What is Character Development?
Developing a story is only half the battle. Character Development isn’t just the art of naming and describing a character, but dives deeper. This covers the overall design of a character physically, mentally, and emotionally. Proper development should show reaction, change, and growth in more than one way. At the same time, a character is expected to be consistent, but not always predictable. Development should not stop with the main character or characters, but extend into secondary and tertiary characters. A cast of well-developed characters can help a writer move their plot as well as make their story more immersive by pulling the reader into the plot in a more intimate manner.
No one can develop anything without first making a character. Each writer has a different methodology for creating them but in the end we all usually can answer the following questions about our main character and some secondary characters:
- What’s their name? (First name only, nickname, full name, aliases, etc.)
- What do they look like? (Hair, eyes, ethnicity, scars, tattoos, outfit, weaponry, etc.)
- How old are they? (Ancient, Old, young, a certain age, etc.)
- Their placement in the world? (Princess, Servant, Farmer, low-class, upper-class, etc.)
- Personal goals and dreams? (Save the world, Save the girl/guy, get rich, run away, etc.)
Even after answering these you may still look at your character and feel they are plain, lacking in depth. It is very common for a character to be referred to as flat if this is the sensation they leave the readers. Proper Character Development needs more than these five core questions in order to create a round character. You should never feel like you have completely described a main or secondary character with just these five elements from above. Instead, I would like for you to add five more questions to your arsenal:
- What consistent behaviours? (Catch phrase, rubs jaw, cracks knuckles, sighing, etc.)
- Dislikes? (Another Character, pet, activity, item, food, working, procrastination, etc.)
- Loves? (Another Character, pet, activity, item, food, working, procrastination, etc.)
- Personality traits? (Introverted, extroverted, outgoing, shy, short-tempered, etc.)
- Flaws & Achievements? (Judgmental, Awards, poor fighter, emotionally scarred, etc.)
We create characters because they help us make our stories and plot more tangible to write and read. For instance, what good is a Romance story without two or more lovers to play out the rollercoaster ride needed to express that there is a love story happening. When you are asked to describe yourself, you don’t start with how you look, but more or less what you like and dislike, you label your personality as “creative” or “bashful”, and a lot of times share achievements and dreams. These are the other side of the fence that is often lacking in a character in order to create strong character development. That is where the terms “flat” or “round” come into play when developing a character for your story and readers.
If someone is calling a character flat, they are saying “hey, this guy feels like a paper cut out.” It seems like a scary statement, and it should be for any writer, but this means your character lacks personality, individuality, depth, and tangible substance! Often we see flat characters for the secondary and tertiary characters in the form of the cookie-cutter servant, merchant, mysterious stranger in a cave with a wooden sword for a small elf boy, the mother giving up her child, and so on. From book-to-book these characters may seem like the same fill-in, and as writers, we can do better! Do your best to make a richer cast of characters but keeping the amount of flat characters as low or non-existent as possible.
Well-developed characters are referred to as round. A round character has life and depth to them, ambitions, likes and dislikes, habits good and bad, goals and motives, and more importantly flesh. Readers will often fall in love with round characters even if they are nothing but the servant or a silly merchant the main character meets once. These characters have memorable presence and that makes the reader fall into the world further and makes it far easier for you to illustrate the plot on a more intimate level.
How Do I Check My Characters?
You have a cast of characters, but often it is hard to see if they are round or flat. You have to base this off of the information you have given the readers through your writing. List what contextual information you have revealed about them and start to repaint your image of them from there. If that version does not match what you had in mind, you may want to revise what you have written so far. Sometimes this means adding more description in several ways:
- Observations from the Main Character/Narrative point of view
- Add hints of behaviour or note more specific description areas
- Dialogue and banter can reveal relationship status and personality
These are the three ways I have used to adjust and correct moments where I have unintentionally left my “written version” of the character flatter than the one I have developed in notes or in my mind. In the rush of drafting out a chapter or story, it is not uncommon to skip over defining a physical detail (eye or hair colour), including weapons and accessories pertinent to the scene, placement of where they are in the scene, coming and going of characters in a scene, or even unique behaviours that should be noted for that character. If three out of the four characters in a scene are nervous, make sure their physical states, verbal banter, and emotional states are all covered in some way.
They were nervous, but I knew what I was doing.
