Your characters are the heart of your story. Without believable characters to root for (or against), there’s no compelling reason to read your story. Sure, the plot can be interesting, but if you make the mistake of using generic, stock characters to carry out the plot, you’ll cheat the reader, and they will not forgive you. Even worse, that unforgiveness will cause them to abandon the story and avoid reading your future novels.
That response may seem extreme, but consider all of the lackluster fiction you read throughout the years. Even atrocious characters can still be compelling if they’re developed and nuanced. However, if the characters are shallow and underdeveloped, and only used as generic tools to move the story forward, the story won’t feel authentic. The real magic of storytelling occurs when you can develop a character so well that they come across as an actual living person.
So how do you improve the characters in your novel? In this post, we’ll explore the best tips for developing strong characters that your readers will care about.
How to Develop Better Characters
Follow these tips to improve your characterization.
1. Understand Their Purpose in the Story
Every character has a purpose. While the character may be the protagonist of their own lives, they won't necessarily be the protagonist in the story that you're telling. Perhaps they're the antagonist. Or a mentor. Or both. Understanding the character's identity in your story will help you create a complete arc that resonates with your reader.
Fortunately, there's a time-tested way to easily identify the roles your characters will play in your story. It relies on psychologist Carl Jung's theory of archetypes.
Jung believed there were 12 patterns, or archetypes, that exist in our collective unconscious — the part of the mind that is common to all humans. These 12 archetypes represent basic human motivations, and we experience all of them. However, we each tend to be dominated by only one of these archetypes. And that's the basis of our personality.
Without getting too far into the psychological weeds, here’s a quick rundown of the 12 archetypes that we often encounter in literature:
Caregiver - A person who sacrifices themselves for the needs and wants of others
Creator - A person who creates or envisions
Hero - A person who will save the day with confidence, talent, strength, or skill
Innocent - A person who is pure in their motivations and often naive and inexperienced in the ways of the world
Joker - A person who adds humor to the story
Lover - A person driven by passion, love, or devotion
Orphan - A person who may feel out of place and have a deep desire to be understood and accepted
Outlaw - A rebel who breaks with social convention
Magician - A person who understands the way that the world works and uses it to their advantage
Ruler - A person who has control and/or wants to be in control
Sage - A person who has acquired wisdom and may act as a mentor
Seducer - A person who is irresistible and uses their charm to get what they want
But wait. What’s the difference between an archetype and a stereotype?
An archetype is used to define the role that a character plays in a novel. They can be a hero, an orphan, and/or an innocent.
By contrast, a stereotype is an oversimplified set of characteristics we assign a person based on preconceived beliefs about the group that the person belongs to, whether we’re doing so by race, gender, age, religion, etc.
While an archetype can be used as the starting point for defining a complex character, a stereotype is quite the opposite. It’s reductive and narrows a character into a caricature.
An archetype is a template. A stereotype is a formulaic conclusion.
2. Don't Think of Characters as “Characters”
Identify the characters in your story as people first, and not simply characters in a novel. Even if they're complete figments of your imagination, it's helpful to start from the idea that you're documenting a real event that's created and experienced by real people.
3. Know Your Characters’ Backstories
You need to know the bio of all of your key characters, even if you don’t plan on sharing all of this information with your reader. The easiest way to do this is to create a mini-bio (like a Wikipedia-type entry) for your story’s most important characters. It doesn’t need to be a long entry, but enough to establish the background of each key character.
4. Understand Who Your Characters are Now
Identify who your characters are from this point forward. For example, two characters may have grown up in the same abusive household. One decides to continue the cycle of abuse while the other does everything they can to avoid abuse. This is why backstory can’t dictate who the character will be, but it can be used to explain why they choose to be who they are. It can influence their personality, triggers, and how they choose to show up.
To get a better grasp of who your characters are now, you can interview them. Ask questions to identify how your character thinks, feels, and responds.
5. Give Them Flaws
Perfect characters are boring.
If they're not self-sabotaging, are they even human? Real people are hypocritical. They believe one thing but do another.
Don’t make any character too good. Give them flaws.
And by “flaws,” I'm referring to deep flaws, not superficial flaws, such as a physical imperfection. I'm talking about a protagonist with a streak of cruelty. A stubborn character who resists change. Paranoia. Prejudice. Pride. And the list goes on.
Writers tend to protect their protagonists by making them so perfect that they're rendered unrelatable. But if you want your reader to be able to connect with your characters, you need to share the characters’ flaws, too.
Understanding the character's flaws can help you write a more consistent character. For example, let's take the flaw of obstinacy. A so-called “stubborn” person can be persistent, determined, and unrelenting in their pursuit of justice. So, you can explore the character’s flaws as strengths in your story, too.
6. Don't Focus on Their Physical Characteristics
Unless you’re intentionally relying on stereotypes to do the heavy lifting, physical characteristics don't tell you anything about a person.
As a rule of thumb, it’s best to use physical characteristics only when it’s going to reveal something about the character themselves or the way that others view and treat them in the story.
7. Don't Write Villains As Villains
No true villain considers themselves a villain. If you frame it as “this is the villain,” you miss an opportunity to characterize them as the hero of their own story. As an exercise, see the events from their perceptive as the main (good) character of their story.
8. Understand What Your Characters Want in Each Scene
Want is a basic human instinct. No matter what's happening, we always want something. And we may want multiple things at one time. Right now, you may want to understand more about characterization. And you may also want to eat ice cream. Eventually, your wants will provoke you to act.
And that's exactly what we need to discover when writing strong characters. What does the character want in this scene? What the character wants, the character will make happen (or will try to make happen).
Characters are motivated by what they don't want, too. If they don't want a certain course of action, they will alter their behavior to influence the outcome.
Understand what's at stake for your characters in every scene. If you don't know what they want or don't want, then you don't know your characters well enough.
9. Use Relationships to Define Your Characters
People relate to different people differently. In other words, you can use your secondary characters to explore unique facets of the protagonist's personality. A great technique to try is to use foils to reveal information about the character.
A foil is another character in your story that has characteristics that oppose that of the other character. Foils are usually written as opposites of the protagonist, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, two secondary characters can be foils of each other.
Your characters will drive your story forward, but only if they’re properly developed. Otherwise, it will be the story that drags your characters along with it, and that doesn’t make for an enjoyable experience. Readers want to believe that each character is acting of their own volition, not as an unchangeable function of the plot.
One of the best things you can do as a storyteller is to give your audience living, breathing characters to connect with. Use the above tips to improve your character development.