Master Character Development: 10 Proven Tips for Compelling Characters

Character development is an essential aspect of storytelling. Audiences want heroes they can root for and side characters they can identify with. 

Characters are one of the most fundamental aspects of storytelling. A strong character can morph a “meh” tale into a masterpiece, while poorly written characters can sink your chances at success.

What is Character Development?

Character development is the process of creating compelling characters for your story. It involves creating complex lives and backstories for everyone in your novel, but it doesn’t end there.

Character development also entails the character’s growth as they navigate their adventure (the story’s plot). 

Good character development includes both. You must create intriguing characters that fans can enjoy and send them on a personal development journey as the story progresses. 

Why are Compelling Characters Vital To Storytelling?

People want characters they can relate to. They project themselves into their favorite stories and make friends with the heroes. They see themselves in the protagonist, understanding the struggles, flaws, and strengths.

Realistic, compelling characters allow fans to experience the world with them, feeling what they feel. They keep audiences coming back for more.

Many fictional characters fall flat. They’re two-dimensional, have confusing motives, change for no apparent reason, and make poor decisions solely for plot progression.

These characters have readers rolling their eyes and sometimes tossing the book aside in disbelief, where it will sit, collecting dust until it finds its way to a thrift store or trash heap. 

Prevent your book from getting tossed aside by making great characters. 

How Do You Develop Characters When Writing?

Writing a character that seems like a real human being is a lot more challenging than it sounds. 

Here are ten tips for writing great characters.

Make Them Three-Dimensional

Some characters fall flat, while others are two-dimensional. The best characters are three-dimensional.

Three-dimensional characters have numerous aspects to their personality. They have strengths and weaknesses, relatable character flaws and passions, and seem like fully-fledged human beings.

To create a three-dimensional character, allow them to have interests unrelated to the main plot. Give them favorite foods, a beloved doll collection, or an interesting quirk. Make them a little nerdy or a little too into fashion. Give them character traits that you’d find in regular people. 

Flat and two-dimensional characters only exist to serve the plot. A three-dimensional character feels like a person to whom the plot happens. The difference seems subtle, but in storytelling, it’s massive. 

Create Backstory

Every character comes from somewhere. They have parents, old friends, and rivals. They have hobbies and interests separate from the plot.

Create that backstory in your characters. Give them a hometown, a childhood nickname, a favorite subject, and a dreaded chore. The backstory should explain why they behave as they do now or why the quest is essential.

Perhaps they had childhood trauma they need to overcome. An overbearing parent can motivate young adults to rebel against authority, while a bully can create insecurity. Maybe they had an easy life they strive to return to. These tidbits of backstory provide reasons for the character’s behavior. 

You don’t have to share the character’s entire backstory with the audience. Sketching one out helps you develop the character and understand their motives, but you only need to share if it’s relevant to the narrative.

Give Them Flaws

Readers hate perfect characters that can do no wrong. Infallible characters are boring. Real people have flaws.

Audiences no longer care about heroes like Superman, who drip with perfection in every word and deed. They want to see characters who make horrible decisions that lead to messy situations.

Characters should have weaknesses. They should be too stubborn or too trusting. They should have strong egos or massive insecurities.

Every great character is terrible at something, whether communication, delegation, or accepting their own faults. Let them be bad at things. 

Give them realistic quirks, like a strange fashion sense or a warped sense of humor. Let them make jokes that fall flat, and allow them to cringe in embarrassment when they do. 

All these flaws and imperfections make them real.

Make Them Relatable

Good characters must seem like real people. They should have hopes, dreams, and motivations that real people can understand, in addition to flaws you’d expect a real person to have. 

Superman’s kryptonite flaw doesn’t work because most people aren’t perfect unless they are in the presence of some random invented element. Modern audiences prefer characters like Deadpool, whose abilities may far surpass those of ordinary folks but who have realistic flaws and motives.

Audiences want to care about characters and to make them do so, a writer must make them care about the things real people care about. Themes of family, esteem, security, independence, and wellness resonate with modern audiences because those are the things most of us care about.

