Without characters you have no story. They function like objects in English language. Without them we simply have adjectives and adverbs, and the occasional gerund, verbing about in a field of pretty flowers, or a city, or on a spaceship, or another planet. Character development can mean the difference between the reader not finishing a story and thoroughly enjoying it.
The keystone of any character, protagonist, antagonist, primary, secondary, or cameo, is that they feel real. If your character has the depth of a cardboard cutout, your readers aren’t going to invest in their success, struggle, failure, or demise. Physical description, personality, speech characteristics, back story, flaws and mannerisms are all elements that help make your character come alive on the page; any of these can be your starting point.
To write good description, you’ll need some sort of picture (mental or otherwise) of the character. If you don’t know what your character looks like, how will your reader? Using real people as models can help when you’re in a bind. If you have a vague idea, try doing an image search online with the characteristics you do know (brown eyed man, tall woman, traditional dreadlocks, etc) and see if you find some people who can help you flesh out your character’s physical appearance. An image search for animals and mythical beasts can be helpful in the same way if your characters aren’t human.
Some writers feel compelled to complete complex worksheets and essays prior to starting a story. If this works for you, it’s definitely an option, but it’s a lot of work, and it’s not necessary for every character. You want a general feel for your characters’ personalities, but you don’t have to figure out their Meyers-Briggs placement or write lifeboat problem essays from their perspective. In the first draft, it’s a good idea to be somewhat flexible on personalities in case you need to modify things a bit for the story to work. I find my characters’ personalities develop the more I write them.
Dialogue and Speech
How a character talks can tell the reader a great deal. Does the character favor any specific words or phrases? Are they using regional slang, oaths or incantations? The types of words we choose can color the opinions and biases of the characters we create. They also hint at the character’s past and give hints about the world. The dialogue of each character should feel like something they would say. This doesn’t mean you have to make super specific speech patterns for each character, because that’s not how we talk in the real world. However, you should pick words this character would use, and build their sentence structure to match their personality, education, and background.
Believable characters generally do not spring fully-formed from the writer’s head to the paper like Athena from Zeus. Good characters have experiences that made them who they are at the time of the story. I’m definitely not encouraging you to write a whole detailed novel version of their back story (this only becomes a never-ending backward trip through time), but you should know the basics, and perhaps have some key events in mind. It’s noticeable when a writer knows more about the character than appears on the page; the story feels richer and the characters are much more dynamic and real. Back story includes everything in the character’s life that happened before they showed up in the story. A character’s past will influence their fears, hopes, speech patterns, and biases. Some pieces will be critical to the story, but others will just add flavor. For most characters, you just need a rough idea of where they’ve come from and why they’re the way they are.
Characters who are too perfect are boring. We can’t relate to them, and their conflicts and victories are dull when compared to characters who make mistakes and have room for growth. I have a short essay that goes deeper into character flaws, so I won’t belabor it here.
These are the things that seem small, but add so much to making your characters feel real. How does this character act when they are excited, sad, or angry? While some characters may have some of the same reactions, they shouldn’t all respond identically all the time, unless they’re robots. There are a number of ways your character could fidget to display embarrassment or boredom. These are the little things you see in your friends and family while waiting at the doctor’s office or riding the bus. Knee bouncing, hair twirling, nail biting, adjusting glasses, pushing sleeves up and down, lip biting, squinting, and slouching are all examples of things your characters can be doing. Better yet if these show up in small two to five word additions to dialogue tags or narration.
Once your characters have reached a point where you’re happy with how they feel and look on the page, it’s a good idea to record the essential bits somewhere. This is especially useful if you’re working on a lengthy series or if you may have to set the story aside for long periods of time. This cheat sheet can get you back into your characters’ heads, preventing jarring out-of-character actions. While character development is essential to any story, with less verbose versions required for shorter stories, don’t get so carried away that you forget such things as plot, world development, description, dialogue, and voice. It’s been known to happen, even to the best of us.