she generally agreeable or disagreeable?
- Is she blunt and confrontational?
- Does she avoid conflict?
- Is she critical and judgmental?
- Is she wary of people she first meets?
- Is she a good mediator, seeing all sides of a situation?
PRO TIP: Try throwing your character into a scene. The scene doesn’t have to end up in your book, but simply challenging your character with a problem and taking her through the process of solving it is a great way to get to know her better and discover how she’ll react in any given situation she finds herself in.
As you write and develop more characters throughout your career, you'll find an approach to character design that works best for you, but a simple summary is a good starting point.
It’s your turn! Go ahead and write create dynamic characters!
Now go write!
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Jennifer Harris (JL Harris) is the co-author of The Providence Series and The Catalyst Series. She’s also an editor and proofreader who blogs about the writing craft and editing processes at Inspiring Creative Minds.
When Jennifer is not writing or editing, you can find her hiking, reading, or playing a Beethoven Sonata on the piano.