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Tips for Developing Characters

March 27, 2018 (Last Updated October 24, 2022)

Marcy G.

Character development is not the same process for everyone. Depending on where you are in your writing process, what you’re writing about, and how developed your story is, certain aspects of your character may not be worked out yet. It’s okay if you don’t have a firm handle on your characters when you start writing. The development of a character may become clearer as you continue writing and evolve as you delve deeper into your story. We have outlined some tips and guidelines to follow for character development.


First off, naming your character can feel like the greatest challenge of all. You don’t want to pick something too generic or too outlandish or difficult to pronounce. This decision can depend on multiple factors, including the setting or tone of your book. If you’re writing about a woman from the Fifties, a name like Betty-Sue would fit better than if she were to be living in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s okay to give your character a filler name while writing until you decide. Like many other character traits, your protagonist’s name may come later as he or she becomes more developed. 


Some basic, initial questions you can ask yourself to get started are:

·      Who is the speaker?

·      Who are they speaking to?

·      What prompted the occasion for speaking?

·      What is their profession? Income?

·      Do they have any skills, talents?

·      What are their goals?

·      Do they have a defined personality type?


You must be able to describe their physical characteristics

·      What kind of clothes do they wear?

·      Do they have any quirky habits or mannerisms?

·      Describe their overall appearance, using descriptive language

·      Do they have any signature qualities or identifiers? (example: Holden Caulfield’s red hunter’s hat, Harry Potter’s scar, etc.)


Everyone has a history

Characters must have context and a backstory. What happens before the story starts and after it ends? What happens in the background or between scenes? If your character has an extreme response to something, what triggered that? For example, if your character has relationship issues, it’s helpful to your reader to describe their past and give insight to why they struggle with this. Did they have trouble with their parents? A hard time making friends?


Characters are usually overcoming something

What are your character’s flaws or fears? (example: Robert Langdon is afraid of enclosed spaces because of a traumatic childhood memory)


Characters don’t exist in a vacuum; They interact with others and respond differently to different people.


Put your character in situations and use body language and dialogue to demonstrate how your protagonist responds. How do they react in a crisis? What are they like in a thoughtful discussion?


Geography and setting are important

The setting of your book has a huge impact on your character. If you want to express that your character is anxious, the atmosphere you create must reflect this. What is the lighting like? Is there a lot of noise? Going back to physical characteristics, the setting can help you form what your character should be wearing, what dialect they have, and the words they use.  Your protagonist has to navigate the world they live in on the page. It's a story about ALL of the characters, and the way they survive, express emotion, respond to different situations, and how they live their lives in general.  


Avoid stereotypes

It’s not enough to position your protagonist as that down-on-their-luck, relatable person who came from nothing and defied the odds; We’ve all seen this. Characters need depth. Common tropes can only go so far to engage the reader. Submerge your character in difficult, intriguing situations and see where they go. 


Above all, do your research. Our imaginations can only take us so far. We can draw on our own experiences to develop characters, but at the end of the day, your characters are manifestations that are created and exist in a different context from you. For example, if you’re writing about someone who has PTSD, you will need to research what symptoms come with this disorder and how they respond to certain situations. You don’t want to make the mistake of giving your character a well-defined quality then not be able to portray it realistically.

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