Ask yourself why your favorite fiction novel is your favorite, and you may come up with a plethora of reasons to rave about the novel you’re thinking of. But it is very likely that one of the features that made you fall in love with the story is the characters themselves. Interesting characters are often a hallmark of a great story and can make your reading experience incredibly delightful and immersive.

Writing your own characters can be even more enjoyable than reading about even your most favorite heroes and heroines. Reading about the adventures of characters can certainly make you feel as if you are living multiple lives, but there is something about writing your own that runs even deeper. Instead of simply reading about their exploits, you are crafting your own from scratch, creating your own companions to join you on your adventure of writing a novel.

Character development can undoubtably be one of the most enjoyable parts of the novel-writing process. This is the part of writing when you can dive deep into humanity, walk in the shoes of whoever you choose, and create compelling characters whose paths in your story only YOU can determine. No matter how relatable, quirky, heroic, or even villainous you design your characters to be, you will likely feel as close to your characters as if they are real people in your life. Indeed, they are the friends you will visit time and time again when you enter your story’s all-too-real-feeling world.

So what are you waiting for? Allow your characters to introduce themselves!

Why Character Development is Important

Before we dive into my three cornerstones of character development, it may be helpful to first consider why character development is important in the first place.

When writing a novel, there are many important aspects of your story to consider, but crafting well-developed characters is easily one of the most crucial parts of the novel-writing process. This is because your characters are the agents of your novel, the medium through which your readers will experience your story, and the constructs who will navigate your plotlines and both determine and be affected by your novel’s outcome. Without well-developed characters, your plot will have little to move it forward.

With some exceptions, it’s important not to simply rely on your plot and setting to make your novel engaging to readers, or indeed, to you as the writer. Having something to root for, an element of your story that drives readers to keep reading, is essential if you want your audience to not only read, but feel your story. In other words, your characters are the soul of your novel.

If you want to nail this element to improve the quality of your story, read on to discover what my three cornerstones of character development are to bring your characters to life!

#1: What are Your Characters Like?

Depending on the type of writer you are, it is up to you if you want to get to know your characters before you sit down to write or while your novel is unfolding. If you are plotting your novel out before you write, it may be in your best interest for you to create at least some kind of profile for your characters, no matter how in-depth or surface-level. Meanwhile, if you are diving right into the writing process and letting your novel unfold as you go, you might prefer to get to know your characters as you figure out your story so that they can properly fit into the roles your story will require. Even still, maybe you want to develop your characters first and then see how the story unfolds around them. Each way of getting you to know your characters is viable, and it is completely up to you to determine which method works best for you and your story.

If you do choose to get to know your characters before you begin writing, an enjoyable and constructive way of doing this is to spend time with your characters. You may invite your characters to a coffee shop or a picnic, or maybe want to go on a walk or a drive with them… Yes, you read that right! When I was first told to do this, I thought it was a silly idea, but once I let loose and gave it a try, I found it to be both fun and enlightening! You can even interview your character and take notes on what they tell you and how they behave. What are they wearing? How do they speak—lots of hand gestures, monotonously, intelligently? If you are having food, what are they eating? Simply have fun and see what you learn!

It may even help to keep them with you all day and ask yourself how they would behave in the situations you find yourself in. Would they balk at the clothes you’ve chosen for the day? Relate to a strange hobby or habit you have? Complain about how long your commute to work is? Even if your characters won’t be engaging in all of these mundane daily tasks, it will give you insight into what their behavior will be like in your story. It may even give you an idea for a lovable quirk your character could have or generate a fun scene for your novel!

In the same way people are complicated in real life, your characters should also be complex if you want them to be more realistic. To achieve this, there are many considerations you can think about that will bring your characters to life and make them memorable to readers. Read on to see for yourself!

Character Backstories

You don’t have to be a psychologist to know that many of your traits, motivations, and decisions are affected by where you came from and what you’ve been through. This should apply to your characters too if you want them to be realistic and memorable to readers.

Of course, you don’t need to know every detail of your character’s life from birth to the time your story begins, but you should have some idea of what their life was like before the events of your story unfold so that they will behave accordingly throughout the story. Did they have a good relationship with their parents? Did they grow up with siblings? How much money did they have? What kind of student were they? How did they envision their future? These kinds of fundamental questions are important to know the answers to because they will directly impact your characters’ actions—and therefore your plot—in your novel.

