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8 Powerful Tips for Masterful Character Development

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Character Development

Character development is just as important as any form of development in storytelling. Developing captivating and unforgettable characters is crucial for every narrative. The heart of your narrative lies in the characters, who not only drive the story but also resonate with readers on an emotional level. Here are some essential tips for character development, expanded with literary examples to illustrate each point.

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1. Start with a Strong Character Concept

Character Development Start with a Strong Character Concept iconTip: Begin with a clear idea of who your character is. This includes their background, personality traits, and motivations. Consider what makes them unique and how they fit into your story.

Example from Literature: Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee: Atticus is established as a morally upright lawyer who values justice and equality. His background as a single father and his strong moral compass define his actions and decisions throughout the novel.

Experience: There are a ton of elements that I believe are crucial. I believe that internal conflicts and motivations are what really drives a character. When I come up with characters, I start with people I know personally, from friends to associates and even family members. It all depends on the type of personality I want to write for my characters, NOT the real life portrayal of the person.

Sometimes, when reading a story or watching a movie, I am inspired by certain characters. For example, in William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel, the character Louis Cypher was the inspiration behind Mr. Black in my short story, The Devil’s Disciple.

2. Create Detailed Character Profiles

Character Development Create Detailed Character Profiles iconTip: Use character profiles to flesh out details about your characters. Include information such as their physical description, background, relationships, and internal conflicts.

Example from Literature: Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: Elizabeth’s character profile would include her wit, intelligence, and strong opinions, as well as her relationships with her family and Mr. Darcy. Her internal conflict regarding her prejudices and misunderstandings about Darcy is central to her development.

Experience: Writing a character profile is not only helpful but important to remain consistency in character development. Profiles will prevent the writer from writing out of touch with the character and remain focus on who they are. Certain events in the plot might trigger the character to react a certain way and, with a profile, you’ll know exactly how.

Sometimes when writing a character in the story, it can go naturally the way you like, but based on my experience, my character ends up making unrealistic decisions.

Consider this: Write a brief character profile to get an idea of who they are, then write the first draft blindly. When writing the second draft, then use the details of the profile to polish the writing.

3. Show Character Growth and Development

Character Development Show Character Growth and Development iconTip: Characters should evolve throughout your story. This growth can be positive or negative, but should be driven by the plot and their experiences.

Example from Literature: Harry Potter in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling: Harry grows from a naïve, mistreated child into a confident, skilled wizard who leads the fight against Voldemort. His experiences at Hogwarts and the relationships he forms drive his development.

Experience: *SPOILER ALERT* In my story GREED – Jack of Diamonds, part of the seven stories of my anthology Deadly Sins, Jack Hoffman undergoes a significant character change.

Throughout the story, we see Jack inheriting a bar from his uncle Wolfgang. However, the bar is in heavy debt and Jack needs to find a way to pay the bills in order to prevent it from closing down. Jack also has gambling problems and makes wild bets in poker, sports, and the occasional scratch offs. He decides to run a large poker tournament in honor of his uncle with the idea of paying off the bills.

In the final moments of a heads-up match, Jack finally got his lucky card to play with, the Jack of Diamonds. Unfortunately, he loses to the man who taught him poker to begin with. The very first time, Jack has lost while having his lucky card after making a careless all-in bet.

That was his turning point, as we later see Jack in a casino playing poker. When he receives the Jack of Diamonds in his hand, a player goes all-in. Jack folds his hand as he doesn’t want to lose all his money like he did back at the bar.

4. Use Dialogue to Reveal Character

Character Development Use Dialogue to Reveal Character iconTip: Dialogue is a powerful tool for showing who your characters are. How they speak, their choice of words, and what they choose to reveal (or hide) can tell readers a lot about them.

Example from Literature: Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger: Holden’s dialogue is filled with slang and his distinctive voice, revealing his rebellious nature, cynicism, and deep-seated vulnerability.

Experience: When I first started writing, dialogue was the most challenging for me. All of my characters sounded the same and didn’t have their own voice. The only way to learn dialogue is to actually have conversations with many different people. From there, you’ll notice, not everyone talks alike, which can help provide unique voices.

A controversial tip that I use is eavesdropping. Mainly in cafes or even subway rides, I’d listen to conversations people have with each other and start making mental notes. Sometimes I’ll even jot down notes on my phone if the conversation is that interesting to remember.

5. Incorporate Flaws and Strengths

Character Development Incorporate Flaws and Strengths iconTip: Realistic characters have a mix of strengths and weaknesses. Flaws make characters relatable, while strengths make them admirable.

Example from Literature: Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Gatsby’s strengths include his determination and charisma, but his flaws, such as his obsession with the past and moral ambiguity, make him a complex and tragic character.

Experience: One of my approaches to providing flaws and strengths in my characters is reading biographies of those who made an impact. Every biography that I read or biopic that I watched showed how much they suffered on their way to success.

Let’s take a look at the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

This is a man who everyone remembers as the President, who put an end to slavery in America. While he displayed exceptional leadership during the Civil War, he also battled with depression and indecisiveness. He also struggled with the grief over the death of his children due to measles. Despite what he went through, he managed to maintain his humility and preserved the Union. His strengths and flaws make him a deeply human figure whose legacy continues to influence the nation.

6. Show, Don’t Tell

Character Development Show, Don’t Tell iconTip: Instead of telling the reader about your character’s traits, show them through actions, dialogue, and thoughts.