Help Them Grow

Great characters grow during a story. They aren’t the same person in the end as they were in the beginning. This growth is called a character arc, which follows the person’s development throughout the saga.

Consider Han Solo, the roguish scoundrel who only cared about himself. At first, he was only in it for the money. He was happy to leave with his riches after rescuing the princess, but conversations with Luke and Leia helped him change his mind.  Solo returns to help Luke fight the final battle and becomes a trusted general for the rebels.

Growth doesn’t have to come from the main plot. Side stories and subplots make ideal opportunities to explore characters’ strengths and gain insight into their flaws.

The Harry Potter series includes numerous side plots that help showcase the character’s attributes. In Book 4, The Goblet of Fire, Hermoine starts a campaign to free Hogwarts’s house elves. The subplot gives readers deeper insight into Hermoine’s character, as she cares deeply about injustice but sometimes can’t see past her sense of righteousness to view things from a different perspective.  The side story is irrelevant to the main quest but gives the world extra life, showing that the side characters have their own lives outside the protagonist.

Avoid Decisions for Plot Progression

One of writers’ biggest mistakes is having characters make horrible decisions solely for plot progression.

The plot needs to progress, and characters often need to drive it forward, but you must give them a reason to behave the way they do. The villain shouldn’t randomly team up with the heroes, and the student who only cares about getting into college shouldn’t suddenly blow off a big test.

You must give the characters an in-universe reason for their behavior. If the only reason is to push the plot forward, you must go back and develop the characters more.

Don’t Ignore the Side Characters

Many authors do an exceptional job of developing their protagonists but forget about the side characters, who exist only to drive the plot.

A great story bursts with compelling characters. Everyone has human traits, from the protagonist to the antagonist, best friend, minion, and random shopkeeper. They exist because they’re real people who would exist in that world, not as devices for the main character’s growth.

The Lord of the Rings does a fantastic job of developing side characters. Legolas and Gimli go from rivals to best friends as they battle the forces of darkness together. Merry and Pip go from accidental companions to warriors in their own right. Each character has their own story, complete with unique desires and flaws.

Tokein’s side character development is a massive part of what makes The Lord of the Rings such a compelling novel that still speaks to readers decades after its original publication.

Beware of Common Tropes

Far too many authors depend on tropes for character development. Many of these tropes weren’t great the first time, but they became default ways to develop characters for some reason.

Over-reliance on tropes destroys stories. Not only are they predictable and boring, but they’re often rooted in bias.

Here are some of the most common character development tropes writers should avoid:

  •       The Mary Sue – The perfect woman who effortlessly excels at everything
  •       Women in Refrigerators – A man becomes a hero to avenge a woman’s brutal murder
  •       Sexual Assault = strength – Women can only grow if they’ve experienced a horrific assault
  •       Strong Female Characters are Men – Any strong woman must behave like a man
  •       The Bad Boy – He’s the hero but emotionally abusive because that makes him “bad”
  •       Stupid Parents – a lot of YA writers make the parents dumb or oblivious
  •       Nerds Know Everything – he’s a nerd, so he knows how to hack computers, splice atoms, and invent things

If you’ve attempted to show a character’s development using any of these (or the hundreds of other similar tropes), go back to the drawing board. Your character and your readers deserve better.

Women are People

Many of the most common character development tropes revolve around developing female characters because far too many male authors fail at writing women.

The show Seinfeld highlighted the problem in the episode where Jerry and George begin writing their sitcom. The two men want to include Elaine’s character but have no idea what she would say upon entering a room, so she’s wholly excluded from the first draft.

Solving this problem is far easier than you think. Women are actually people, so write them as people.

It might help to write the first draft without genders. The character Ripley in Alien was initially conceived as a man, but director Ridley Scott changed her to a woman, thus creating one of the strongest female characters in science fiction.  

But it wasn’t because she was written as a man; it was because she was written as a human being, like most male characters. Writers often “other” women, writing them based on stereotypes of womanhood rather than as real people. They create epic male characters that everyone can relate to while regaling female characters to tropes dripping with gender bias.

