Character development – the very basics

A character is at the centre of a plotline and responsible for making or breaking a story. Make the character too perfect, and they will be uninteresting and flat. Make them too imperfect, and the reader/audience will not be able to relate, nor will they empathize. What, then, is that fine line between perfect and imperfect character, and why should you even care? Let’s jump right into it.

Character development

Your character’s quality is something that, in action, manifests as a positive or negative force. For example, a person with good personality traits might support and empathise when comforting someone experiencing distress. Or they could do courageous acts when faced with dangerous situations. A character with bad personality traits might be a bully or gossip, or they could bail when they are most needed.

Generalized personality traits like these are universally understood, and we all agree on them, but if character-building were that simple, we would all be world-class writers.

There are two ways to approach character building from the point of view of personality traits.

  • You can choose your character’s personality traits first and then start building their story around those personality traits.

For example, you decide your character is shy. Then you would start asking why. Why is she shy? What happened to her in childhood to make her shy (origins)? What happened that solidified her being shy(reinforcement)? How has she been punished for being shy (actions and consequences)? How has she been rewarded for being shy (action and consequences)? How has being shy affected her life (consequences)? How will being shy affect her current and future decisions? How does being shy affect her current and future reactions?


  • You can start building the story. As you do, the character’s personalities will reveal themselves and become pieces of a puzzle being added to the story.

For example, your story is about someone who didn’t want to rob a bank but is forced to do so for one reason or another. In this approach, you focus on the story and actual events and determine how your character would react or think in those particular situations (scenes). Maybe your character is pissed off being forced into this situation, which might lead you to think they are prone to having a short temper or perhaps they are good under pressure. What if your character is tearful and barely performs through the stressful situation of being forced into a bank robbery? Then you could choose to make your character cowardly or empathetic type.

I personally use both ways of creating a character when writing, but you should do what feels the most natural to you.

When building a character, their motivation for doing anything is everything. What I mean by that is that if your character frowns their eyebrows and bites down on their jaws in one scene, you must know why. You can’t make a character act a certain way in a scene just because it sounds cool, it must be in perfect line with their character. And I mean down to the last twitch of an eye.

Many movies and books render the character not believable just because their actions deviate from their character. Sometimes these “mistakes” are so small on the writer’s part that the audiences don’t even see where it all went wrong; they are just left with this underlying feeling that something didn’t add up.

The best way to ensure your character stays in character is to know them inside out.

  • What is their family like? Siblings? Parents? What are they like to each other and towards the character?
  • Make sure you understand their mother and father relationships. And how have those relationships affected their psyche?
  • What was their childhood like? What did they like/dislike as a child? How were they couraged/discouraged?
  • What are their traumatic incidents in childhood and later? How have those traumas affected their personality and development?
  • What do they fear? Why?
  • What do they like? Why?
  • What are they bad/good at?
  • What do they dream about? What is standing in the way of them achieving their dream?
  • What are they obsessed about?
  • What are their goals? Short term? Long term? Observed by everyone and/or hidden?

Character arc

You should also develop a character arc for each character in your story. Character arc means how the character will change during the journey. A good character arc has the character start off one way, and through actions and inner reflection, they transform into someone different by the end of the book. This doesn’t mean a shy, introverted person who wants nothing more than to find a cure for their dying cat becomes a social butterfly obsessed with dogs.

The change can and should be something central to the story, something that matters to it, something significant yet not too over the top that becomes unbelievable.

For example, a shy person wants to find a cure for their dying cat. They do everything they can, but at the end of the day, the only way to get to the cure is to take the cat and leave the house. However, the character can’t do that because they suffer from agoraphobia (afraid to leave the house). So in this very simplified example, the character would go through several incidents, small successes and big losses, but in the end, they would overcome their fear and leave the house, thus saving the cat. This example is simplified and could perhaps serve as a story for a toddler book, but you get the point.

Character voice

It is important that your character has their own voice; by that, I mean a way of talking, a tone of talking, a way of walking, a way of expressing that is unique to them specifically. Just like everyone around you in real life is different in many ways, the characters should also have their own style and quirks. Don’t forget this when:

  • Writing dialogue
  • Describing what each character notices around them
  • Describing what each character does when stressed/happy/neutral etc

Character conflict

A story without conflict is not even a story, it’s just an account of things. You need to give your characters both internal conflicts and conflicts with other characters. All conflicts must tie to the story and help move the story along.

Internal conflicts are something the character battles internally, perhaps a fear or a physical disability they are trying to overcome. Internal conflict is something that doesn’t necessarily need to be completely resolved by the end of the story. Still, at least the character should come to terms with the internal conflict or put it to good use somehow so that it becomes a positive force.

External conflicts are found in the character’s relationship with others, be it other people, their environment, or the supernatural. These are usually the conflicts that need to be resolved by the end of the story; even if your story doesn’t have a happy ending, we do need an ending.

It might sound like a lot, even when brushing the subject of character development superficially. But don’t be intimidated. This is your opportunity to genetically engineer people, to be not only the puppet master but the god creator. You can heal things in characters you struggle to heal in yourself or give characters powers/characteristics you wish you had. Through your characters, you can do the worst without personal consequences or bring awareness to subjects you are passionate about.

Take your time crafting your characters because the reader/audience connects with your story through them.

1 thought on “Character development – the very basics”

  1. […] (If you are interested in reading about the basics of character development, you can do so here.) The reason why you need to know your villain’s entire life story in detail is that you need […]

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