Character Development: 17 Crucial Details, Insights, & Steps

Posted on Apr 18, 2024

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The characters are why readers keep reading a book or series. But it’s not just who the characters are or how they’re written that makes the difference. It’s the character development over the course of the book and/or series.

But how does that work, and more importantly why is good character development so pivotal to the story?

If you’re writing a novel and want to hook readers, especially if you plan to carry these characters into a series, you’ll want a full understanding of the reasons and methods behind some of the best characters out there.

As we often say, a bad plot can be saved by amazing characters, but the best plot in the world will not save a book with bad character development.

Here is your 12 step guide for good character development:

  1. Download a worksheet
  2. Create a background for your character
  3. Give your character strengths and weaknesses
  4. Create nervous ticks for your character
  5. Avoid making a “perfect” character
  6. Give your character realistic motives
  7. Give them a unique feature
  8. Develop a wide variety of character personalities
  9. Create an impact of your character’s past
  10. Make secondary characters foil types
  11. Give each character a unique voice
  12. Create a diverse character cast
  13. Avoid character stereotypes

Stick with us through this post and you’ll learn exactly how to accomplish character development in a way that will make readers think about your characters as if they were real people.

Once you nail all of these, you’ll be writing strong characters in no time.

Get Your Character Development Sheet

Sometimes it’s worth it to have a character development sheet to keep track of your characters. Not only will you be able to keep track, but you can zoom out and better see if you’re creating two character archetypes who are too much alike.

Are you ready to get started right now? Download your free character development sheet to keep track of each , character you write.

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What is Character Development?

Character development is the process and execution of creating a fully rounded, complex, and lifelike character within your fictional writing with the purpose of making readers invested in them and their life or journey.

Think of character development like the paper of your book. Without it, you simply don’t have a book at all—you just have a mess of ink smeared between two cover.

But before we get into the extensive details, I’m going to cover what constitutes a well-developed character as well as the different types of character development you may consider.

What Sells Books: Character Development Matters to Readers

There’s more going on psychologically with character development than you may think. It’s about more than whether or not a readers likes your character. While you may think it has to do with the character, it actually has more to do with the readers themselves.

Part of the satisfaction of reading and getting to know characters deeply is that we get to know ourselves in return.

They enter situations in their fictional lives that we’ll almost never have the (often) misfortunes to be in. And because fiction often deals with significant themes of love or loss, right or wrong, good and evil, it allows readers to live vicariously through the characters they’re reading.

We see pieces of ourselves in characters in books.

There’s a satisfaction to watching a character overcome flaws and obstacles, because it means we, too, can overcome our own challenges—perhaps the very issues we wish to escape by reading these stories. Books and these characters leave us better prepared to take on life.

It’s why the hero’s journey is so popular. People want to believe they can act good, righteous, and purposeful. That we can stand up for what’s right. And even others like to be comforted by morally gray characters, because if they have flaws and can still do interesting and good things, then maybe we can too.

Next time you start developing your character, consider how your reader may use them as a mirror into their own lives—whether for good or bad. We learn more about who we are through the characters you write.

This is what keeps readers reading, what keeps them buying book after book. And if you’ve created a character that speaks to them more directly, they’ll read everything you have with that character in it.

What is a Well-Developed Character?

A well-developed character is one that has complex personality traits, flaws, strengths, and weaknesses that grow and change over the course of the book or series.

Oftentimes, this includes a full backstory that gives meaning to these elements. This also makes a character more realistic to readers, and is notably not like a Mary Sue (a “perfect” character).

Get comfortable with thinking of them as real and you almost always will have a well-developed character.

Types of Character Development

When it comes to learning how to write characters—and write them well—you have to understand which type of character you’re dealing with.

These are the different types of characters to write:

Don’t be alarmed if you think this is a lot of different types of characters. After all, we all have people in our real lives who would fill these character “types” and that’s why it’s important for your book to include them.

Without them, you can’t go through with character development and expect a captivating cast.

Most of the time, your main character will be dynamic. This means they grow and change over the course of the story. By the end of the book, they’ll act and behave differently than they did in the beginning by overcoming their personal challenges and accomplishing the plot.

Sometimes, as is the case with many spy thrillers or mystery serialized stories, the main character is flat. This just means that internally, they’re often the same person. They’re consistent. What changes the most in these stories is the plot and outer life of the character.

