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Strong character development is one of the most important aspects of writing a fiction novel. With strong character development, your characters will be more memorable, and most importantly, your readers will be able to relate well to them, just as if they were a real live human being.
With a little bit of experience and practice using these character development activities, you’ll soon master the art of character development in no time!
In this post we’ll share with you the 5 steps to learning how to create memorable characters in your novel, along with some practical character development exercises to help you gain practice and confidence.
What is Character Development? Why Does it Matter?
In order to fully understand how to build strong characters in your novel, you first need to have a good understanding of what character development is – and why it is so important in the first place!
So what does character development mean exactly?
While there are many different interpretations for the definition of character development out there, I define character development as this:
Character Development Definition: The process in creating a persona in a story AND the changes this persona goes through during the course of the story.
The key here is to realize the character personality development process is not just the act of sitting down and conjuring up an imaginary person – it is also showing your readers how this persona changes and transforms throughout the course of the story.
Who Can Be a Character In My Novel?
The characters of your novel are in most instances the people who the story is about. You will typically have between 1-2 main characters and a handful of minor supporting characters in your book.
Do you know the differences between main and minor characters? Learn More Here: What You Need to Know About Main & Supporting Characters.
Your main characters are usually the people in the book who are central to the story. If you are writing in the first person, the story may be told from their point of view. Without the main character, there would be no story.
Supporting characters are people who add dynamics to your story. They work to compliment the main character – and often need to add to the overall conflict to the story. A supporting character is not as critical as a main character, but the story should still need to rely on this person in order to be the same.
If you can completely remove a character out of the book without affecting the plot, you may want to reconsider whether you even need that character in the first place!
Of Course, Not All Characters Are Human
Of course, I say “people” here – but characters can be any type of animate being. Animals, mythological creatures, and advanced artificial life forms are all candidates as main characters, depending on what type of genre you may be writing.
For example, when writing children’s literature, it’s not uncommon for many of the characters to be animals. One example of a non-human character would be Peter, the main rabbit character in the story Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter.
Even supporting characters do not need to be humans – many can be animals and other types of creatures. While we are on the topic of rabbits in fiction stories, one such case is the rabbit in the much loved classic Alice in Wonderland.
There are not a lot of rules on what a character can and can’t be – the key to making a character is all about the development of character – and these are all the personality traits and behaviors that make the character come to life!
Now that we understand what character development is and who our characters can be, we’re ready to get onto the 5 steps of strong character development!
Here are the 5 Steps of Strong Character Development to Create Memorable Characters in Your Novel:
These 5 steps will guide you along creating realistic and relatable personas in your story – and ensure that your character fully grows throughout the plot!
Step 1: Identify Your Characters & Their Roles in the Story
The first step may be an obvious one, but an essential one! You need to know who will be the main people in your book. It’s important to identify not just who they are – but also what their roles are in the book.
For example, if you’re writing a story similar to Peter Rabbit, you would identify first there is a rabbit named Peter. You may even consider some basic personality traits, such as being troublemaker or not being very good at listening to directions.
However, it’s important you also identify the roles of the character in the story. Peter is a main character, but you need to think about what role he plays in the overall storyline.
In the story, Peter is a young bunny. He is the son to the mother rabbit, and a brother of his sisters Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail. This adds to the overall character development of Peter, because if he were a grown-up rabbit in the story without a mother worrying about him or perfectly behaved sisters to compare and contrast with, you would miss a lot of the conflict in the story.
Even minor absent characters can have important roles. Continuing with the Peter Rabbit story, Peter’s father was turned into stew after being caught in the farmer’s garden. This “raises the stakes” in the novel on why it is such a bad idea to sneak into the garden in the first place!
We never see Peter’s father in the story, since he has passed on, but the introduction of him as a character adds to the suspense and conflict when Peter decides to pay the farmer’s garden a visit. Likewise, Peter’s sisters are relatively small supporting characters – however, without them being there we would not realize just how well-behaved a young rabbit could be compared to the bad decisions made by Peter!
These roles are classic archetypes we see quite often not only in books, but even our own human lives. Most of us who grew up with siblings can relate to a time where we were the “bad one” or the “good one”, as this is a common relationship dynamic between siblings and the parent-child relationship.
Remember, dynamic means stimulating activity, change or progress. Taking note of common relationship dynamics can be quite helpful in identifying how each character’s role is going to influence the outcome of your story and the overall growth of your main character.
