Character Development – Writing Compelling Characters

Character development in writing plays a massive role in creating compelling stories. Regardless of genre, we love characters that grow and change as the story unfolds. These changes often arise because of conflict, with characters developing either in a positive or negative way as a result.

But to do this badly could spell disaster. It was arguably the main flaw behind the final season of HBO’s Game of Throne—a complete lack of character development. In the end, viewers grew annoyed because characters lacked compelling justifications for their actions—they weren’t developed.

In this guide, we’ll discuss developing and creating characters in fiction. We’ll assess what’s needed when building a character, examine character development examples, and take a look at some exercises you may find useful.

I’ve also added links to some related writing tips and guides you may find useful, as well as a free workshop and podcast.

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How Do You Develop A Fictional Character?

Character development relates to the process of building a character that almost feels alive and three-dimensional, complete with personality and motives. It can also relate to the changes and growth a character experiences as they interact with points of conflict in the story.

How Do Non-Planners Create And Develop Characters?

While this writing guide is one more tailored to the planners as opposed to the pantsers, it’s important to consider how non-planners approach writing a story, particularly from the perspective of character creation.

As someone who takes a hybrid approach to creating characters—planning out their core being as well as getting to know them along the way—I appreciate both sides of the argument.

First, as a non-planner, the ability to create a character as the story unfolds gives you maximum freedom and control. You don’t find yourself running into obstacles with the plot because it develops organically. From a reader’s perspective, this can make for a better tale.

Select A Section

To skip to the section you’re most interested in, just click below.

  1. What Does Character Development Mean?
  2. What Is Character Development In Writing?
  3. How Does Character Development Affect A Story?
  4. Developing Characters In Fiction
  5. Character Development Exercises
  6. Learn To Develop Characters In An Online Writing Group
  7. Extra Resources On Character Development

What Does Character Development Mean?

Everything in this world of ours changes. Mountains crumble into the sea. Islands disappear. Forests become icecaps. Change is eternal. It is one of life’s only constants. For some of us, we welcome it, embrace it. Others resist.

When it comes to our fictional characters, the very same rules apply to them, and when they do, it helps make our stories and our character’s journies more compelling.

Think of ourselves. Most of us want some kind of change in our lives. We want to better our standing, get a job we enjoy more, earn more money, buy more stuff.

Think back to the past, to your school years. How many of those best friends are you still in contact with now, and I bet you were inseparable with a few? What would be a thought that would enter your mind when debating whether or not to reach out to them now? Things aren’t the same as they used to be.

We do not live static existences. Sometimes we change through choice, and other times change is thrust upon us. Even the most ritualistic individuals experience some kind of change that alters their lives in stressful and conflicting ways.

For example, the closure of a local pub can cause great distress for the old patrons. What else have they to do with the long and lonely hours of the day? Where else have they to go? It seems mighty trivial, but trust me, I’ve run a pub.

Some people shape their lives around routine, and when what may seem a trivial change occurs, the ripples knock off course everything else in their life.

What Is Character Development In Writing?

Change can be good or it can be bad. Often in fiction, we’re faced with negative changes, changes that create conflict in the lives of our characters. It’s through reacting to these conflicts our characters grow, at times by making the right move and resolving the conflict, or the wrong move and making things worse.

Let’s take a look at some character development examples. Many fantasy stories involve characters from humble beginnings that, as a result of decisions both voluntarily and involuntarily, go on to achieve greatness. Pug in Raymond Feist’s Riftwar Cycle, Kvothe in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings, to name but a few.

How Does Character Development Affect A Story?

By this point, I may hopefully have convinced you of the constant and capricious nature of change. As a result, it’s important we reflect this in the development of our characters.

So where does character development relate to building a character?

“There is only one realm in which characters defy natural laws and remain the same—the realm of bad writing. And it is the fixed nature of the characters that make the writing bad.” Lajos Egri.

Characters may go on a physical journey, but often the greatest one of all is the one they go on within themselves, the change they go through as they overcome trials and tribulations, heartbreak and despair.