Examples of Character Development Readers are Obsessed With

Fans go crazy for a good character. Not morally good, necessarily, but well-written. These ones are notoriously beloved because of their character development, but for different reasons.

  1. Damon Salvatore: Morally gray characters excite readers. Damon Salvatore was a heartless, reckless vampire early on in the The Vampire Diaries. As the books (and series) progressed, we see a different side to him. He begins to care about people closer to him, and therefore changes his behavior. While his actions still remain questionable morally, there’s undeniable character development.
  2. Jaime Lannister: Talk about a redemption arc if there ever was one. Now, there’s debate about his character development because some say he can’t be redeemed, and that he was always bad. But there’s no arguing that Jaime was a spoiled man with a care for no one at the beginning of the Game of Thrones stories and by the end, he was humbled, paid his dues, and grew empathy in ways that would have shocked anyone who knew him in the beginning of the stories. This stark (haha) difference is what makes his character development impactful.
  3. Katniss Everdeen: Katniss Everdeen transforms from a survivor focused solely on her own survival to a symbol of hope and rebellion against a oppressive regime. It requires her to go beyond her comfort zone and become the face and guiding force of a nation. Her experiences in the Hunger Games and the challenges she faces force her to confront her beliefs and motivations, leading to a deeper understanding of herself and her role in the world. It makes her character development really satisfying to readers who love a force for good.
  4. Frodo Baggins: Frodo Baggins undergoes a profound transformation as he carries the burden of the One Ring. He starts as a simple hobbit but becomes a resilient and compassionate hero willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good. The deepening of his loyalty and friendship make readers want to be like him, and that character development is beyond satisfying.

Not all character development has to be drastic, as is the case with Jaime Lannister. Some characters simply live into more of who they really are.

While some change completely, other characters become. These are two highly used methods of character development readers find satisfying in stories.

5 Key Elements of Character Development in a Story

Good character development typically happens in a similar way in all stories. While these can happen at different times, the course of changing a character looks like this:

1. Outer Struggle

The outer struggle has to do with plot. It’s what the character is doing, how they’re doing it, and what they need to accomplish. Most often, the outer struggle will force your character to face their biggest weakness (different from flaws—more on that below).

In this case, the weakness has to do with what your character can’t seem to get passed, but is needed to succeed in the plot. For example, if your character can’t work with other people because they tend to take over everything and not include the input of others, then that outer struggle will need to be conquered before they can do so.

2. Inner Struggle

The internal world of your character development is almost more important than anything else. What they struggle with as a person, a deep part of who they are, is their inner struggle. While the outer struggle relates to the plot, their inner struggle (while still affecting the plot) has more to do with what is creating the weakness they can’t get passed.

It’s what they must confront internally about themselves in order to accomplish both of these.

For example, your character can’t work with people and tend to take over everything not because they’re selfish and think everyone else is stupid or wrong. It’s because they can’t trust anyone. But that’s not enough of a realization.

They have to understand why they can’t trust someone. That is where true character development happens.

3. Setbacks

This moment in the story is when your character’s weakness and flaw create setbacks. Multiple of these happen.

In the example above, the outer struggle of not working well with others will cause people to turn away from your main character. They can’t get the help they need, and fail in one of the goals/plot points. This is an initial setback, often the first in the story, as we need to be introduced to the character’s outer struggle before the inner.

They try again. They make some progress in the plot, but this time, the inner struggle rears its ugly head. In this case, perhaps the main character was able to work with others and overcome their weakness, only for their flaw of not trusting others to make things worse. Worse than the earlier setback.

These can happen a couple times before the main character enters the next phase of character development.

4. Change in Perspective

They have to hit rock bottom, so to speak. Your character must face their outer and inner struggles for what they really are. They have to have a change in perspective through means of plot and character. This is the “dark night of the soul” you may have read about before.

They feel as though all hope is lost, and they will never accomplish their goal.

5. Conquering All

But in fact, there is a way for them to succeed. It just involves addressing their outer and inner struggles at the same time. They have to work with others and trust them. For this very specific example, you will often see sacrifical-esque climaxes.

Because the climax is the combination of your character conquering their weaknesses and flaws together. So you might see a character in this case allow only other people to take action, while they literally trust them with their life to succeed and accomplish the plot.