An Important Note About Using Archetypes and Stereotypes: Avoid Cliches!
While using generic relationships between archetype characters can be helpful to identify roles and dynamics between people in your book, try to avoid character cliches while writing when possible!
For example, many fairy tales have the evil step-mother – a wicked woman who despises or is jealous of the step-daughter. This character has been “done to death” as the saying goes – and likewise will make your story seem uninspiring.
If a character is a cliche stereotype, it will likely turn readers off, especially if they know the stereotypes are not usually true about individuals.
To overcome this, try changing your character to have some behaviors or motivations that are NOT the stereotype. Maybe the evil step mother is not cruel and narcissistic, but instead she’s seen as “evil” because she is too kind, helpful and overbearingly loving to a reluctant step-child.
If you find yourself working with common archetypes, ask yourself: What can I do that will add a twist? Can I think of any real-life examples of this stereotype? What would make the person a unique individual and not quite as predictable?
Try This Character Development Exercise:
In this exercise for step 1, ask yourself these questions:
- Who are your characters?
- What Roles do they play?
- What is their relationship to the other characters?
- What are the relationship dynamics between each character?
- Does my character fit into any stereotype? What traits will help avoid any cliche’s and ensure my character is not flat or predictable?
Step 2: Get Inside Your Character’s Head
The next step, once we’ve identified each character and the role they play in the storyline, is to really get to know your character inside and out. While you will want to make a note of their physical appearance and main personality traits, it can be helpful to dig in even deeper.
Using Character Development Questions can be very helpful for understanding your character’s quirks – and their main motivations. Even if you do not use all of the details in your story (and you probably shouldn’t!) – it is still a worthwhile exercise to practice.
Answering questions about your character will give you as the writer a complete picture of the person and influencing elements of the story. Knowing how your character might react when angry for example will give you a starting place when you are ready to write the major rising conflict scenes.
Remember: It’s Not Just Who They Are in the Beginning – It’s Who They Become
Because development of characters is just as much about how they grow and change from the beginning of the story to the end, having an intimate knowledge of little details can make a big difference at how well you are able to convey this to your readers.
For example, let’s say you have an idea for a main character named Jane who is a rather shy, timid, middle aged woman who has all but given up on life. After being fired from her last job, she is desperate for any type of work, so accepts a job as a cafeteria worker at a tough inner city school.
The story of transformation can happen in a number of ways, depending on what story you want to tell. Maybe in the story Jane will be forced to speak up on an important issue on behalf of the students. As the writer, you could then show the readers how she transforms from being shy and depressed to finding something she is passionate about and building her confidence.
Or, you could have Jane fall in love with the principal and has to learn to believe in herself enough to initiate a conversation that leads to that first date. Or, maybe Jane finds out the school is planning to poison the students during lunch next Tuesday and only she can save everyone.
Whatever the plot may be, the important thing is that your character goes through changes in their personality and behavior – in a realistic and believable way.
If you understand the little details about Jane and why she is the way she is and how her inner mind works, you’ll be better prepared to write about how she changes in a way your readers can understand and relate to.
Step 2 Exercise: Download the Character Development Worksheet:
Download our character development worksheet and answer the questions for each of your main characters.
Once this step is complete, take some time to think about how your character will grow and transform by the end of the novel. What will change about your characters?
Step 3: Research, Research, Research
Research can be a writer’s worst nightmare – especially if you’re using the excuse to research as a procrastination method to avoid writing!
However, doing your initial research about your characters before you start writing is very important, because it can actually save you the time-sucking distraction of trying to find information mid-sentence or mid-chapter.
You should research as much as possible for anything you do not have direct experience with. Even if it is a topic you know a lot about, you should still try to research and fact-check just to make sure you have accurate information.
For example, let’s say you are writing a novel where your main character is a cardiologist at a busy hospital. Not only would you need to research some basic information on cardiology as a profession, but you would need to make sure you are aware of medical customs and laws where the hospital is located.
Even if you were the office assistant to a cardiologist as a past job, if the story is set in a different state or country, there will likely be many differences that readers who know better would be able to spot as being inaccurate.
Historical novels are another example of where a lot of research might be necessary. If you’re writing a story set in the revolutionary war time period, it would be important to make sure everything you write is historically accurate. Having mistakes about dates, people, places or events would surely cause some readers to become upset!
Yes, There is Such a Thing as Too Much Research
Of course, you do not want to spend too much time in research, because research can lead you to become very distracted.