For instance, a character who was betrayed by a close friend growing up might have trouble trusting the other characters they meet in your story, while a character who grew up in a warm home with a loving family might have a naïve or sheltered view of the world. Whatever you choose to focus on for your character’s backstory, the idea is to know enough that you can portray an accurate sense of how their background affects their actions and decisions in your novel.

Traits, Habits, and Quirks

Just like people in the real world, characters are the most easily identifiable by their traits, habits, and quirks. The traits you assign to your characters will be their most defining features to readers and should make sense according to their backstories, as discussed above. Their traits should also tie in with their actions—a shy character will likely not go to many parties, just as an honest character will likely not lie often.

No matter which traits your characters end up having, you have the option to make these traits as subtle or pronounced as you want. But be sure not to exaggerate a character’s traits too much unless you are intending to make a caricature of them; just because a character is smart does not mean they should be seen reading or studying in every scene they appear in.

Habits are a great way to make your characters’ traits more apparent to readers. A character who makes their bed every morning and is never late for work might be conscientious while a character who gets together with a different friend each weekend might be extraverted. You can work such habits into your novel to paint a clear picture of your characters’ lives for your readers.

You can even give your characters quirks to make them more realistic. This isn’t to say that everyone is quirky in real life, but many of us have distinct mannerisms that are unique to us and even amusing to others. Maybe your character always walks like they have a purpose, only eats food in small portions, or tilts their head to the side every time they ask a question. These may seem like small details, but they can go a long way in making your characters more authentic and relatable to readers.

If you’re stuck coming up with specific habits or traits, you can use people in the real world for inspiration. We all have those, uh, quirky relatives we could pull a thing or two from…

Strengths and Weaknesses

“Nobody’s perfect.” You’ve probably heard this phrase time and time again, but it’s true. Therefore, you should apply it to your characters by not only giving them strengths but making sure to give them weaknesses as well. A combination of both positive and negative features will make your characters more well-rounded and complex and, by extension, much more interesting to read (and write) about.

It may sound strange, but their weaknesses can make them likable, too. Without them, readers would have a hard time relating to the characters on the page, which might make it more difficult to root for or care about them. It may even make your characters seem inauthentic, therefore making your story feel less real and compelling. Don’t let your lack of character weaknesses become your weakness as the writer!

Goals and Motivations

Just like your goal of successfully writing a novel is motivated by your love of good stories, your characters should also have clear motivations for the goals they are trying to achieve. Without such motivations, your plot may suffer from underdevelopment, or your characters may feel bland to your readers. The drives behind a character’s actions are as important as the actions themselves and will give your story much more depth.

Always keep in mind that the plot should not simply happen to the characters. For a more engaging read, your characters should affect the plot just as much as the plot affects them. Knowing your characters’ goals and motivations can help ensure you don’t make this mistake by turning your characters into active agents rather than passive means of experiencing your story.

It’s also important to remember that a character’s goals are not set in stone; much like real people, what we want in our lives tends to change as we experience new things. A character’s realization that their goal has changed after the events leading up to this transformation can be a great way to give your character depth. Indeed, giving your character a character arc can be an effective way of tying their motivations into your story’s message or theme.

Physical Appearance

While character development typically brings things that have to do with a character’s inner experience to mind, is important not to forget what they look like on the outside as well. Providing physical descriptions of your characters can contribute to their personality and make them easier for readers to imagine. Some physical attributes can even become hallmarks of your character—everyone recognizes Harry Potter’s lightning-shaped scar and round glass, for example. Giving your characters unique physical qualities can make them instantly more memorable and unique.

#2: What is Your Character’s Role?

The second cornerstone of character development is the role your characters play in your story. It’s one thing to know what your characters are like, but it is also crucial to consider what your characters do for your novel. Keeping in mind the role they play as you write will help your plot feel more organic to both you and your reader.

Character Archetypes

The kind of person each character is can help you determine what their role should be in your story. If you’re having trouble assessing exactly how your characters will impact your story, character archetypes can come in handy and can act as a guide to determine which role each of your characters fits into the most.

An archetype is a character who embodies a specific set of universally recognizable traits and behaviors. We all know The Lord of the Rings’s Gandalf as the sage, the wise wizard who acts as a mentor to the main character, and The Hunger Games’s Katniss Everdeen as the rebel, the one who acts to overthrow a corrupted system and fight for what is right. You can reference more common archetypes here if you want to use this method for determining your character’s role in your story. Just try put a unique spin on any archetypes you use so that you avoid cliches… no one wants to read about the same character over and over again with nothing to new to offer.