If you can do all of this in a book, you’ll have fantastic character development readers will love.

How to develop your characters in 12 steps

Now that you know which type of character you’re focusing on here when writing your book, let’s dive deeper into the character development methods you can use and exercises to help you get it right.

Step 1 – Create a background for each character

Our realities are shaped by where we’ve been, where we are, and where we want to go.

That being said, the one with the most influence on our lives is where we’ve been – our past.

The same is likely true for your character. Based on what their life was like prior to the start of your novel, they’ll have different interests, quirks, fears, and more.

Your job is to fill out what their life has looked like up until the beginning of your book.

Character Development Exercise:

Fill out a character development sheet so you can understand your characters as full-fleshed people instead of just two-dimensional beings you created. Cover these main ideas when crafting your character’s background:

  • Their childhood (good, bad, poverty-stricken, spoiled, etc.)
  • Their parents (divorced, never married, one missing, both missing)
  • Their friendships
  • Their hobbies and interests as a kid versus now
  • Their motivations for feeling the way they do about any given situation
  • Their personality type and how it affects their actions
  • These are some basic elements you should understand about your character in order to shape their personality, opinions, and actions that appropriately fit their background.

Step 2 – Know your characters’ strengths and weaknesses

One of the biggest means of influence over your characters will be their strengths or character weaknesses.

We, as humans, constantly face our strengths and weaknesses on a daily basis, even in the smallest of forms.

What your characters are good at and what they’re not great at will affect how they perceive different events, what actions they choose to take, and can affect their overall character arc (which we’ll touch on later).

If your character’s strength is talking to strangers and gaining their trust, this might be an asset for them throughout their journey. However, if that is your character’s weakness and they’re forced to do so, it can cause conflict for them.

These strengths and weaknesses will shape your character arc and the plot as a whole, so know them well before writing.

Character Development Exercise:

Create a list of 3 strengths and 3 weaknesses for your characters. Make sure these play into the plot in order to cause conflict and gain sympathy from readers who can relate.

Step 3 – Create nervous ticks or habits

If you’ve paid attention to humans for long enough, you’re aware that we all have certain habits we don’t even realize we’re doing when we’re nervous.

Me? I pick at the skin around my nails. It’s a pain (literally) and I never notice I’m doing it until later.

This can be a key characteristic that will make your characters feel more real and help make them more relatable to your readers, which will make them want to give you those 5-star reviews.

Character Development Exercise:

Make a small list for each of your characters. Write down 2 odd habits for each of them and decide which is their go-to (the one they do without even thinking about it) and which is made worse through nerves or anxiety.

Step 4 – No character can be perfect

It can be really hard to write your favorite fictional person as having flaws. After all, we want people to love them, right?

But a “perfect” character is not lovable – they’re hateable because it’s not realistic. These are often called Mary Sue characters.

The more you try to make your character “flawless,” the less readers can relate and therefore, they’ll like them less. You have to build flaws into your character just like we all have drawbacks in real like. You need to let your characters fail.

Character Development Exercise:

List 3 major flaws your character has that can actually become problems within your plot. Think about any bad habits they have, situations they dislike, or even personality traits that aren’t seen as “good” in order to craft these flaws in a realistic fashion.

Step 5 – All characters need realistic motives

No matter which character they or what they want in your story, they need to have a real and valid reason for feeling this way.

Take He Who Shall Not Be Named from Harry Potter for example.

Voldemort (woops!) wants to kill Harry. That much we should all know – even if you’ve never read the books or seen the movies. But if he was just trying to kill Harry Potter for the sake of murdering a child, it wouldn’t make sense.

Yes, he’s evil, but he also has a valid reason for wanting him dead, right?

He has to kill Harry Potter because he’s the only person who was able to defeat him before – and because the prophecy says so.

If your characters – no matter how minor they are – don’t have a motive that makes sense, readers will be pulled out of the story and end up questioning what’s happening, and not in a good way.

This is largely how plot holes arise so in order to avoid them, stick to this character development method.

Character Development Exercise:

When coming up with your antagonist’s motives, list at least 2 ways in which they’re valid. For Voldemort, it would be the fact that Harry can kill him and that he wants to rule the wizarding world. Your bad character has to have at least 2 strong reasons for opposing your protagonist and they should make sense given their history.