Sweat painted everyone’s skin except mine. Angela was tugging on her shirt hem and Mike was pumping his right fist while Lisa bit her lip waiting for my signal. I smirked, they were nervous, but I knew what I was doing.
Never hesitate to add some flare and movement. Just from this addition we get a better image of how each character is different yet they were all nervous. You also get insight of how the main character feels about this as he smirks, but at the same time there is a relationship cord added to this now. We have a main character who is observing those who were about to take action with them, something tangible in a situation like this. We may not know what they plan on doing, but we can see emotional and physical states here. This adds to helping round out both the main and secondary characters for the readers and plot.
I often get asked on a quick way to check a currently being developed character for round or flat status. An exercise I have developed for myself has proven very useful in identifying characters by using one simple YES or NO question. Granted, this doesn’t mean the character does not need further development, but it at least lets you know if you are moving in the right direction. Picture your character, or even a line of your characters, standing in front of a classroom. We’ve all been there, or have seen classmates in this position time-and-time again. This gives us a real life comparison which helps you instantly know the answer. Your characters are lined-up in front of the class, standing there in front of the chalkboard, painfully waiting for the teacher to ask a question or explain what they are doing up in front of staring eyes. Now they’ve been standing there for a good minute, two minutes, ten or more minutes now, still waiting as the audience glares at them. Now, ask yourself this one question:
Do they fidget?
Real life people always do something, whether it’s tugging on their coat sleeves, twirling hair on a finger, shifting, moaning in annoyance, something and anything. Often I use the Harry Potter crew for a reference of what round characters would be doing. It helps that the HP series is school oriented and put into a movie format, but J.K. Rowling has done a wonderful job at rounding out her characters. If you picture any character emotionless, standing perfectly still, or worse, non-reactive to being put in this situation, then these need more development to make them round characters.
Why so much pressure to first make them round? Character development can be painful or impossible on a flat character. Worse, I often see forced development on flat characters that pull the reader out of the story due to inconsistent character design. It can easily feel as if “Mike” has gone from a short-tempered, fist pumping, bromance type to “Mike” who just gave an awkward speech unbefitting of how the writer has written him until this point. There is also the fact that if you want a character to “change”, growth and development has to happen before this. Instant, unexplained shifts in a character’s design or development break a story and even the plot. It often leaves a reader confused and assuming something was missed or unexplained all due to a flat, under-developed character.
Another great example of round characters put into a situation and reacting is in Episodes 4 & 5 of the anime series RWBY by Rooster Teeth (Watch for free online! On Netflix too). At the end of Episode 4 (5:00 mark), a large line of characters find themselves being “launched” into the air and are expected to figure out their own way to land safely. Despite the large number of characters, each reacts to this in unique ways. This fun-personality-flash-through-action can be seen at the start of Episode 5 (0:30 mark) as they all resolve how they handle it. From this moment, you can already tell who fall under the titles of thrill seekers, serious competitors, clumsy, or talented. Also continuing into Episode 5 is a great example of the main character making observations of secondary characters to provide the audience with emotional feedback.
RWBY – Episode 4: http://roosterteeth.com/archive/?id=7944&v=more&s=1
RWBY – Episode 5: http://roosterteeth.com/archive/?id=7967&v=more&s=1
Beyond the Physical Aspects
Creating a character goes beyond how they look. Everyone has different ways they start to create a character, whether it starts from inspiration via music, something you say, a dream, or the story idea got you thinking of what sort of hero and villain you wanted. Regardless, they need a personality, they need to react to the things you plan on putting them through and be able to grow from that experience. The list of questions can get you rolling in the right direction on how to best handle this and stay consistent, but answering the last five can be very difficult for some writers or for certain characters. A lot of times we authors still don’t know the true depths of our own characters and what their exact intentions are within our plot and world. The best we can do start with a rounded character and understand this character will be “developing and growing” as the story progresses. In short, it’s ok if you don’t understand your own character, just be make sure they are ready for that development mentally, emotionally and physically.
