Characterization. It’s, without a doubt, one of the hardest parts of writing a novel.
It is the aim of every writer to create an authentic and infinitely unique character that readers will treasure. But, sometimes and somehow, the more you try, the more unrealistic the character becomes.
So, what’s the answer? How do you do it?
Below, I’ll share with you my favorite character development tips that I’ve learned throughout the years. But I won’t sugar coat it. Creating believable, well-rounded characters is hard work, but it’s also incredibly satisfying when you manage to create characters that stay with the reader long after they’ve read the last line. I know you want that. I want that for you, and I know these tips will help. Let’s get started.
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Is Your Character Too Perfect?
In literature, perfection is boring. There’s something in our human brain that rejects the idea of absolute perfection.
And, nowhere is that more true than in the pages of a novel.
Readers demand that the characters have faults. They have weaknesses. There’s something about the character that’s damaged, vulnerable, grim, ugly or all of the above.
A character who never does anything wrong will start to grate on your reader. Even someone who seemingly is perfect may be harboring feelings of resent, or over-compensating for a time when they felt inferior in some way. Explore the character from that angle.
Find flaws for every character that you give a name to. It doesn’t have to be a flaw that you discuss in detail with the reader. It may be something that only you know, tucked within that writer’s brain of yours, and that you’ll use as a silent motivation for the character’s behavior.
Is Your Character All Bad?
So… on the flip side, there’s a completely evil, horrible, despicable character with absolutely no redeemable qualities.
That’s boring, too.
And, it’s most definitely flat and cartoonish.
No one, not even a fictional character, is all good or all bad. They all exist in the spectrum of gray. That’s where the most interesting characterization is, too.
Instead of depicting absolutely dark villains with no redeemable qualities, consider life from the villain’s perspective. No one is a villain in their own story. They may be victims of misfortune who lash out in rage. Or, in their own minds, they may be righting a wrong done to them or their loved ones.
Even if you don’t write from the villain’s perspective, make sure that you know it. Really well. That way, you can craft a character arc that makes sense.
Are They Human?
Your character may not be human. Your character may be an animal, a robot or an alien, but if your reader is a human (and I’m willing to bet that they are), your character need to share some human trait. That is, they need to be relatable in some way that a human can understand and sympathize with.
Speaking of animals, George Orwell’s Animal Farm allegorized real historical figures. Even though the characters are animals, the writer infused the story with human characteristics that made the characters identifiable.
Even if your characters are human, that doesn’t make it any easier. You’ll still need to put on your junior psychologist hat and create characters that seem like they would actually exist off the page.
Does Your Character Not Make Mistakes?
Everyone makes mistakes, especially your characters. Mistakes a great way to push the story forward, too.
Mistakes are a must for characterization.
Remember this: All characters should have agency. Their actions (and sometimes their mistakes) move the plot forward. The plot should never exist without the character creating it.
Do They Have Goals?
Does the character care about something?
Every character should have something that they care about. This is a goal, or a motivation, that drives every action they take.
Goals are important and should be identified early on to the reader. This allows the reader to understand the character’s motivation and understand what the character is looking for in every scene he or she is in.
Goals can be anything, even if the goal is to keep status quo. Every character needs to have at least one driving goal.
Do They Grow?
All characters with names should evolve in some way during the story -- be sure to have a character arc for each one
Remember, change or growth doesn’t have to be a life-changing thing. It can be internal change, external change or both. For example, it can be a change in attitude, appearance or financial status.
Is the Character Believable in Their World?
Be honest: Would this character’s personality ever really exist in this world that you’ve created? Or are you giving this character a certain personality to push the story forward?
These are hard questions to figure out because you’re making up your own world as you go. But even still, the characters who inhabit your world should make sense within it. The character’s personality must be shaped by the world he or she lives in. His or her personality is a reaction to the world in some way.
So, to aid you with this, answer these questions:
- What is the character’s past?
- What type of family do they have and why?
- What is the character’s outlook on life?
To learn more about developing believable characters, check out these resources:
Have You Described Your Character?
Detailed character descriptions. Some readers love them, some readers hate them. Which do you prefer?
For me, I suppose it depends on the genre you’re writing. In some genres, especially romance, it’s important to describe the character's physical attributes to a T. You want to describe eye color, hair, nose, abs, everything!
But, in other genres, such as action adventure, physical description is simply not that big of a deal. You can leave it up to the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks.
However, you’ll probably need to write a physical description of your character at some point, even if it’s only a small giveaway. So, here are a few of my favorite tips for writing character descriptions:
Choose to describe the details that reveal something about the character.
Perhaps the character’s long black hair becomes a part of the plot. Perhaps she’ll need to dye it to escape.
Don’t load the description with a bunch of adjectives.
She had black hair. She had brown eyes. She had tan skin. *yawn* Instead, find similes or metaphors that activate the reader’s imagination. I love how poet Nizar Qabbani used metaphor to describe eye color:
“In the blue harbor of your eyes
Snow falls in July.
Ships laden with turquoise
Spill over the sea and are not drowned.”
Find creative ways to make your physical description pop off the page while still leaving it completely in the reader’s imagination.
Is Your Character Vulnerable?
Characters should never be invincible-- even if you’re creating a superhero and that’s their superpower. Superman had kryptonite, and your character needs a weakness, too.
Although you may not share a lot of what you know with the reader, this is one element you’ll definitely want to share. Explore that character’s weakness. Show the reader how the character is in someway unable to do what he or she wants to do.
It may be that they’re physically weak. Perhaps it’s a mental weakness. Perhaps they’re just oblivious to a truth that the reader knows.
Doing this can make the reader root for the character.
Over to You
What is your favorite character in all of literature and why? Let us know in the comments below.
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