Developing characters for a story: How to bring them to life
Developing characters for a story can prove to be a challenging task. Find out what questions can help shape each character’s appearance, voice, actions, and more.
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Why Knowing How to Develop a Character Is Crucial
“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”
— William Faulkner
Every author has their own approach to the writing process. Some start with a plot idea; others start with a character.
But no matter where you get the first seed that will eventually blossom into a full-fledged story, it’s important to put the time and effort into creating vibrant, compelling, relatable characters.
Characters drive the plot of your story. Every twist and turn is guided by their actions, which proves useful when you need to figure out what should happen next.
In that case, you just have to ask yourself the following question: “Knowing my character as well as I do, how would they react in this situation?”
When you introduce well-drawn-out characters, you can also forge a deeper connection with your readers, as they’ll become more invested in what happens to these fictional subjects.
Even when details of a book read long ago become fuzzy, readers are still able to call upon memories of their most beloved literary characters.
That’s why knowing how to develop a character is so vital to your work.
However, due to the fact that developing characters for a story is easier said than done, we’ve put together a list of questions that will help you on your quest.
And with any luck, you’ll be able to create a character or two who will end up on a reader’s list of all-time favorites!
Who Are They?
When developing characters for a story, it’s important to look at who they are as people. To avoid crafting superficial caricatures, you need to make your characters as multifaceted as real individuals.
And that means diving in deep…
Where are they from?
What’s their job?
Do they have any hobbies?
Do they have family?
What are their beliefs?
What are their goals and motivations?
What are their flaws?
What are their fears?
If you’re struggling with how to develop a character, it may be in your best interest to start with the easy questions and work your way down.
Build a rich background, decide on demographics, and come up with personality traits, allowing the information to guide you forward.
But remember — to make a great introduction to a new character, you need to weave these elements into your story as seamlessly as possible.
Marching out your character with a long list of details can bore your audience quickly.
And if you want to pull back a little, sharing a piece of information about a character later in the story can surprise and delight readers too.
What Do They Look Like?
To give readers the opportunity to really immerse themselves in a tale, it helps if they can envision what each character looks like.
So when you begin developing characters for a story, be sure to come up with physical traits — the more unique the better.
What color is their hair?
What color are their eyes?
Do they have any scars, piercings, or tattoos?
How tall are they?
Are they particularly slender or heavy?
Do they have any prominent features?
What kind of clothes do they wear?
Do they carry a special accessory?
Some authors choose to answer all of the aforementioned questions (and then some), while others opt to give just enough of a description to satisfy the reader’s curiosity.
No matter which route you decide to take, lay out these details in a subtle way that engages your reader.
For example, try revealing some of a character’s physical traits through dialogue rather than narrative.
What Do They Sound Like?
It can be difficult to convey speech through the written word, but if you’re able to sprinkle in such details when developing characters for a story, your writing will be better for it.
Doing so will allow your audience to pick up on character quirks and get a sense of the book’s place and time.
So, if you’re wondering how to develop a character in terms of voice, pose the following questions during your brainstorming session…
What language do they speak?
Do they have an accent?
Do they have a particularly high or low voice?
Do they speak slowly or quickly?
Do they talk a lot or keep it short?
Do they have any kind of speech disorder?
Do they have a formal or informal way of speaking?
Are they loud or soft-spoken?
One piece of advice: If you do want to give a character an accent, try to avoid the use of phonetic spelling.
It can be distracting to readers, leading them to focus more on deciphering a character’s speech than staying engaged with the story.
What Are Their Internal and External Conflicts?
When developing characters for a story, introducing some type of conflict—be it internal or external—is key.
With internal conflict, a character struggles with internal issues, such as self-doubt or other emotional problems.
With external conflict, a character fights against an outside force, such as another person, nature, or society.
Each type of conflict can be compelling for readers, and it’s possible to utilize both in your story.
In fact, some of the most noteworthy characters in literary history had to overcome both internal and external obstacles…
As for how to develop a character when it comes to the conflict they face, consider where you want the trouble to lie.
Do they run into an ethical dilemma?
Do they suffer from anxiety or depression?
Do they desire something that’s bad for them?
Do they consider themselves an outsider?
Does the character have questionable duties they must perform?
Do they have a rival?
Do they have major shortcomings that affect their life?
Do they have to survive some event or natural disaster?
It’s important to note that the conflict a character experiences should add to the story.
Including conflict just for conflict’s sake won’t do much to further the plot, and it could confuse or frustrate the reader.
Developing characters for a story can be a long, painstaking process, especially if your goal is to get as far away from common archetypes as possible.
However, by answering the questions above for each individual, you can get a solid framework—one you can then use to shape your story.
Once you have your characters in place, think about how they would respond to certain people and situations.
Dream up various scenarios involving your characters. For example, how would they handle danger? How would they react to seeing a long-lost love?
By taking this approach, you can truly bring your characters to life.
And if you’re fortunate enough, you may just find yourself “trying to keep up long enough” to capture their words and actions on paper.