As the character rides out your plot, they gain more flesh through their reactions and emotions illustrated through your writing. You will find your plot falls out onto the paper through your character more freely when you’ve taken the time to make them rounded beyond the physical aspect. Creating or establishing a characters personality and the traits to expect in order to be consistent can be tricky. Don’t be afraid to explore a deeper depth in those earlier attempts to define them. For example, an angry character is still rather vague. Why are they angry? Remember, not everyone is “mad” because something happened to them. They can simply be insecure and lash out, or even become jealous and become enraged often. This simple dive to new level of “angry, insecure” character now has a consistency of when they express this emotion the most. For instance, when he feels “abandoned” and insecure, he often punches a wall, tree or other object. Perhaps he throws things or picks a fight. Here again, another level to define a unique aspect all from taking “angry” and exploring what that character’s “anger” looks like within a story telling aspect.
For some assistance, this chart has been shared and passed along through many venues, including the Writer’s Circle and other haven for advice. Pin this on the wall and use it to help you pull more specific direction from your descriptions of characters’ emotions:
It is not uncommon for writers and developers to dive into Psychology books and subjects for inspiration in order to create a character’s mental and emotional state. For example, in my own creation of characters I studied a lot about Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) because of the events I would be putting them through. Despite my main and secondary characters not being human, I wanted to make them feel human on the emotional and mental level while being tangible to my readers, even relatable in emotional struggles. They were being tortured, mistreated, experiencing or seeing horrible things including fighting the inner workings of their demonic instincts. How could anyone not suffer PTSD from all the gore and worse, the inability to control yourself at one point or another? Research is something we do for out stories and plots, but why stop there? Be sure to close the gaps in your research by diving into aspects of the character that help drive your character to move the plot.
I often refer to a video series on YouTube called Extra Credits in my online blog postings. They cover the video game side of media, but I encourage writers to watch some of the subjects discussed on Extra Credits’ YouTube channel. It’s a great way to get some brain food and thought provoking discussions going when you find yourself stumped. One video in particular covers the usage of the Myers Briggs Personality breakout to help develop round characters (https://youtu.be/QKnNO5pxRGQ). This refers back to psychology and if you have any textbooks on hand, you should be able to find some sort of coverage of this concept or be able to research this in greater detail (http://www.truity.com/view/types). They give a VERY simplistic run-through of the Myers Briggs personality breakout and how you can apply them into character creation. As he emphasizes, this is meant as a starting point and it’s the writer’s job to take it further!
How many times have you found yourself hating a character up until you see them broken down by a single moment in a story? Main characters will always be the easiest to flesh out because they always get these climaxes in their plots. As you move to your support and secondary characters, you might lose some steam in opening up huge events for growth. Worse, a lot of times the background characters and tertiary characters fall very flat in comparison to the main characters they are interacting within the world you are creating. This doesn’t hurt your story, but neither does it help your audience connect with the world your characters live in. Regardless, this is like creating an American football team where you have your star players, a quarterback and a fan favourite for support, then the other guys on their team, the rival team’s star player, and the people in the stands. The levels get more and more disconnected from the reader the further you dive into the background, or world, such as the hot dog stand or the announcer.
All stories have a tone or essence, whether it’s surreal, dark, tragic, happy, romantic, or some other emotion that is constantly tugged at throughout the storyline. It’s not the events and plot that allow the readers to feel this tone, but the main characters in which live in this world. If the world is dark and horrible, it’s because the main character feels this way about where they live through their experiences, emotions, reactions, thoughts, body language, how they speak to others, and so on. Main character should be crafted with the awareness that this is the main vessel your audience it riding along with, or even inside, to travel along your plot. Even with a narrator or narrative style, we are still focusing on a main person in whom we are interacting with this world and even story. Take a moment and dissect some of your favourite main characters and their world. How much of your favourite memories of them involve how they reacted to something in their story? Now ask yourself if that’s what helps you identify the type of person they were? These are the ways the main character help set the tone for the readers while revealing who they are as fleshed out, rounded characters.
In the end, these characters should be the most intimate with your readers and writing. Immersion happens through them and thus the way you develop their personality and inner-workings can go a long way to make it easier for you to write your story. Granted, not every story is focused on one character, which opens doors for you to show more of your character through their interactions with other characters and even flip perspectives and show the world through more than one personality. What one character deems threatening will seem less of a concern to the more experienced fighter. Always remember, this is the main transportation for your readers and their way in and out of your story!
