I’m a big fan of character-driven stories, meaning I’m a big fan of taking the time to develop characters for your story before plot. If you come up with a plot and then try to make characters fit, it reads as less organic, and you might be shoving characters into spaces that don’t work for them. You could even end up with one-dimensional characters with no agency. That isn’t to say that developing a plot first is inherently a bad idea, but it is certainly more difficult. I know this first-hand.
Fantasy is a little different because you can do world-building first. Then, you can ask yourself what kind of characters would that world create. The form of government can help give you characters as well as any magic system you create. Your characters and your plot come from your world-building.
It’s also worth noting that it is impossible to develop characters and plot independently. One will always impact the other, and they will always come simultaneously. So, it’s really about which one takes your focus first.
Anyway, having said all that, how do you develop characters for your story?
The Basics of Developing Characters
This post assumes that you have some sort of rough idea to start with. Telling you how to come up with an idea for a character is a different process, and everyone has a different way of going about it. We’re going to skip all that and start at step two.
There are the very basics: name, appearance, family, job, etc. Some of these details might come out as you do your plot. For instance, if it’s a murder mystery, your character needs to be someone who would have access to the murder scene.
The basics cover things like how much education have they had and their sexual orientation. At this stage, you’re just gathering those details, even if those details aren’t hugely important. Like, your reader doesn’t care that your protagonist is left-handed, but you should probably know if they are.
Getting More Complicated
This is the part where your process and your characters get more complicated. To develop characters that relatable and interesting, you need to think about more than just what they do. You need to think about their flaws and desires, the things that make up who they are.
Flaws are huge. Characters who are perfect and can do anything are boring. More than that, they suck the tension out of your story. It can often lead to characters who have things done to them rather than characters who do things.
Coming up with flaws can be difficult so here is the best tip I have: Often your characters’ flaws will just be exaggerated versions of their best qualities.
I’m on a Veronica Mars kick given the new season so let’s use that character as an example. Veronica Mars is driven and tough. She can pretty much handle anything, and she has a great moral center and often defends the underdog. This leads right into her flaws. In defense of what she believes to be right, she often relies on revenge. She wants people to pay for the bad things they’ve done. More than that, she’s often wrong and has to correct her mistakes.
Another important aspect of character development is their desires, meaning what they want. What drives your character? Is it finding out who their birth mom is? Is it getting into a specific college? Is it falling in love?
Basically, your character needs to have a goal, even if it’s a really simple goal.
Using Your Character to Drive Your Plot
Here comes the hard part. How do you use your characters to develop a plot?
Remember how I just said that your characters need to have a goal? That goal is going to be the basis for your plot.
You might have seen the advice before that asks the questions: What does your character want the most? How can you keep them from it? I just read a great book called Luck and Love in which a sister is desperate to visit her friend in Italy to try and escape what’s happened to her, but she ends up on a road trip in Ireland with her brother.
Sometimes it’s not about keeping them from it necessarily but sending them on a journey that makes them realize they don’t want it. To use the examples from the last section, maybe they need to love themselves before falling in love. Maybe they decide to go to a different college or not go to college. Maybe they realize they don’t want to find their birth mother after all.
Another book I just read is called When Dimple Met Rishi (I’m on a YA romance kick. Don’t judge me.), Dimple is going to the summer program of her dreams. But it’s complicated when Rishi shows up and tells her that their parents are setting them up to be married. What follows isn’t at all what Dimple was expecting.
It’s also about letting your characters make decisions, sometimes disastrous decisions that affect their lives and the lives of other people. Let them make mistakes, and let them live the consequences of those mistakes. Veronica Mars often struggles to keep her friends because she’s so focused on the next case, and she tends to forget about their needs. She has to live with her decisions and priorities. Your characters should too.
By a character-driven story, I mean a story in which the characters have agency. Their decision to go after or not go after the killer matters. Their decision whether or not to cheat on their partner matters. Basically, your character doesn’t need to do anything, and what they do decide to do has repercussions for the story. The story is shaped by their decisions, even if there are larger forces at play too.
This wasn’t meant to be a completely comprehensive post about developing characters though I might do a series in the future. I just wanted to give some basic tips on how to think about and develop characters for your story.
If you’re looking for advice on how to develop a villain, you can check out my post about it.
I’ve developed a guide to writing a fiction novel for you to check out. It includes a character development checklist. Sign up for my email newsletter and get it sent straight to your inbox!