Character Development for Your Story
What Part Does the Character Play
We all know from reading books that characters play different parts in the story. Some are the soul of the story while others play pivotal roles from providing background into, humor, or open the door to other aspects of the story. As you are writing a story, you need to ask - Why do you have this character in the story? Each character has a part to play.
List out every character you have in your story or will have. Or you can pause when they appear as you write and think about them. Even if it is the grocery clerk handing the sack of groceries to the main character. They are a character and need to be examined.
Now why are they in the story? Let’s look at an example I have made up that could be the basis of a mystery story.
Joe Adams - main character
Amy Zigfield - detective
Betty Whitson - landlady
Charles Michaels - old man
Daniel Levins - jogger
It’s obvious what role Joe plays. We kind of need him. I've established him as my main character.
Amy is crucial to the story because she is the detective trying to uncover the truth. Her actions help drive Joe’s. Every mystery story has to have some version of the detective in it.
Betty is not so crucial to the story except I’ll use her to provide information. Though a minor character, she plays a major role by giving the reader background info, character hints, and more that is more dramatic than me as the writer just telling the reader all about it. You might not see her much, but she does play a larger role than she appears to.
Charles is just a character to give Joe pause and a chance to breath from the plot. He doesn't do much in the way of information. He allows the reader to stop and rest before the action picks up again. Not a major character, but he is needed for this particular story.
Daniel plays a major role but the reader doesn’t know it yet. He is the secret major character. Therefore I have to keep that in mind as I go about writing so I don't undersell him or oversell him.
Now that I have them listed out with the parts they will play, I begin to develop them. The more important they are, the more developed they need to be from their physical appearance to their darkest secrets. Every little part is important with some parts more so for the larger characters. But even the small ones have to have some depth or what is the use of having them in the story?
In fact, as you are writing you might discover that a character just isn’t developing. When that happens, you might have to go back to the drawing board or remove them completely. If that happens with my Betty character, I then need to find an alternative way for my reader and the characters to obtain information.
Don’t expect this character list and the part they play in it to be set in stone. That is the fun part of writing a story. Characters change. They grow. They become something bigger than you ever imagined. Let them. Don’t fight it. Just go back to your list and adjust their role. You’ll find a much better story in your hands if you do that.
Know the Physical Aspects
As you develop your character, you’ll need to visualize him. What does he look like? There are some stories where the physical aspects of the characters are not important, but generally the reader needs to have some guidance on what they look like. Plus, many times their appearance plays some role in the story.
Here are some questions to ask yourself about each and every character:
How old are they?
How tall are they?
What kind of physical shape are they in?
What is their general description of hair, eye, and skin coloring?
Do they have any unusual physical attributes?
Let’s look again at my list of characters for my imaginary story:
Joe Adams - main character
Amy Zigfield - detective
Betty Whitson - landlady
Charles Michaels - old man
Daniel Levins - jogger
Each of these questions are vital for Joe as he is my main character. His age directs his dialogue, how he moves, and his lifestyle. It might even explain why the plot develops the way it does. If it is a mystery, his physical description could be part of the reason for the crime.
For Amy, she plays almost as big of a role so I need to know the same. Anything in her physical description could play a part in preventing her from getting information or even help her.
Betty’s description might be more to give the reader a general description of her. If she is your typical old woman who knows everyone’s business, then describe in a manner where the reader can see her as more like 70 or 80 years old instead of 20 or 30.
Charles’ age needs to be described. Is the a typical man for his age? If so, you might not have to be too descriptive. The minimal description might be enough for him unless his character grows.
Now Daniel might have been a minimal description character except I have noted that he plays a larger role than he appears in the story. Because of that his physical aspects might need to be more detailed but in a more subtle way. Sprinkle in his description in a nonchalant manner. If you focus on it too much too soon, an experienced reader will pick up on his importance way too early. His role is not evidently big enough for all that.
Remember that your reader is more than likely watching the story in their mind like it is a movie. They need to be able to visualize the characters and actually see them. Give them what they need for the characters’ roles and let their imagination fill in the rest.
Know the Emotional Aspects
Every character has a set of emotions. Think of the people in your life. Every single one of them has unique character in how they react to situations. That means your character needs to have them as well. Ask yourself these questions about your character?
Do they anger easily?
What makes them nervous?
Do they have tells?
Are they drama queens?
Do they exaggerate things?
Are they prone to crying easily?
Do they get depressed often?
These are very important to explore. If the main character angers easily, you could use that as to why the police are looking at him as the murderer. If closed spaces make him nervous, it might be why the detective is looking deeper into the case as the murder was committed in a small elevator. When he tells a lie, does his mouth twitch? That way the detective can discover after being around him for a while his honesty.
