Five Different Approaches to Developing Characters
This post was first published in April 2019 and updated in April 2022.
Whether you consider plot to be more important than character or you believe they’re just two sides of the same coin, it’s clear that character matters.
Readers want characters who are engaging and interesting: characters who seem real. Novelists often talk about these as “three dimensional” characters – ones that are fully developed, rather than being little more than a physical description and maybe an interesting quirk.
At some point during the writing process, you need to develop your characters. You need more than just a name and a note about their hair colour or favourite food: you need characters who have a certain depth to them.
There are lots of different techniques that authors can use to develop characters – either before they begin on a story, or during the process of writing (or even rewriting) that story.
But whatever method you use, there’s one important thing you should establish as early on as possible:
One Key Thing You Need to Know: Your Character’s Goal (or Problem)
If you only know one thing about your character, you should know their goal. What is it they want to achieve – or avoid – at the start of your story?
This initial goal doesn’t need to be something lofty or even something positive. Sometimes goals might be (“avenge my father’s death”), but some goals might be more like “avoid getting into trouble” or “overcome my crippling shyness”.
The goal may also be something that your character can’t or won’t be honest about … even to themself.
It might also be something that changes throughout the course of your story. In the first Iron Man movie, for instance, Tony Stark doesn’t have a particularly worthy goal at the start (probably “continue making lots of money from arms sales”) … but he changes radically and his goal, arguably, becomes atoning for the destruction his company’s weapons have caused.
When it comes to developing your character, then, you want to think in particular about their initial goal, and how that goal might change as the story progresses. But how you develop your characters is up to you.
Five Approaches to Developing Characters
I’m going to run through five key approaches. These aren’t mutually exclusive: you might decide to use one of them at the start of the process of crafting your novel, and a different one as you approach the rewrites. Or you might want to pick and choose elements of several — it’s up to you.
Approach #1: Let Your Characters Develop As You Write
Some writers – perhaps those who aren’t too keen on plotting before they start, either – like to just launch into their story and see what happens.
If you’re writing something short, or if you’re happy to do a lot of rewriting, then letting your characters develop as you write might work just fine. Maybe you start out with just a name (and that might be little more than a placeholder), and you see how your character acts and reacts once they’re let loose on the page.
There’s nothing wrong with this approach … so long as it works for you. Most writers want to do at least a little bit of getting to know their characters before they begin the first draft of their novel, but you may well find that your characters come alive in ways you hadn’t quite expected once you begin to write in earnest.
Approach #2: Jot Down Notes About Your Characters
If you don’t want to go for a full-blown character questionnaire (see Approach #3), or if you like to let your ideas develop over time, then simply jotting down notes about your characters might work well for you. My novels mostly begin as a handful of disparate notes – a core scenario and two or three main characters, described briefly, or with lots of question marks about certain aspects or angles.
Even if you are going to move on to a more involved approach at a later stage, informal rough notes can be a great place to begin. You’re not setting anything down for certain at this point – you’re exploring possibilities – so you may find this is a more natural fit for the early, nebulous stages of story-planning than something more fixed and concrete.
Approach #3: Use a Character Questionnaire
Character questionnaires are very popular (you can find hundreds of examples online), and they’re often what new writers turn to when they’re trying to develop a character.
I think they can be very useful, though only if they prompt you to think about things beyond essentially interchangeable facts and figures. After all, does it really matter if your main character has blue eyes or brown eyes? Is it important that their birthday is on the18th March?
Some details might well be significant – for instance, if you’re writing sci-fi and your character has blue eyes but absolutely everyone else on their planet has brown eyes, that could be a huge plot detail. If your character’s birthday is 25th December or 14th February, that might have shaped their life in some way.
In general, though, you want to answer questions like “what would your character lie about?” or “what are they most afraid of?”
Approach #4: Do a Character Interview
Sometimes, “character interview” is just used as another term for “character questionnaire”, but in this case, I mean it as a form of dialogue.
This isn’t a technique I’ve used much myself (I find that letting characters develop as I write has a similar result) – but some authors like to sit their characters down for an imaginary interview. They ask the character questions, and have them answer.
How you do this is entirely up to you: whether you write it as your character being interviewed by the police, by a psychiatrist, or by you yourself, the all-knowing and all-powerful author.
It should end up working as something like a cross between Approach #1 and Approach #3: you’re digging into the sort of information you might get in a questionnaire (#3), but you’re watching and hearing your character in action at the same time (#1). If you’re the sort of writer who feels that your characters “come alive” and run off in their own direction with your story, this approach might work well for you.
Approach #5: Add More Complexity to Your Characters as You Redraft
Finally – and I think this approach is one you can use with any or all of the above! – you can add more depth and complexity to your characters during the rewriting process.
For me, Draft One is just the beginning: subsequent drafts are where the story begins to truly take shape. This is often a good point to iron out early characterisation hiccups, or to refine a character’s personality and approach: perhaps a shy character came across as too passive, and needs a bit more action early on, for instance.
Redrafts can be a good place to introduce more nuance to your characterisations (so your goodies aren’t too good and your baddies aren’t too bad). However much planning you did before beginning your first draft, there’ll almost certainly be things that you want to tweak.
How you develop your characters is up to you: whichever of these techniques you use, the important thing is that your characters feel like real people … with goals that they’re striving for.
For more help with creating and writing great characters, check out The Advanced Fiction Pack of recorded seminars (#5 in my series of self-study packs). The seminars on “Heroes & Villains” and “Seven Ways to Add Depth to Your Characters” should help you develop three-dimensional characters that readers love … or love to hate.
I’m Ali Luke, and I live in Leeds in the UK with my husband and two children.
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