Step 6 – Give each character a unique feature

This is particularly for those of you writing Game of Thrones-esque novels with a large number of characters, but it’s important for others as well.

When writing a book, you want your readers to easily visualize and differentiate the cast. You want each character to stand out as individuals.

A perfect way to do this is to give each person an identifiable feature.

For example, let’s use Harry Potter again because you probably know what the main characters look like.

Harry has glasses. Hermione has buck teeth (up until she has them shortened a bit too much – and this is only in the books for those of you about to argue), and Ron has flaming red hair.

These are very distinct features that can help you picture them as wildly different characters.

Now, you don’t have to give each and every character some crazy hair color or style, but try not to have your entire cast look the same.

If you have a main character with brown wavy hair, have the next with blonde curly hair, etc.

Keep in mind that siblings can certainly look similar!

Character Development Exercise:

Create a spreadsheet or other document that lists all your characters and document their features. If you have two characters who spend a lot of time together in your book and you see they look similar, alter their appearance until they’re differentiable.

Take my own spreadsheet for my work in progress below as an example.

Character Development Chart Example

Step 7 – Develop a wide variety of personality types

Meaning, don’t create all of your characters to be the “dark and sarcastic” type or the “tough guy” type.

You have to have a wide variety of personalities – just like in the real world.

You can even back up their personality with real-life psychology. As an example, I have two characters who both have a tragic background.

However, they don’t process that trauma in the same way. One character takes on a very withdrawn approach while the other hides his pain with humor. This gives them very different personalities despite having similar histories.

Character Development Exercise:

Reference your character’s backstories and do a little research into possible coping mechanisms and how that can affect their personality. Develop it from there in order to have realistic personalities that differ.

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Step 8 – Match your character’s history with the effects of it

This is when some research will come into play, which should be required anyway. Looking into some psychological effects of trauma can help you accurately and realistically dive into character development.

Now, not all characters go through trauma, but there are other big life events that can shape how they behave.

If you have a character whose parents were very strict growing up, they may be a bit of a rebel and lack the decision making abilities others have – mostly because they never learned how since their parents made those choices for them.

Character Development Exercise:

Since you know your character’s backstory, do a little research into how those specific struggles or realities can shape a person’s psyche in order to accurately and realistically craft their behavior.

Step 9 – Make secondary characters foil types

This is largely to help with personality contrast while writing a novel. Most of the time, this will happen naturally if you’re giving each character a unique personality but it’s great to keep in mind anyway.

If you have secondary characters (characters who get a decent amount of page time but are not main characters), craft their personality types to show the opposite of the main characters’.

Why? Because you want to firstly create more diversity and secondly, create some non-plot-specific conflict.

Character Development Exercise:

Pinpoint your secondary characters and development them in a way that makes them clash or oppose your main characters in certain ways. Think about what could annoy your main character the most and give your secondary characters some of those habits or personality traits.

Step 10 – Give each character a distinct voice

We all speak differently and that means your characters should too. Depending on where they’re from, they could have different accents, slang, and even phrases they tend to use regularly.

Think of a friend of yours for a minute. What are some specific phrases they use a lot?

It’s likely you were able to think of something in just a few seconds because it’s so unique to them and something they say a lot.

Your characters should be developed in the same way.

If you write two characters from very different areas of the world and they have the same style of speaking, your audience will be pulled out of the story because it’s not realistic. Their voices have to be consistent and not the same.

Character Development Exercise:

These tips can ensure your characters speak differently:

  • Choose a slang word each character likes to use
  • Use different wording for the same meaning like “apologies” versus “I’m sorry” or “my bad”
  • Use unique sentence structures to give each character a unique speaking rhythm
  • Make sure your more educated characters speak like it and your less educated use simpler words and phrases
  • Create phrases similar to “knee-high to a grasshopper” with unique meanings for your characters’ specific regions
  • Read their dialogue out loud in the voice you image they have and make changes if necessary
  • The point of giving your characters unique voices is to ensure your readers imagine them as real people instead of two-dimensional beings living in paper.

Step 11 – Create a diverse cast in every way

I’ll be honest, there is a very real problem in literature when it comes to diversity.

You can debate this all you want, but coming from someone who reads many books, it’s a very real issue that only you and other writers going forward can correct.

Your book should be just as diverse as the real world.

