Tips & Tricks

My writer’s guide for character development!

I’m a book writer by heart, and I’ve made many characters. I think I’ve got over 50 so far. So, I decided: why not help others who want to start writing as well? Here’s my writer’s guide for character development! 

  • Introduce them early by name
  • Give readers a look at them
  • Give them a backstory
  • Make sure they’re human, vulnerable and flawed
  • Give them a classic, potentially heroic quality or multiple qualities
  • Emphasize their inner life as well as their surface problems
  • Draw upon your own experience in character development
  • Show don’t tell
  • Conduct thorough research

Step 1: introduce them early by name

Naming your character can be almost as stressful as naming a pet. You want something interesting, memorable. Not quirky and outrageous. For standard novels, typical names are forgettable. Ethnicity is important, so be aware of that. Your goal is to connect your reader and the character. So, the name should reflect its heritage and perhaps hinting at his personality. Search online for names of both sexes. Most lists will categorize these by ethnicity. Also, be sure the name is historically and geographically accurate.

Step 2: give readers a look at them

You want a clear picture of your character in your mind, but don’t force your reader to see them exactly as the way you do. Sure, height, hair and eye colour, and physicality are important. It’s important that your description of your main character isn’t rendered as a separate element. Rather, layer in what they look like through dialogue and during the action.

  • How old are they?
  • What’s their nationality?
  • Do they have scars? Piercings? Tattoos? Physical imperfections? Deformities?
  • What does their voice sound like?
  • Do they have an accent?

Step 3: give them a backstory 

A backstory is everything that’s happened before chapter 1. So, dig deep. What has shaped your character into the person they are today?

  • When, where, and to whom they were born
  • Brothers and sisters, their names and ages
  • Where they attended high school, college and university
  • Political affiliation
  • Occupation
  • Income
  • Goals
  • Skills and talents
  • Spiritual life
  • Friends
  • Best friend
  • Whether they’re single, dating, or married
  • Worldview
  • Personality type
  • Anger triggers
  • Joys, pleasures
  • Fears
  • And anything else relevant to your story

Step 4: make sure they’re human, vulnerable and flawed

A lead character without human qualities is impossible to identify with. However, make sure their flaws aren’t deal-breakers. They should be forgivable, understandable and identifiable. Be careful not to make your hero irredeemable. You want a relatable character for your readers. So,  they need to be vulnerable. Create events that subtly exhibit strength and spirit. Make them real, give them a pet-the-dog moment.

Step 5: give them a classic, potentially heroic quality or multiple qualities

While striving to make your characters real and human, be sure to also make them heroic or implant within them at least the potential to be heroic. After they learned from their failures to get out of the trouble you plunged them into, they must rise to the occasion, to score a great moral victory. They can have a weakness but must show up and face the music when necessary. A well-developed character could be extraordinary, but relatable. Don’t allow your protagonist to be the victim. Sure, they can face obstacles and challenges, but don’t portray them as a coward. Give them qualities that captivate, making the reader wanting to continue reading. For example:

  • a character as an underdog rises to the occasion.
  • a character with a hidden ability subtly reveals it early in the story and later uses it in an unusual or surprising way.

Step 6: emphasize their inner life as well as their surface problems

What happens is one thing. Your ‘hero’ needs trouble, a problem, a quest or challenge. You know, something that drives the story. But, just as important is your character’s primary internal conflict. That will determine their inner dialogue. Mix details from people you know, and yourself, to create the inner and outer person. Why? So you know how to respond in a life or death situation. So, ask yourself:

  • What keeps them awake at night?
  • What is their blind spot?
  • What are their secrets?
  • What embarrasses them?
  • What passion drives them?

Step 7: draw upon your own experience in character development

The best way to develop a character is to become that character. Imagine yourself in every situation they find themselves in, facing the dilemmas, answering the questions. How would you react, if you were them? Sure, you may have never experienced such a  thing, but you can imagine it. Think back to the last time you felt scared, multiply that and become your character. There’s nothing like personal experience to help you develop characters.

Step 8: show don’t tell

Give your readers credit by trusting them to deduce character qualities by what they see in your scenes and hear in your dialogue. If you need to tell about your character in narrative summary, you’ve failed. Your reader has a mind, capable of imagination. Using is what creates the joy of reading. As their life unfolds, show who your character is through what they say, their body language, their thoughts and what they do. For example: ‘Tom is one of those friendly types who treats everyone the same: from the powerful to the lowly.’ When they speak, they ask about one’s grandson, compliment them on their visual looks and makes a gentle talk with the cab driver. Show, and you won’t have to tell.

Step 9: conduct thorough research 

Resist the temptation to write about something you haven’t experienced before conducting thorough research. Imagination can take you only so far. Readers will call you out on your guesses in your character. Imagining yourself as a woman while being a man, or the other way around, often tells people they can easily guess their feelings and emotions. But, they’ll always be handicapped by the simple fact that they’re not that person. Say you’re writing about the loss of a child. To write about such a horrible disaster, would take thorough research. You’d have to interview someone who endured such a tragedy. Is your character a teacher or a police officer? A profession you have zero experience with? Spend time in a classroom, arrange a ride-along with a cop. Don’t base your hero on images from films and series. The last thing you want is those stereotype readers to not be able to identify with your characters.

Good luck with writing your story! 

Love, Deem ❤

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Image source: Pexels

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