To write a compelling story, you must treat all characters like people. 

Show, Don’t Tell

Show, don’t tell, is one of the most crucial roles in literature. It applies heavily to character development.

You can’t just tell your audience that your character grew; you must show through their actions that they’ve changed. Let your readers take the journey with them. 

If, in the beginning, your protagonist is a mean bully, don’t just say, “They learned their lesson and never bullied again.” Instead, show their growth by putting them in a situation where they would have been a bully, but they choose to behave differently.

Let your reader experience the growth along with the character for best results.

Great Character Development vs Poor Character Development: Willow vs. Daenerys

For a character development case study, we will compare two popular fictional characters who turned evil: Willow from the 1990s show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Daenarys from Game of Thrones.

*Spoilers ahead for both shows

Willow in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Willow’s shocking turn to evil provides an excellent example of a well-developed character’s descent into darkness.

When we meet Willow, she’s a nerdy high schooler, but she gains confidence as she befriends Buffy and learns witchcraft to help fight the forces of evil.

But the alluring power proves too much for her. As the seasons progress, she depends more and more on magic, not just to fight evil but to fix the world to her liking. In season four, she uses a spell to fix her broken heart, and attempts spells far beyond her level in season five. 

These slight hints of magical abuse appear throughout the seasons, leading to the epic and tragic turn to darkness at the end of season six.

Fans loved it, partly because of the slow build-up and progression over the years. Although the turn was shocking, it wasn’t unexpected or out of character. Willow’s eyes turned black as early as season two when she used a powerful spell to re-ensoul Angel. She constantly pushed the limits of witchcraft until it became her entire personality.

Though fans hated seeing their beloved Willow as an evil witch, the turn didn’t come out of nowhere. Anyone watching saw the clues and knew it was a consequence of Willow’s actions.

Daenerys in Game of Thrones

Daenerys descent into evil starkly contrasts Willow’s, serving as a perfect example of what not to do.

Where subtle signs of Willow’s dark side appeared as early as season 2, Daenerys seemed reasonable. Although she made a few hard decisions, some involving killing people, none seemed out of place for a ruler in her world. Compared with the show’s other rulers, she seemed empathetic and compassionate.

Throughout the series, she championed the innocent. She was conflicted about the hard decisions she needed to make, often showing remorse for the dirty work. There were never any hints of madness. 

Then, when her closest friend died, a flip switch, and she decided to decimate an entire city with no regard for the innocent people who lived there.

It was a massive betrayal of her character because there was no warning.  The writers seemed to want to shock audiences,  but the twist fell flat because it came out of nowhere. Though the story showed that her father was mad, there were never any hints that Daenerys would go down the same path. 

Audiences hated it. People still talk about the poor execution of the character’s turn.

Not Developing Characters on Purpose

Sometimes, the lack of character development is the story. Many great fictional works feature main characters who never grow. 

These characters serve a different function. They make us think about how essential growth and development are to the human condition or offer statements on contemporary society.

As a statement on the human condition, Dorian Gray is a perfect example of a great character who doesn’t grow. Gray is awful. He’s a narcissist who uses people for his own gain, and as his horrible decisions never affect his looks, he keeps doing them. The marks of his awful deeds appear on his portrait, which he can’t bear to view.

The story teaches us that evil deeds have consequences, and if we refuse to become better people, we will ultimately destroy ourselves.

Character Development Crucial to Great Storytelling

Audiences want well-rounded characters that make sense. To be a successful writer, you must create fleshed-out characters that readers want to root for.

Combine those characters with a thrilling plot, and you’ll have the recipe for an epic novel

 

Author: Melanie Allen

Title: Journalist

Expertise: Pursuing Your Passions, Travel, Wellness, Hobbies, Finance, Gaming, Happiness

Melanie Allen is an American journalist and happiness expert. She has bylines on MSN, the AP News Wire, Wealth of Geeks, Media Decision, and numerous media outlets across the nation and is a certified happiness life coach. She covers a wide range of topics centered around self-actualization and the quest for a fulfilling life. 

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