Examples: The best way to practice showing than telling is to read and read a lot. Most of the best books have plenty of examples of showing rather than telling.

Use Sensory Details
  • Telling: The room was technologically advanced.
  • Showing: “The room hummed with the soft whir of servers and the faint blinking of LED lights. The air was cool, tinged with the metallic scent of machinery, and the walls were lined with sleek, dark panels displaying streams of real-time data.”

Practice Exercise: Describe a high-tech control room using sensory details. Focus on what the characters can see, hear, smell, touch, and taste to make the scene come alive.

Show Through Actions
  • Telling: The hacker was nervous.
  • Showing: “Sweat beaded on the hacker’s forehead as his fingers flew over the keyboard, eyes darting to the door every few seconds. He paused to wipe his hands on his pants, his breath coming in short, shallow gasps.”

Practice Exercise: Write a scene where a character is trying to hack into a system under time pressure. Use their actions and body language to convey their nervousness without directly stating it.

Use Dialogue
  • Telling: The detective was frustrated.
  • Showing: ‘We’ve been chasing shadows for weeks,’ the detective snapped, slamming his fist on the table. ‘We need real leads, not just another wild goose chase!’”

Practice Exercise: Create a dialogue scene between two characters with conflicting goals. Focus on how their words, tone, and speech patterns reveal their emotions and intentions.

Internal Monologue
  • Telling: She felt guilty about her past actions.
  • Showing: “How could I have been so blind? she thought, the weight of her past decisions pressing down on her. Each mistake replayed in her mind like a haunting melody, refusing to be silenced.”

Practice Exercise: Write a paragraph of internal monologue for a character who is reflecting on their past mistakes. Use their thoughts to show their internal conflict and emotional state.

Show Reactions
  • Telling: He was surprised by the revelation.
  • Showing: “His jaw dropped, and he stared at the screen in disbelief. ‘This can’t be right,’ he muttered, leaning closer as if proximity could change the data before him.”

Practice Exercise: Create a scenario where a character discovers a shocking piece of information. Focus on how different characters react to the news to show their personalities and emotions.

7. Develop Backstory

Character Development Develop Backstory iconTip: A character’s backstory provides context for their actions and decisions. It should be revealed gradually and relevantly throughout the story.

Example from Literature: Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë: Heathcliff’s backstory, including his troubled childhood and experiences with the Earnshaw family, is revealed in layers, explaining his complex motivations and behaviors.

Experience: Creating a backstory is part of the profile creation process of character development. However, there is a difference. When creating a backstory for a character, consider it like writing the character’s biography. From the time they were born and on. While they may seem overly detailed, these notes are meant to give you a clear understanding of who the characters are.

8. Ensure Consistency

Character Development Ensure Consistency iconTip: Characters should act consistently with their established traits and backgrounds. Inconsistencies can break the reader’s immersion.

Example from Literature: Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories: Holmes is consistently portrayed as highly intelligent, observant, and logical, which grounds his character across multiple stories and makes his actions believable.

Experience: When writing my first draft, it was difficult to maintain consistency towards the end of the story. This was always in the first draft of my writing. The first draft is often referred to as the “bad draft” because it’s where you get all your ideas down without worrying too much about perfection. However, maintaining consistency is crucial even in this early stage to avoid major revisions later.

To maintain consistency, always refer back to the character profiles and biographies you created. These documents should detail your characters’ backgrounds, personality traits, and motivations. Consistently reviewing these profiles helps ensure that your characters’ actions and dialogues align with their established traits and histories.

Tips for Maintaining Consistency:

Regularly Update Character Profiles: As your story evolves, update your character profiles with new developments. This ensures you have a comprehensive understanding of each character at all times.

Track Character Arcs: Create a timeline or spreadsheet to track each character’s development throughout the story. Note key events, emotional changes, and how these affect their behavior.

Foreshadow Changes: If a character undergoes a significant change, foreshadow it by dropping subtle hints earlier in the story. This makes drastic changes more believable and natural.

Review Previous Chapters: Before writing new sections, quickly review the last few chapters to refresh your memory on character actions and story developments. This helps maintain continuity.

Consistency in Dialogue: Ensure that each character’s way of speaking remains consistent throughout the story. Pay attention to their vocabulary, tone, and speech patterns.

Use a Character Checklist: Develop a checklist of each character’s key traits and motivations. Refer to this checklist regularly to ensure characters are acting in line with their established profiles.

Resources

Writer’s Digest – The 9 Ingredients of Character Development

Helping Writers Become Authors – A Writer’s Comprehensive Guide to Backstory

MasterClass – How to Use Character Flaws to Enrich Your Writing

Jerry Jenkins – Show, Don’t Tell: What You Need to Know

Live Write Thrive- Using Dialogue in Scenes to Reveal Character

Final Thoughts

Developing captivating characters is crucial for any great story. By creating strong character concepts, detailed profiles, and consistent growth, writers can resonate with readers. Effective techniques bring characters to life vividly and memorably. Moreover, paying careful attention to developing a solid backstory and maintaining character consistency is indispensable for establishing credibility and keeping the readers engaged.

As you refine your craft, remember to keep your characters’ motivations, traits, and arcs clear and consistent, ensuring that they remain authentic and relatable. Not only does this enrich the depth of your story, but it also creates a lasting impact on your readers.

If you liked this tip, check out my page on Tips for Writers.

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