Character Development: How to Write Impactful Characters
You have decided to write that novel, short story or play that is waiting inside you. You have the story—it’s beginning, middle and end. You also have a few characters in mind. But you need some help to flesh those characters out. That’s where you’ll need to get the hang of character development.
You might think that characters that have appeared in your head might somehow write themselves on the page, without much effort. Indeed, sometimes, they do. But, most of the time you, as the writer, author and creator of your book, are in charge and have to make decisions to shape the character for your story.
What Is Character?
Before we start, I will be using ‘story’ throughout to mean the fictional work of any length.
Let’s start at the very beginning. A character can be defined as any person, animal, or figure represented in a literary work. It is an important element of a story. Characters do not always have to human. Animal and inanimate characters are also characters and have to be developed in quite the same way.
Each morning my characters greet me with misty faces willing, though chilled to muster for another day’s progress through the dazzling quicksand, the marsh of blank paper.
– John Updike
What Is Character Development?
Character development is the development through the story of a complex character who will take your story forward, attract the reader’s sympathies and leave a long-lasting impression long after the back cover of the book has been closed.
For example, J. K. Rowling developed some impressive characters in her Harry Potter universe: Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger, Dumbledore and others. Even the ‘evil’ characters were fleshed out with backstories making the reading of her books a cohesive experience. J.R.R Tolkien’s
Characters are the key to a good book. It took me several novels to comprehend that.
– Michael Morpurgo
British Children’s Writer
characters like Frodo, Samwise Gamgee, Bilbo and Gandalf, among others, also leave a strong mark on the reader’s mind. George Smiley from John Le Carré’s spy universe is also a well-developed character. Oscar Wao from Junot Díaz’s ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ is another unique and well-developed character.
If you don’t develop your characters well, then your story is that much less impactful. A well-developed
character can make the book, and a poorly developed character can break it. This applies across genres.
There is no magic potion, pill or short cut available to make this an easy task. The secret is sheer hard work. Work on your characters and your characters will work for you.
Let’s start with the types of characters in a story.
Types of Characters
You’ll need many different characters in your book. Have you decided on them yet? Not all of them will have the same kind of focus in your story. In fact, you don’t need to use all of them at all. You need to be aware of the types of characters so that you can create or choose the ones that will illustrate your story the best.
You can never know enough about your characters.
– W. Somerset Maugham
- Major characters: also called central characters are important to the development of the story. The plot and the resolution to the conflict revolve around them.
- Minor characters: are characters that support the main characters.
- Static character: is a character that doesn’t change over time in the course of the story.
- Dynamic character: is a character that changes over time and grows over the course of the story.
- Round character: is a character who has a complex personality and is often shown to be contradictory and conflicted.
- Flat character: is a character that has only one trait or characteristic; it is the opposite of the round character.
- Stock character: is a character that has become stereotypical or conventional from constant use. Examples include the private eye, the femme fatale, the mad scientist, the geeky boy etc. Stock characters are mostly flat but sometimes can be conflicted as well.
- Protagonist: is the main character, the central person, who faces the conflict in the story. Protagonists need not be likeable or good; they need to make the reader feel involved and invested in the story.
- Antagonist: is a character or a situation against which the protagonist must struggle and overcome.
- Anti-hero: is usually a protagonist who does not have the characteristics associated with a conventional hero.
- Foil: is a character (sometimes the antagonist or an important supporting character) whose qualities and characteristics contrast with another character (usually the protagonist) and through this contrast, we get to know more about the important character.
- Symbolic character: which could be a major or minor character represents an idea or aspect of society. For example: In Edgar Allen Poe’s famous poem ‘The Raven’ the big blackbird is a symbol for the narrator’s deep feelings of loss, regret, mourning and loneliness.
Note that some characters can show more than one characteristic at the same time. A dynamic character may be the antagonist, and the flat and stock character can be the protagonist.
Types of Characterisation
Now that you know the types of character you might need in your story, you will need to know how to present them. There are two broad ways of presenting them.
- Direct characterisation: is when the speaker or narrator directly tells what the character says or thinks. Usually, omniscient narrators use this method.
example, in ‘The Old Man and the Sea’, Earnest Hemingway describes the character of the old man, Santiago:
The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheek … Everything about him was old except his eyes, and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated. (p.2)
- Indirect characterisation: is when the speaker or narrator shows the reader how the character behaves, what he says and what he does. After which the reader infers how the character is. This is a more natural way of characterisation since it comes closest to real life. For example: John Steinbeck in the ‘Grapes of Wrath’, shows the personality of Tom Joad.
Joad took a quick drink from the flask. He dragged the last smoke from his raveling cigarette and then, with callused thumb and forefinger, crushed out the glowing end. He rubbed the butt to a pulp and put it out the window, letting the breeze suck it from his fingers. (The Grapes of Wrath, p. 9)
The reader arrives at the conclusion that Joad is a poor, blue-collar worker.
Ten Ways of Developing Characters
So now that you know the two methods of characterisation, you’ll need to know how to use them. Here are ten ways by which you can develop your character:
To me, characters are at the heart of great literature.
– Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
Indian American author
- Through psychological description
- Through physical description
- Through investigating what the character thinks
- Through the character’s dialogues
- Through the way, the character says those dialogues
- Through the content of the dialogues
- Through what others say about the character
- Through the character’s environment
- Through the character’s reaction to others
- Through the character’s reaction to oneself
It is knowing when to use what type of characterisation is key to making your characters believable. You are now well on your way to creating memorable characters. Hold on; there are a few more tips and tricks that will help you master this skill.
When to Use Direct Characterisation
Direct characterisation has the most impact when you use in certain specific situations. Use direct characterisation:
- To introduce the character for the first time. This is a good time to list their essential details. For example: Charles Dickens introduces Scrooge-like this:
I present him to you: Ebenezer Scrooge….the most tightfisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!
- For crucial character details and primary goals, drives and motivations. You need to describe the character’s physical details which also reveals the character’s personality. For example, let’s read this description of Tom Joad from John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’:
He was not over thirty. His eyes were very dark brown, and there was a hint of brown pigment in his eyeballs. His cheekbones were high and wide, and strong deep lines cut down his cheeks, in curves besides his mouth […] His hands were hard, with broad fingers and nails as thick and ridges as little clamshells. The space between thumb and forefinger and the hams of his hands were shiny with callus. (p. 3)
- To focus on the specific and unique details of a character such as clothing, identity and personality: This is where you can really create unique characters. For example, the ageing Fermina Daza in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ is described as:
Her stylish attire did not seem appropriate for a venerable grandmother, but it suited her figure – long-boned and still slender and erect, her resilient hands without a single age spot, her steel-blue hair bobbed on a slant at her cheek. Her clear almond eyes and her inborn haughtiness were all that was left to her from her wedding portrait, but what she had been deprived of by age she more than made up for in character and diligence. (pp. 25-26)
Marquez very clearly and directly tells us not only about Fermina’s appearance but also about her character (her ‘inborn haughtiness’ and ‘dilligence’).
When to Use Indirect Characterisation
Just like direct characterisation, the indirect characterisation needs to be used at specific points in the story for maximum effect. Use indirect characterisation:
- For and in dialogues. One of the best ways to show a character’s personality is through dialogue. The way a person speaks tells a lot about them. For example, in this excerpt from Marina Lewycka’s ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’ we get to know not one but two characters, Nadezhda and her father, through their dialogue.
There are lots of unlikeable characters in literature. It doesn’t mean they’re not fascinating.
– Lynne Tillman
Novelist, short story writer and cultural critic
My father’s voice, quavery with excitement, crackles down the line. ‘Good news, Nadezhda. I’m getting married!’
I remember the rush of blood to my head. Please let it be a joke! Oh, he’s gone bonkers! Oh, you foolish old man! But I don’t say any of those things. ‘Oh, that’s nice, Pappa,’ I say.
‘Yes, yes. She is coming with her son from Ukraine. Ternopil in Ukraina.’
Ukraina: he signs, breathing in the remembered scent of mown hay and cherry blossom. But I catch the distinct synthetic whiff of New Russia. (p.1)
The reader (you) can infer the character of the sensible and disapproving daughter and the excited and idiosyncratic old father through these lines.
- To show a character’s actions which reveal their personality indirectly. In another example from Marina Lewycka’s ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’, the narrator Nadezhda describes indirectly through her father’s actions that he was conflicted about asking his daughter from his first marriage to attend his second.
My father doesn’t invite us to the wedding, but he lets slip the date. ‘No need to visit now. Everything is OK. You can come after June first,’ he says. (p. 70)
- To show the consequences of the character’s actions. It is possible to think about the relationship between direct and indirect characterisation as being one of cause and effect.
This will be evident with an example. At the beginning of Charles Dickens’ novel ‘Hard Times,’ we first meet the fraudulent Mr Bounderby. Dickens shows as directly how exaggerated everything that Bounderby says and does. Later through indirect characterisation shown by Bounderby’s accumulated words and actions, we understand the reasons for his behaviour.
- To show the character’s viewpoint and private thoughts. Through indirect characterisation, you as the third-person narrator, can relate the character’s innermost thoughts and convey his/her viewpoint.
For example, in Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs. Dalloway’, Clarissa Dalloway, the protagonist thinks about Peter Walsh, the man whose proposal she refused. In this excerpt, you can see Clarissa’s thoughts relayed by the narrator, which show how much she has learnt and grown over the years and her self-reflective nature.
For they might be parted for hundreds of years, she and Peter; she never wrote a letter, and his were dry sticks; but suddenly it would come over her, if he were with me now what would he say? – some days, some sights bringing him back to her calmly, without the old bitterness; which perhaps was the reward of having cared for people; they came back in the middle of St. James Park on fine morning – indeed they did. (p. 4)
You now know how to approach direct and indirect characterisation separately, so when you work on your characters, you’ll need to mix the two types of characterisations to keep things interesting for the reader. Relying on one type of characterisation alone will not work.
In the absurdist play ‘Six Characters in Search of an Author’ by the Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello, six characters which he had started to write but hadn’t finished writing appear off stage catch him off guard, disrupt the rehearsal of his other play and demand to be realised and given a story. Metaphorically many writers have experienced this feeling—of characters appearing and demanding to be written. Whether characters demand to be written by you or you feel compelled to write and realise them, with what you have read in this article, you will be able to create believable and memorable characters. Good luck and happy creating!