The Simple 9-Step Guide to Character Development

Once you’ve parsed out your novel idea and can explain it within a couple of sentences, it’s time to tackle the challenge of character development. 

For people who outline their novels, character development is a difficult, albeit extremely important, task. 

The best stories feature multi-dimensional, realistic characters. 

No matter how sci-fi or out there your genre is, believable, compelling characters are a must for great fiction

The difficult path of character development offers no simple shortcut. It’s a hard task, but it’s unbelievably rewarding. 

Your character’s growth and development are paramount for enticing readers, and if you want them to leave satisfied you must nail character development. 

Here’s a simple 9-step guide to help you do just that. 

Pantsers vs Outliners Character Development 

“Outliners” are those who outline their novels first, while Pantsers are those who just “write from the seat of their pants.” Pantsers craft their story through discovery, often writing to find a solution. 

So, how the heck can you possibly ensure a character arc with this strategy? For Pantsers, the idea of giving a character a personal story ahead of time is terrible. For these writers, the characters often reveal themselves and their pasts as the story progresses. 

On the other hand, Outliners know much more about their main characters ahead of time. They’ve planned them out, they have a background before writing. 

Even Pantsers should begin with some idea of their main characters. When writing block hits, it can be useful to return to character development. 

Both Pantsers and Outliners need exemplary character arcs. 

Some of the best books have the biggest, most memorable characters. Here’s what those characters have in common:

  • Heroic, yet human. They are universally human. 
  • Courage for these characters is the ability to act in spite of fear. 
  • Learning from challenges, mistakes, and failure to rise to victory. 

Compelling characters absolutely make a novel memorable and impactful. With the right character development, you can make your characters unforgettable. 

Character Development

What is character development? It’s how your character evolves throughout the story, how he (or she) adapts to challenges. 

Powerful stories contain characters that developed throughout the novel, honing strengths and growing into a hero. 

Putting your character through obstacles is essential for the story and the character arc. Never make life too simple for your character. Big obstacles transform characters and suck the reader in. 

Now, for the 9 steps to character development. 

1. Early Introduction By Name

Don’t wait too long to introduce your main character. The reader should be able to visualize your main character right away. To do this, you’ll need to introduce him early on, by name. 

Naming a main character can certainly be a struggle. You want to strike a balance between interesting and distracting. Unless it really plays to your story, avoid being too quirky or dramatic with the name. 

Modern character names tend to be subtle. Even if they play on certain concepts, the name shouldn’t be too telling (like Joy or Pride, etc). Ensure the name coincides correctly with ethnicity. The name should reflect the character’s heritage, and maybe even personality. 

Naming doesn’t have to be a rush. Treat it almost like naming a child. Browse names online and look by ethnicity if necessary. Ensure the name aligns with the historical location and geography as well. World Almanacs can be beneficial for finding suitable names for foreign characters. 

2. Paint a Picture 

Next, it’s time to give readers a clear picture of your character. Now, there’s no need to go over the top. It’s important the reader sees them correctly, but they don’t need to envision your main character the exact same way you do. 

Rather than dedicate a full page or so just to describing your character, weave those descriptions into the storyline. Layer it through dialogue, action, experience, etc. 

Provide an outline, so that the reader then creates his own mental image of the character. Every reader has their own variation of your character, and this is perfectly fine. It’s just vital to portray the basics, like athleticism, size, etc. 

The more you know about your character, the better you can portray him. To tell your story, you want to know:

  • How old your character is
  • The nationality of your character
  • Physical imperfections or unique qualities (scars, piercings, tattoos, birth marks, etc). 
  • How his voice sounds/ if he has an accent 

If possible, provide a unique identifier, a tag that readers can use to set him apart from other characters. 

You won’t have to necessarily divulge everything you know about the character, but the more you know the better you can generate plot ideas and connect with your reader. 

3. Backstory 

Chances are, the novel doesn’t begin with your main character’s birth. That means he has had years of life experiences before chapter one. 

The backstory shapes your character. Here’s what you need to know about your character’s backstory:

  • Details of where your character was born. 
  • Family. 
  • Schooling/education. 
  • Friends
  • Relationship status. 
  • World view. 
  • Political view. 
  • Religious views. 
  • Personality. What makes him angry, what makes him joyous, etc. 
  • Fears. 

4. Give Him Humanity 

All people have flaws, even the most heroic. Every character should have flaws or weaknesses that provide a sense of humanity.

Readers cannot identify with lead characters that are perfect. This will instantly make him seem unrelatable. The character should have a vulnerability, but not be irredeemable. 

Again, show, don’t tell. Use events to showcase the strengths and weaknesses of your character. 

5. Heroic Qualities 

While your main character should be relatable, he should also have the potential for heroism. Well-developed characters are not average, they are heroes with relatable flaws. Your main character should face challenges, but not be a coward. 

Captivate the reader with heroic qualities, like a hidden strength or ability. Another example of the underdog that rises to challenge. 

6. Inner Struggles 

The physical events of your novel are only part of its power. Your main character should not only face challenges and problems, but he must also deal with internal conflict. His internal dialogue is paramount for your Character Arc. Create an outer character via actions and conversations, but illuminate the inner dialogue as well. Consider:

  • What your character ponders
  • Blind spots
  • Your characters secrets 
  • What embarrasses him 
  • His passions 

7. Draw on Your Life Experience

Embody the character, and become him to help your development. What would you do in the situation if you were him? Imagine yourself in a similar position, and become your character. If you’ve had a relatable experience before, let those emotions and experiences guide your writing. 

8. Show Your Readers

All aspects of fiction, but especially character development, are about showing your reading. Let them take in your dialogue rather than just telling them everything about their character. Allow your reader to explore their imagination, and show your character through the unfolding of your story. His actions, body language, and thoughts will all guide the reader’s perception. 

9. Research First

Before writing about something you’ve never experienced, research it. Readers will know if you are guessing at something. Learn about the experience (or character) you want to write about first because your lack of experience is a limitation. For example, if you are a male writing a female character, talk to different women about their experiences, feelings, fears, etc. Interview teachers if that’s who you are writing about. Take the time to research rather than stereotype or solely imagine. 

Make Compelling Characters

The best characters are not perfect, because no reader is perfect. The most compelling is heroic, or have the potential for heroism, but they still have flaws and weaknesses. 

Throughout your story, the character will rise to the occasion and overcome the toughest situations. But that comes with growth, which you will create in your character arc. 

The key is to develop a character who feels so real your readers cannot deny him. 

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