Once you have determined which archetype your character falls into, you can plot out their actions in your novel accordingly. This can help your character have a greater impact in your story and help ensure that your plot and characters merge well together. 

Is Your Character the Right Character to Follow?

So you’ve determined what each character’s role is in your story. Now is the time to assess if your main character(s) is indeed the right character to take center stage. If you find that your plot could benefit more from another character’s role, then you may want to either rethink the purpose of your plot or who you are deeming your main character.

If you do decide that the spotlight should shine on another character, this doesn’t mean you should omit your original main character from your novel. You can simply allow them to impact your story from the backseat, just like any great side character does. The Harry Potter series wouldn’t be the same without Ron and Hermione, would it?

#3: How do Your Readers View Your Characters?

How your readers view your characters is an important question to ask yourself when it comes to character development. If you are writing with the intention of making your main character likable, how can you best convey this conception to your readers?

Of course, not everyone who reads your novel will have the same opinion on every character featured, but there are ways you can maximize your characters’ intended effect on your audience, especially when it comes to the likability of your characters. If you keep these tips in mind while crafting your characters, it may be easier than you think!

Making Your Characters Likeable

Despite the multitude of traits you could give your characters, one of the most important things to focus on is whether or not your character is likable. Even if you’re giving your character positive traits such as kindness and patience, this may not be enough on its own to put them in your reader’s top tier; it’s possible your reader can appreciate their traits yet find them bland or forgettable anyway.

You can follow these tips to make your characters more likable:

  • Give them more actions and decisions that affect the plot. A passive character typically doesn’t get much praise from readers.
  • Give them more flaws. As previously mentioned, a character who is too perfect will seem unrelatable to your audience. You can even turn one of their traits into both a strength and a weakness: perhaps your character’s kindness makes them too trusting and they don’t realize until the end that the antagonist had been in their inner circle all along!
  • Have them grow throughout the story. Experiencing a character’s personal growth alongside them can make them seem instantly more dynamic. It also makes it easier to sympathize with them if they learn from their mistakes and make a comeback from a defeat.
  • Show positive relationships with other characters. If you want your reader to like your character, an easy way to do this is to show that other characters like your character, too. It’s also beneficial to show this character caring about others; a parent caring about their child, for example, will certainly make them easier to root for. Positive interactions are key.
  • Make them unique. If your character doesn’t stand out or have anything new to offer to your story, it might not matter how kind they are, how much they grow, or how great a friend they are. Giving them an interesting feature, whether it be in appearance or personality, can go a long way.

I know we’re all writers here, but you can think of it as an equation: positive traits plus substance (imperfections, agency, relationships, etc) equals likable characters. Easy math, right? Thank goodness.

Making Your Characters Unlikable

What if you want to make a character unlikable on purpose? It can be especially interesting to follow an unconventional protagonist who is, say, snarky, arrogant, and deceitful. Sometimes, the characters we love to hate can be the most enjoyable to follow!

Developing an unlikable character can be tricky, but following these suggestions can make it easier:

  • Give them clear unlikable traits. This may sound obvious, but if you are aiming for a downright unlikable character (as opposed to a morally gray character), it is usually best for their distasteful personality to be clear rather than ambiguous, at least by the end of your novel.
  • Show how much other characters in your novel despise them. If other characters don’t like this character, it will make your readers more likely to dislike them, too. Negative interactions can be highly impactful.
  • Make them complex. Like any character, you should get to know this character as if they were a real person (refer to the first cornerstone of character development for help). Without complexities, you might end up with a two-dimensional character that is only unlikable for their lack of realism. Don’t make this mistake.
  • Give readers a reason to sympathize with them. This seems unintuitive, but it is an effective way to make your character more realistic even if they are unlikable. If they don’t feel like a believable person to readers, they aren’t nearly as satisfying to hate!

In essence, the key is to make your readers dislike them as a person, but love them as a character.

Conclusion

You may be feeling overwhelmed by the multitude of things to consider when it comes to crafting your characters, but it’s important to recognize that this creative process may come more naturally than you think! After all, your characters are extensions of the human condition and may even surprise you when they seem to have minds of their own. Just keep these three cornerstones of character development in mind to help you create the most engaging characters for your story, and they might just be the most enthralling part of your novel!

Now that you’re ready to embark on one of the most imaginative parts of the writing journey, it’s time to get started! Go meet your characters!

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