What if a character is a drama queen? That could help throw confusion into the plot so the reader isn’t sure if it is something they need to pay attention to or ignore since they overdramatize things. If your character is prone to exaggerate events, let that come out slowly to confuse the reader and have them looking at the wrong individual.
If they cry easily, you can add more dimension to the story and bring out the sympathetic side of another character. This helps the reader narrow down who the killer might really be.
Let the emotional side of the character help you drive the plot and thicken it. Also, by you knowing them so well emotionally, it keeps them in character.
Know Their Past
Everyone has a past, and that past helps to shape the present. Some pasts are kept in the dark as they are too painful. Some are ever present.
Did Joe have anything happen in his past that would cause the crime and make him the prime suspect? Maybe he had been married before, was in a car accident that killed someone, or maybe had mental health issues.
The past is very important. Sometimes it might just be a small part of their past that plays a major role here. In this mystery story, it can be really helpful in red herrings and explaining away some of the characters reactions.
I can’t help but think of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. The past of each character was extremely important to the story. It directed the reader and the investigator down various paths which helped to explain different scenes, but it also helped lead to the solution of the crime. Nothing was mentioned from their past that wasn’t important, and each and every character had something from their past rise up.
Part of their past might develop as you write. Maybe the plot shifted and you need to adjust your characters a bit. That happens, but if you already have a past laid out, you will find it much easier to adjust.
Know Their Strengths
Every person has strengths, and these play into a story. Again, think of the real people in your life. List out the people you life with and work with and maybe even socialize with. What are their strengths?
Jamie - encourager
Lisa - creative mind
Jim - reaction to drama
Travis - support in time of crisis
When I look in depth at these, their strengths make up a big part of their personality. That means I couldn’t write about them and not show these strengths. They are important.
The same can be said about your fictional characters. The one who is wonderful in a crisis needs to show that when the murder happens, when someone is arrested, and so forth. They won’t break down when you need them. That shapes how they react as your plot develops. If someone doesn’t let drama affect them, then you put them in the situations where it is appropriate for that reaction.
Their strengths play a major role in your plot. Keep them consistent and use their strengths when you need to. Also, keep in mind that a strength can also be a weakness.
Know Their Weaknesses
As everyone has strengths, they all have weaknesses. They might talk too much, gossip, are self-absorbed, forgetful, or tend to betray people. Use these weaknesses.
Joe might talk too much which is why he is in trouble. Amy might forget where she puts her keys all the time. Betty might be the community gossip. Charles might be self-absorbed in his medical condition. Daniel might be someone who tends to stab his so-called friends in the back. These can be major parts of your plot.
A weakness doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Think of the movies and books where the evil villain says he has found the main character’s weakness in the fact that he loves his wife so much. I wouldn't’ call that a weakness, but in the viewpoint of the bad guy it is. That strength can be used as a downfall. Now it is listed as a weakness.
For each character, create two columns. One for the strengths and one for the weaknesses. Now see which ones in your plot can be used in the opposite column. The gossip’s weakness could be a strength in catching the killer. The drama queen’s weakness could be a strength in helping two people get closer.
Know Their Secrets
Secrets abound everywhere. Even boring me has a few tucked away. That means every character has a secret. And those secrets can be a writer's treasure trove of information.
These secrets can be extremely personal and dark. It just might be something they are ashamed of. Maybe they had liposuction and don’t want people to know. There are a million secrets that to some people it is obvious why it is a secret and to others it might appear ridiculous. Keep in mind that the person with the secret doesn’t think it is so stupid.
I just finished one book where every single character had a secret that could explode and change everyone's lives. One had an affair with someone. Another had a baby out of wedlock. Then there was the one with a deadly disease. Secrets abound in real life and in fiction.
Get to know your character and what they might have done that is so dark to them that they would keep it secret. It is based on the character and not on you or the other characters.
Plot or Characters? Which draws you the most to the story?
Other Fun Categories
I’ve read several character development books. Many times I think they get too in depth. They want you to know the character inside and out before you write. For me, there are some things that will develop as I write. But here are a few I’ve seen that might help you in your character development.
What is their favorite movie/book?
What are they watching on TV now?
If they could meet a famous person, who would it be?
What is their favorite song?
What is their greatest fear?
Who do they love the most?
Developing your characters can be fun. It can also be time consuming. Be smart in how you do it. Try different ways. Read books on it and see how those methods work for you. Create your own special way of developing your characters for your own special stories.