Let’s take a look at what we can do to get that wheel of change spinning.

Developing Characters In Fiction

As writers, there are numerous tools we can employ to ensure our characters develop in compelling and interesting ways. In this section, I’ll take you through them. And first, I’ll start with my very own method of developing characters in fiction.

How Do You Create A Hero?

We all have a fantasy hero that we love—Aragorn, Princess Leia, Arya Stark, Luke Skywalker, Kvothe, Pug, Vin, Geralt. These characters capture our imaginations with their tremendous feats of glory. We forge bonds with them. We’d read thousands of pages just to see what happens in the end. As writers, that’s what we want.

It’s what I tried to do in Pariah’s Lament with Isy, and it seemed to work. The reason I mention it is because I wanted to share with you a few different ways of creating a hero. Because when we think of the word, our minds can jump to different things—what our interpretation is of a hero.

For some, it may be a cape-wearing lycra lover. For others, it could be the working man. Both are heroes in their own way.

  • One way to create a hero is to follow a path of growth and development. From humble beginnings usually an orphan in fantasy, the protagonist realises their power and becomes the hero they were destined to be.
  • Another approach, which is something I’ll cover further below, is to begin a story with a hero. A prime example of this is Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher series. Geralt is strong, competent and very much the hero of the story right from the off. His story, therefore, follows a developmental path of declines and gains, peaks and troughs. The highs and lows of life.

These are just a couple of examples. But the main point to take away is that when it comes to creating a hero, they need to have done something or possess a skill to warrant the title. And the build-up to that point has to be compelling. Readers are pretty sick and tired of the chosen one vibe, as my examination of fantasy tropes and cliches revealed. But that’s not to say you can’t do it in a less obvious way.

Character Plotting

When it comes to building a character in fiction, we need to have an idea of who they are, what they’re capable of and what they want.

Generally, all character-driven stories involve a character who wants something. The plot is simply them getting from point A to point B and dealing with the myriad points of conflict that arise along the way.

Now there’s a very handy method that I’ve developed over the years to chart a character’s emotional interaction with these various points of conflict. A way that ensures your character develops in a compelling and believable way—and trust me it’s important, otherwise, you may end up with something like the last season of Game of Thrones (which was devoid of character development).

Character plotting is simple. It involves charting the emotional journey and the growth and development of your characters as they interact with points of conflict (or plot points).

This emotional journey is so, so important when it comes to compelling character growth. As Moses Malevinsky said in The Science of Playwrighting, “Emotion is life. Life is emotion. Therefore emotion is drama. Drama is emotion.”

Let’s make things clearer. Here are two examples I’ve taken from my debut novel, Pariah’s Lament.

character development examples
Character Development Examples From Pariah’s Lament

The two development paths you can see are quite different. Isy is a character that begins at the very bottom of the development chart. Her story is all about growth, with a few bumps in the road along the way (hence the jagged rises and falls).

Edvar’s development chart is a little different. He begins the story in a somewhat better position to Isy, but things go wrong and his fall is sharp and sudden. His story is one of redemption—falling to the bottom of the pack and rising up.

In my dedicated guide to character plotting, I go over this method in more detail, but as you can see, having this visual aid makes a huge difference.

A Character Forced To Make A Decision

Characters can be motivated to act by any number of influences and pressures. Let’s take a gambler who’s fallen into debt with an unsavoury chap. This moneylender has beaten him for the money, and now is threatening to hurt his family. He is afraid. He’s not much of a fighter, nor is he overly aggressive. But he cares deeply for his family. These conflicting pressures force him to make a decision: fight back or flee?

Innumerable factors can influence even the most trivial of decisions, yet so often they fall under the umbrellas of the physiological, the sociological and the psychological—indeed, the very make-up of our characters.

Who we are, what we believe, how we were raised and the like all influence what decisions we make and that, in turn, can lead us down paths of change. According to Egri, it’s knowing in detail these characteristics that help us determine whether a character has made the choice most consistent with who they are. Or as Egri put it: ‘Only in bad writing does a man change without regard to his characteristics.’