Do as much research as you can beforehand, but if you’ve spent more than 2 months researching and have not written a single word yet, you are using research as an excuse to not write!
Step 3 Character Development Activity: Get Busy Researching!
Try one of these methods to gather research for the characters in your novel:
Browse Forums & Discussion Groups: Facebook, Reddit and topic specific forums can be quite helpful here. For example, if you were writing a story about a guitar player, you might want to spend some time reading the discussions at guitarforums.com, or at the very least joining a guitar related Facebook group.
Interview Someone: If you are writing a story about a nurse, find a friend who is a nurse who you can interview to learn about some of their day-to-day activities. Is your main character a college student? Find a college student to interview!
Step 4: Strong Dialogue = Stronger Character Development
Dialogue is an important part of almost every story. The way your character talks and interacts in conversations with others can make a big difference on how well your audience can connect with the person or creature.
There are a number of factors that can help you build strong dialogue between characters, but one important key is staying consistent.
Consistency is very important. Staying consistent with your characterization of each person is what makes the people in your novel memorable and helps readers identify with the character.
If your character is a conservative and traditional person and then all of a sudden out of nowhere starts swearing and dropping profanities, this might not only cause confusion – it could turn off some readers who related to the character’s traditional values earlier in the story.
It’s also important to make sure through dialogue your characters are distinctively different. For example, if you have the characters David and Daniel, you would want to make sure each has unique identifying phrases, tone of voice, and mannerisms while talking.
Otherwise, your readers may have to go back and reread a section as they try to remember which character is David and which one is Daniel – and that’s NOT a good sign!
Step 4 Exercise: Dialogue Writing Checklist
After you write a scene which contains dialogue, ask yourself these questions:
- Is the dialogue consistent to the characters personality traits and behaviors?
- Is the dialogue distinctive enough that it is easy to distinguish between multiple characters?
- Does the dialogue stay true to what someone would expect of the character?
- Is the dialogue realistic for the character I am trying to portray?
Step 5: Show, Don’t Tell
I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “show, don’t tell” as one of the main writing rules.
Well, it may be cliche, but it is a very good tip for helping you write a convincing story with strong characters!
This is an example of telling:
Mindy couldn’t believe she would never be at the beach house again. Tears welled in her eyes while she walked away.
This is an example of showing:
Mindy locked up the beach house one final time and slipped the key into her pocket. She looked towards the edge of the ocean through puffy and blurry eyes. She didn’t think it was possible to cry any more than she already had, but the tears came on again anyways, bursting out of her like a fierce and unexpected storm over the ocean.
Now, I just made these two examples up, so they are nowhere near “perfect” of course – but for example’s sake hopefully you can see a big difference between the two.
The first one doesn’t really give a lot of detail, nor does it make us feel emotionally connected in any way to the story. We’re not really sure what’s happening.
With the second example, we are more descriptive – Mindy is looking at the ocean through puffy, blurry eyes and then comparing the outburst of tears like an unexpected ocean storm.
Making use of body language and feelings is very important when you are writing and will help you more effectively convey your message to your audience. When your readers can visualize a scene while they read and can relate to what the person might be feeling or experiencing, it is easier for them to be attached to the story.
It can take some practice to fully master the concept of “show, don’t tell”, but the good news is the more you write the easier it gets!
Step 5 Exercise: 1 Paragraph 3 Ways
Take something you have recently written and now rewrite it in 3 different ways – even if you are already confident it shows and does not tell. Try to use different ways to describe the character’s actions, thoughts, and feelings.
Here are three ways you can rewrite one paragraph:
- Write the paragraph using vivid descriptive detail – include a literary device such as a metaphor or simile to describe a thought or action
- Write the paragraph with as few as words as possible. How can you convey the same emotion, tone, and message with fewer details?
- Write the paragraph as dialogue between two characters.
It might seem redundant to do this, but this simple act of rewriting one simple paragraph in three different ways can sometimes yield interesting results!
Character Development Writing Doesn’t Have to Be Hard
It doesn’t have to be difficult to practice character development in writing – and in many ways, it can be one of the fun and exciting parts of the process when writing a novel.
When you are able to convey your characters effectively, it will help your audience connect with the story and be drawn into reading about what happens next.
Taking some time to research and practice these creative character development activities and exercises can be a very helpful way to get on the right track of becoming a successful author.
What Are Your Thoughts?
Do you have any questions about character development? What techniques do you practice to help create realistic and strong characters? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!