Often this is the lover or faithful friend that joins the main character at some point and sticks around for the long haul. It can even be the hero’s faithful steed, a pet, or a spirit that haunts or follows them. These characters help give a second perspective to the world and events. They even are the eyes and reaction we use to properly judge the main character’s emotional and physical states. Granted, the secondary character doesn’t always have to like and aid your main character, but they should always help the audience become more immersive in the world and story. They even make the main character more tangible through interactions, including love interest and aggressive rivalry. For example, in my novel Cedric the Demonic Knight the main character is bitten by a venomous monster-sized snake. In order to express the severity of this injury, I shifted from Cedric’s perspective (Main Character), which was failing as the venom took hold, and started to express his condition through the interactions with Angeline (Secondary or Support Character). When the main character is taken out, it is these characters that help the writer to continue to push the plot forward without leaving gaps and confusion. Sometimes this switch is referred to as “head-hopping”, but the key is while writing this usage of your secondary characters is making sure the reader is aware they are now riding in a “new car” and to keep clarity in who is doing what.
His eyes grew wide as he gripped his arm and sweat poured over him, his tanned skin paling with alarming speed. He attempted to stand, but stumbled to the side and fell to his knees. It became very clear that he was not bouncing back from this encounter. Angeline looked around, there were no signs of any more snakes, but Barushka [their horse] was missing. Jerking the bandages from her pack, she attempted to tie off the poisoned limb. He tried to shove her away, but engulfed in the pain, he struggled to keep himself sitting. Satisfied that she managed to get it tight enough, and the wounds covered, she whistled several times. Her only hope was that Barushka was still alive and close enough to hear it. The sound of something splattering the ground brought her back to Cedric as he began to puke. The smell was unnatural, and it was a sickening black color.
This is sort of my own thinking and logic. Usually discussions state that secondary characters are support characters, but in my own writing there is a huge difference. Secondary characters don’t have to aid or help a main character. In fact they can even make their lives more complicated, impeding their goals. As for a support character, they can also be a secondary character but not always. What they are designed for is a constant pillar of support for the goals, growth, and development of the main character or even a secondary character. Whether they are encouraging their good or bad habits, that’s totally up to you and the story you are writing.
In the story Robin Hood, there is a prime example of a support character that is well-rounded as well. Breaking things apart, we have the main character Robin Hood, secondary characters Little John (Fellow Outlaw) and Maid Marian (Love Interest), and a very memorable support character: Maid Marian’s servant/caretaker/maid/Fellow Lady of the Court. In most versions of the story, this character has a lot of personality. She’s a fighter, she encourages Maid Marian’s love interest, but she isn’t needed for the story to continue per say. What she does is gives the audience another means to experience, see, feel the world, story, and even add to our connections with the other characters. Sometimes these support characters simply give the world and its life more depth while providing a comic relief or address the audience’s own thoughts or feelings about what happens. They are essential tools to aid the writer to set the story in motion and guide their characters to their next event. Bottom-line note about these “support characters” is that they are the rounded characters that support some part of the story and even simply support the plot. Almost like your own, self-made shoe cobbler elves but for the plot.
Lastly, we come to characters that fall victim to being flat or just nothing more than bland dialogue. In movies it is far easier to give these characters flesh with body language, but for written stories these often fall victim to becoming what I refer to as “background fodder.” Worse, I have read stories that completely forget to add these into the overall picture. Granted, you are going to have flat characters, like a crowd of people reacting at the very bottom of this would be a gathering of flat characters adding texture to the background. This doesn’t mean you can’t have fun with a tertiary character and make them more round in how they behave. This can be a merchant, one that the characters find themselves coming back to since he always seems to have what they need or want. Why not make him quirky, comical, creepy? Give him enough personality to add to the tone of the story and give yourself a chance to reflect interactions through someone other than the obvious secondary or support characters.
For example, in the movie Robin Hood starring Kevin Costner, makes use of this idea. At the one point in the movie, Robin approaches a Tertiary character, a small boy who is shooting arrows at a target. Robin Hood (Main) asks if the boy can shoot just as well while distracted. After failing, Lady Marian (Secondary) poses the question if he is able to do so himself. The nice thing this does is imply that Robin is no different from a young boy through the interaction and failing of the third character while being guided and pushed by a secondary character’s perspective/influence. It is something you will see in great writing often, when your main character find themselves observing a rounded tertiary character and using it to reflect thoughts, feelings, and more. I even have a moment where my main character Romasanta reflects back to a tertiary character to express the mood and care being given to Cedric in Romasanta: Father of Werewolves.