What Does A Character Want?

In addition to their characteristics, a character that wants something more than anything else can propel their development.

Now, this could be a positive thing or it could be a negative thing. For instance, a character with an addiction to crack cocaine may want nothing more than to secure their next fix. What steps will they take to achieve that? Will they steal, mug people or do something much worse?

This is an extreme example, but the principle can apply to other situations. A character who really wants something is going to be more motivated to achieve their goal, and in order to do so, they may have to grow and develop, sometimes in positive ways, sometimes in negative ones.

Charting Character Development

As well as my character plotting approach, there’s another nifty tool to help chart the development of characters, known as ‘the everyman and the superman.’

The ‘everyman’ is the average Joe. The person content with their lot, until life throws them a twist, perhaps forcing them on a path they never intended. That path, and the obstacles they must overcome along the way, lead them to change and develop as individuals, maybe learning things about themselves they never knew, realising their potential, or gaining new skills to help them become ‘supermen’ or ‘superwomen’.

Generally, a story involving a rounded ‘superman’ tends to involve a highly competent character saving the world. There isn’t much room for character development because they’re already the best at everything, ever. Take James Bond, for example. He’s forever foiling plots to destroy the world and nobody ever doubts that he’s going to fail.

Supermen, however, can fall like redwoods, and this is an interesting approach you can take to shake things up. How can that once great character regain greatness?

character development chart example

If you’ve watched some of the later James Bond films, you’ll notice that the writers have gone down this route, exploring the decline of the superman. It’s a great way to introduce some aspects of character development to those who are already fully formed in some aspects of their life.

Character Development Exercises

To help reinforce what we’ve covered in this guide, I’ve included an exercise.

Linked to character plotting above, the exercise is all about charting your character’s emotional development as they move through the story, though it can just as easily be used to gauge their physical development too, as well as any other traits you may want to include. For instance, if you’re writing a fantasy novel, using this exercise to chart their adeptness in magic could also be useful.

  1. Now all you have to do is create your character and give them a goal. What do they want more than anything else? If working with a protagonist, this is usually the main plot of the story.
  2. Next, create a chart like the Edvar and Isy one above. On the left hand side of that chart, add the starting point. This may be near the top or bottom of the Y axis on the chart (the vertical line). On the opposite end of the chart, add in another point. This is the conclusion of your story.
  3. Now move through the points of conflict in your plot and add them into the chart. If the outcome of dealing with the conflict is positive, the line moves up to the next point. If it’s a negative outcome, the line falls.
  4. You can add notes to each plot point to give yourself more information on what has developed.

By the end, you’ll have a visual overview of the growth of your character. And this can work for all types of characters, even secondary ones.

Learn To Develop Characters In An Online Writing Group

If you’d like more help, support and advice with character development in your writing, there’s somewhere you can get it. And that place is my online writing group.

It’s open to all writers and at the moment we have around 160 active members, all contributing to great discussions and helping each other out with the likes of beta reads.

To join, just click below.

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Join A Writing Group Full of Passionate Writers

I also have a list of other writing groups you can check out here.

Extra Resources On Character Development

Thanks for reading this guide to character development in writing. I hope you’ve found it useful. Below, I’ve included some links to extra resources you may find useful, as well as a link to watch my free workshop on how to write a fantasy novel in which I discuss characterisation at length.

More Writing Guides

Free Writing Workshop

I regularly host writing workshops, and to coincide with the launch of Pariah’s Lament, I hosted one on writing fantasy, novels in particular. As part of that talk, I looked at character development. You can find that workshop below.

Free Writing Podcast On Conflict and Character Development

If you haven’t checked it out already, I host a regular fantasy writing podcast called The Fantasy Writers’ Toolshed. Not so long ago I did a special episode on how to create conflict, which ties in closely with character development, as we’ve seen. You can listen below.

How to create conflict – fantasy writing podcast

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