If you don’t have characters with varying skin, hair, or eye colors along with varying body types, disabilities, and even mental illnesses, your characters are not diverse enough.

You do not have to write a book about these things in order for you to include them in your novel.

For example, one of my main characters has high levels of anxiety. His storyline does not revolve around this mental illness, but it is there, seen, and can affect his plot.

Character Development Exercise:

Look through your characters and their appearances as well as their personalities. If there isn’t clear diversity amongst them, create it. You want to make sure you are allowing diverse readers to feel included, heard, and represented.

Step 12 – Avoid stereotypes

This is really a “do not do” tip versus a “must do” tip. The reason for this is because so many writers feel as though they need a “side character” (or even a main character) but is too lazy to do the real work.

Which means they create a stereotype of a specific type of person that can oftentimes be harmful without the author even knowing.

A great way to ensure you never have offensive stereotyped characters is to use a sensitivity reader or make sure you have a diverse group of beta readers who can speak on behalf of the characters you’ve developed.

What is a Character Arc?

A character arc is used to describe the inner and even outer journey, which can be physical, mental, emotional, or otherwise that a character experiences throughout the duration of the story or plot.

You thought you were done learning about character development, didn’t you?

You’re not! In addition to crafting well-rounded characters, you also have to think about including arcs for them.

How to Create a Character Arc

At the very least, your protagonist, or main character, requires a character arc for their storyline and journey to be captivating and satisfying for readers.

As an example, I’m going to use Harry Potter from that series simply because it’s widely known and his character arc even within the first novel is distinct.

Harry Potter starts the novel as an 11-year-old kid suffering from emotionally abusive relatives who care for him due to his parents passing away.

But by the end of the movie, Harry has discovered he’s a wizard, learned of his prominence in the wizarding world, and even taken on Voldemort himself (well, sort of).

This character arc is distinct in that his mental and emotional journey from start to finish is wildly different. Harry Potter is not the same at the end as he was in the beginning – and this remains true throughout each book in the series.

Character Development Arc Graphic

When your character comes out at the end of the book as a transformed person in certain senses, it’s a character arc.

Above is an example of what a character arc looks like on paper and how you can utilize plot elements in order to further your character’s development.

Character development questions

If you’re looking for a way to further develop your characters in order to create lifelike and realistic personalities, we have a way to help.

Here are 50 character development questions to ask:

  1. What is their full name?
  2. Why did their parents choose that name?
  3. What are their parents like?
  4. Do they have siblings?
  5. What are their siblings like?
  6. Were they bullied by their siblings?
  7. What order are they in their family (first born, middle, etc.)?
  8. What do they look like (full appearance)?
  9. Do they have any quirks or nervous habits?
  10. What do they do when they get mad?
  11. What do they do when they’re happy?
  12. Do they have close friends?
  13. What are their friends like?
  14. What’s their worst habit?
  15. What’s their best habit?
  16. What’s their biggest weakness?
  17. What’s their biggest strength?
  18. What is something they want to improve upon?
  19. What’s something they excel in?
  20. Did they go to school or an equivalent?
  21. What were they like in school?
  22. Do they like to learn?
  23. Are they a rebel?
  24. Are they an obliger (people-pleaser)?
  25. Are they internally motivated?
  26. Do they look to others for help in times of stress?
  27. What is their stress response?
  28. Do they think logically or emotionally to make decisions?
  29. Are they able to make decisions clearly when emotional?
  30. What are their beliefs on religion?
  31. Do they have a strong moral compass?
  32. What do they value most in life (money, happiness, etc.?)
  33. What is something that would trigger irrational behavior?
  34. Are they introverted or extroverted?
  35. Are they a troublemaker or do they play by the rules?
  36. What’s something that fulfills them?
  37. Do they know their life’s purpose?
  38. Who’s someone causing emotional struggles in their life?
  39. Who do they go to when they’re upset?
  40. What type of weather do they enjoy most?
  41. What are their sleeping habits like?
  42. What are their eating habits like?
  43. What’s something they could change about their world if they could?
  44. Are they someone who speaks up for themselves?
  45. Are they a passive person?
  46. What are they like at their very worst?
  47. What are they like at their very best?
  48. What do they envision their life to be 10 years from now?
  49. What do they want for their life when they’re old and gray?
  50. What does the “perfect” life look like in their eyes?

Now, developing your character will be easier than ever!

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