How to Develop Characters

Learning a new skill takes practice. For the last few years I have been focusing a lot of my writing practice on improving my grammar. It has improved to the point where I no longer think it is my weakest writing link. (I can’t believe I just wrote that!) Also I just need a break and working on something else will give that to me.

Last year, a few days before submitting my YA Portal Fantasy to a writing competition, I realized how flat my characters were. The main character was decently fleshed out but was bland. The two main male characters had somehow been blurred along the edges until they were difficult to tell apart. My characters were definitely not coming alive.

Having identified the weakness I set out to figure out how to fix it. Here are a few things I’ve learned for character development and resources I’ve used:

Get to know your character
There are a number of ways to do this. 1) Take online quizzes as your character to try and feel out how they would answer random questions. 2) Fill out one of the many character questionnaires or cheat sheets available on the web. 3) Pretend to interview your character or have a friend interview your character. 4) Write a few diary entries from your characters perspective. Write about an average day, and about some of the special events in their life (marriage, first day in a new town, the day they discovered they could fly).

Write about Dragons
This is a series of lectures taken from Brandon Sanderson‘s writing course. Lecture three is all about character development. I ended up watching some parts of this lecture twice just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. The concepts are simple but eye opening. I’m only halfway through the lectures, but I have learned a lot.

All characters need positive and negative traits
I sometimes forget to give my ‘good’ characters flaws. In the same way I will sometimes forget to give my villains any redeeming qualities. No one is 100% good or 100% evil. A good rule of thumb is to aim for something closer to a 40-60 ratio, with the 60 being the piece that determines if a character is ‘good’ or ‘evil’. There are plenty of character trait lists online to help pick traits from both side. A ‘bad’ character trait doesn’t have to be extreme. Your character could procrastinate or be lazy.

Go out people watching
If you are on a bus, or in a coffee shop, watch the people around you. See how people act on their own, in small groups, or in large groups.. Think about if you are an introvert or an extrovert and how you react in different situations. Consider your friends and family members and why they sometimes do the things they do. The more you understand people, the better you will understand why your characters do or don’t feel alive to you.

Do you find it easy to develop a realistic character, or is it something you struggle with? What writing skills are you working on right now?

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