Blog · Fiction Editing Series

Fiction Editing Series: Character Development

Character development is one of the most important things to consider when writing. You can have the most unique, potentially best-selling story in the world, but if your characters fall flat, all is for naught. We’ve all experienced it – you’re reading a book and you really want to like it. On the surface it’s interesting and entertaining, but you just can’t convince yourself to like the characters. It could be numerous things that cause these characters to fall flat: their personality may be inconsistent, they may not have enough clear character strengths and weaknesses, or they may not have motivation or purpose in the story, to name a few reasons. Essentially, the author didn’t put enough thought into the character.

There are many different ways an author may create their characters – Stephen King said himself in On Writing that he never through his stories before he started writing; he had a question or a concept he wanted to explore, so he immersed himself in it. He never knew where his story or his characters were going until he finished writing. For others, the writing process needs to be thought out ahead of time – they need to know who their characters are, what they will struggle with throughout the novel, and how they will end up when the last page is turned. Whatever your writing process is, you must make sure your characters are human, with all their flaws and virtues. Without dynamic characters, no amount of time, effort, or money will make your novel a success.

While there is no tried and true formula for multi-faceted characters, here are some things you should consider:

  1. Are your main characters interesting enough? What makes them unique?
  2. Do they have clear and implied good and bad qualities? Do we get a sense of personality from them? All humans are flawed. What are your characters’ eccentricities?
  3. Do their flaws or virtues cause them to stumble? Do these characteristics contribute to or hinder their goals/purpose in your story?
  4. What makes them personable? This ties into the previous question, as well. Everyone has something that hinders him or her (they are too stubborn, competitive, timid, etc.), but they also have weaknesses that make them more human and personable. What are your character’s weaknesses?
  5. Is there something they are trying to overcome? A goal they are trying to achieve? Multiple goals, personal and on a large scale?
  6. What purpose do they serve in your story? How do they move the story along?
  7. What is your character’s history? How was their childhood? What is their relationship with their family, friends? Why are they the way they are? Why did they choose the career they did? Etc. Sure, you’re not going to share all of this with your readers, but it may help you to write realistically about your character if they ARE a real person to you.
  8. What do they look like? Again, you may never actually describe them in your story, but it could be helpful for you to envision them. Try to be realistic here too; even a model has flaws and even a crone may have endearing qualities. How you envision their appearance and history may come across in how you write about them.
  9. What does your character sound like in his or her own head? You may or may not use this in the form of an internal and external dialogue, but it is good to know how your character talks to his or herself.
  10. If you had to describe your character in one word, what would it be? Does he or she fit a literary character trope? What sets him or her apart from that traditional trope?

Once you have thought these things out, written them down, created a profile for each person, or however else you want to solidify these characters in your mind, immerse yourself in them. Hear their voices and picture them in your head as you write. For some people, like Stephen King, it’s enough to merely dive in and let the character speak for his or herself, but for others it is helpful to think these things through before beginning. Whatever your method is, or even if you don’t have one, start writing. It’s the only way you’ll get anywhere.

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Writers, what else would you suggest? What have you found particularly helpful in your character developing process? Editors, what have you noticed writers struggle with, and what advice do you give them? Readers, what character issues will make you stop reading a book immediately?

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