Huffing, [Badbh] bellowed, “Well, you are up here after all!”
Her voice brought some movement to [Cedric’s] pale body, his eyes cracking open as his chapped lips whispered. “Angeline?”
“Oh no! Wrong girl, lover boy.” Chuckling, Badbh’s magic was impressive as she summoned cloths for his wounds. As she worked to clean his lacerations, Romasanta recalled fond memories of the woman from the Leper’s Colony tending to the ill girl. “Looks like I missed a hell of a battle!”
“What are you doing?” Hissing, Cedric gave a baffled stare at his unhealed wounds. “Who are you?”
“For crying out loud, it’s me, Badbh!” Puffing, she scrubbed harder, annoyed at how unaware he allowed himself to become. “We found you out here bleeding to death! Who the hell did you get in a fight with?”
The most important thing is that your characters change or grow with each experience and interaction they make. Your story has twists, both high and low, and these should have some influence on the characters that help you express the plot. If something goes down bad, there is a pretty good chance they are going to experience hesitation or even react differently to a similar situation. It doesn’t mean they can’t make the same mistake twice, because we all know real life people do, but it means they need to feel cause and effect. Perhaps the character has had a bad run-in with hellhounds and now shuts down or panics at the thought or sight of one. There has to be some proof of your story moving forward through your characters. Events should linger to build immersion and emotion onto the plot itself which in turn is done via character development and growth. You are also building them up for the climax of the story.
In a Hero’s Journey scenario, there is always a call for a gain in strength both physically and mentally. Often we see cases in stories where a character defeats an opponent with their new found power or wits, but there are several other ways to express growth. As the character experiences and learns, they can still make poor decisions with their new assumptions and knowledge. If they are changing on a physical and emotional level, they may not be able to comprehend or grasp their new state completely before the next fight or obstacle is thrown at them. Character growth isn’t just for main or secondary characters either. If a village is destroyed, one that the main character visits during happier times, then we should see growth or change in the tertiary characters connected to that place after war, disease or some other event. The little boy who seemed so happy is now crying over his dead dog can be a powerful pull on the audience. You can even use chances like this to foreshadow that the main character will be losing his best friend later on or have them recall the loss of his best friend.
Growing characters feed off one another and so it’s important to take advantage of when you can express and reflect. It adds complexity to relationships and helps pull the readers into the story and grow attached to the characters. This is how you make them invest their hearts into the story and it can make writing a powerful emotional peak easier for you to implement. When the reader can feel, see, and experience a tragic scene through the main character followed by how the secondary and support characters witness their reaction, it can make hearts ache and tears fall. To see a rival feel empathy for the main character they’ve impeded the whole time can shift the growth in their relationship after that point. This makes the writing less redundant as well and reinforces the plot.
In the end, there is no wrong or right way to go about creating your characters. Granted, I covered more of the parts they play within our stories, but this is what I focus on in order to create my own characters. Constantly I ask myself what part or purpose I need them to fulfil for the story, my main character, and the world they are living within. I can describe a village to you all day long, with its horse manure scent, the sticky mud of the road clinging to my boots, but it’s an empty place without the characters there. Describing the stone walls with their hay and mud rooftops or wooden planks, but they are empty buildings without the people living inside. It takes a few sentences involving the tertiary characters to give that village life. But, it also takes the interaction of all your rounded characters to really immerse a reader:
I could barely hear my own thoughts over the sounds of animals and the boasting of merchants lining the sides of the roads. A horse shouldered me to the side, knocking me into another traveller who gave me a rightful shove back towards the now passing wagon. It was crowded and busy, people dressed in clothing I have never seen and their tongues moving in ways I had never heard. Huffing the stench of manure from my nose, I weaved my way through the rush of travellers. A merchant meeting my eyes grew excited to see a customer break away from the river of chaos. A hand grasped my arm, swinging around I was greeted by Mikala’s goofy grin. It was his idea to come to the city, but the smell of rum coming from him as he shouted gleefully made his intentions clear. It would be a long night of dealing with his business with the local tavern’s barmaids before I could leave this prison of society again.