Fiction Character Development

Characters are the muscles that drive the inanimate bones of the plot. Their motives, desires, ambitions, actions, and emotions are the means by which the story is told. For this reason, it is important that you decide who they are and what basic role they will play before you begin to write. This is not to say you need to identify every minor character who will walk onto your written stage throughout the book. Begin with the protagonist or main character and move on to the other major characters who will impact the storyline. The bit players don’t need to be developed with the same degree of depth and can be created as needed during the writing phase.

I follow this basic outline: name, vital statistics, current situation as the story begins, and background. First, the name. I simply follow my instincts as to what a person such as the one I am creating might be named. It’s a fun process, but there are a couple of things to avoid. Don’t give two or more characters first names that begin with the same letter of the alphabet. This helps avoid confusion before the story is firmly established in the reader’s mind. Likewise, vary the number of syllables and familiarity of the names. It is frustrating to readers when they have to page back to identify whether the current action involves Bob or Bill. If the names are Bob and William, it’s easier for each to lodge individually in the reader’s mind. Finally, stay away from cutesy, archaic, or made up names unless the name is part of the persona you are creating. Also, make sure the name matches your character’s background, i.e. don’t name an Irish pub owner Antonio. Challenge yourself to chose names that give your characters gravitas in the reader’s eye.

Next, fill in the details: age, height, weight, physical characteristics and personality traits. Sometimes an unusual physical feature or habitual manner of speech or behavior can be used as a tag that makes the character more memorable. This tool is useful occasionally, but if it is overused, it becomes a cliche. Once you know how a major character looks and acts, give him or her a back story. Where and how was he raised? What was his nuclear family like? What significant people and experiences formed his world view? What are his circumstances at the beginning of the story? How will those circumstances compel him to behave as the story progresses? If at all possible, give him a secret that can be hinted at in the beginning and then exploited going forward. The more secrets your characters hold, the more curious your readers will be. It’s a sure-fire suspense generator.

When you have established worksheets containing the above information on all of your major characters, you will have made their acquaintance — and nothing more. They will resemble interesting strangers with whom you have spent several hours in candid conversation. You will still have much to learn about them, things you will discover as they share their thoughts and dreams, interact with each other, make decisions, and act on those decisions. None of these things will happen apart from you, of course, but your attitude toward your characters will change as the writing progresses. You will see them less as your creation and more as independent partners in bringing your story to life. This is the point at which they become your intimates and friends.

There are successful authors who do not share my passion for character-driven novels. They write techno novels, thrillers, historical epics — any story wherein heroic but one-dimensional characters function as hooks on which to hang the non-stop action of the plot. Many of these writers make a great deal of money, but I am not a personal fan of their work. I promote what I like to read. If you share my views, the above tips should put you on the road to creating well-rounded, multi-dimensional characters from whom your readers will be sad to part at the end of your book

I leave you with one final suggestion. It can be a challenge to juggle the interaction between characters if a book has a complicated plot populated with a broad range of people. The more characters who relate to each other, the denser and more interesting the plot. In order to make sure I develop every possible angle, I create and use what I call a character wheel. I begin by placing my protagonist at the hub. I create an inner rim with the names of the characters who have the greatest impact on the story. Then comes the outer rim where I list all other peripheral characters. Like the spokes of a wheel, I draw arrows between any characters who relate to each other and note that relationship on the shaft of the arrow. Then I can refer back and verify that each relationship has been fully developed in the story.

Click here to see a re-creation of the character wheel I used for my Underground Railroad novel Last Stop Freedom.

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