The First 5-Steps to Character Development

The First 5-Steps to Character Development

Bill Wetterman

Consider some of literature’s most memorable characters— Scarlett O’Hara, Lizbeth Salander, Ebenezer Scrooge, Huckleberry Finn, Katniss Everdeen, Harry Potter. Can you name the novels they come from and what they have in common?

  • Larger than life, they are also universally human.
  • They see courage, not as a lack of fear but rather as the ability to act in the face of fear.
  • They learn from failure and rise to great moral victories.

Compelling characters like these make the difference between a memorable novel and a forgettable one. So, what are the keys to making a character unforgettable?

How to Develop Your Main Character

1. Introduce the protagonist and antagonist early, by name. The biggest mistake new writers make is introducing their main characters too late. As a rule, the protagonist or antagonist should appear on stage at the beginning, and the reader should be able to associate his name with how they see him. Both should appear in the first ten pages to hold the reader’s interest. Naming your character can be almost as stressful as naming a newborn. You want something exciting and memorable, but not quirky or outrageous. Leave Blaze Starr and Holly Golightly to the melodramas. (Actually, I wish I had thought of Holly Golightly; Audrey Hepburn plays her in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.) Allegories call for telling names like Prudence and Truth and Pride, but modern ones should be subtle. I wrote my first detective story with a character named Brasher, and his nickname is Pop He is both fatherly and impetuous. For traditional novels, common names are forgettable. Harry Bosch is forgettable on the surface but connected to the plot where his actual name is Hieronymus Bosch, after the painter, and it becomes unforgettable. Ethnicity is important. You should not have a Frenchman named Hans Von Stubben.

2. Give your readers a look at them. You want a clear picture of your character in your mind’s eye, but do not make the mistake of forcing your reader to see him exactly the way you do. Sure, height, hair and eye color, and physicality (athletic or not) are helpful. (William Bernhardt says Ben Kinkaid is never described.). I teach character descriptions the same as descriptions of the sky, the weather, and settings. It is essential that your images are not lengthy paragraphs but layered in dialogue and shown in action scenes. (Jonathon spotted a jet stream trail in an otherwise cloudless sky. Versus: It was a clear day.) (Reacher towered above Malloy. And gripping his opponent’s neck with both hands, headbutted his prey, breaking the heavier man’s nose.) Hint at just enough to trigger the muse in the reader’s mind, so he forms his own mental image. Thousands of readers might have thousands of slightly varied images of the character, which is all right, provided you have given them enough information to know whether your hero is big or small, attractive or not, and athletic or not. Interview your main characters as if they were sitting right in front of you. The more you know about them, the better you will tell their story. How old is he? What is his nationality? Does he have scars? Piercings? Tattoos? Physical imperfections? Is his voice gravelly? Does he have an accent? Give him a tag in the form of a unique gesture or mannerism that helps set him apart. You will not come close to using all the information you know about him, but the more you know, the more plot ideas will come to you.

3. Give the main characters a backstory. The backstory is everything that has happened before chapter one. Dig deep. What has shaped your characters into who they are today? When, where, and to whom was he born. Brothers and sisters, their names and ages. Where did he attend high school, college, or graduate school? What are his political affiliations, occupation, income, goals, skills, and talents? How is his spiritual life, and who is his best friend? Is the character single, dating, or married, and what is his worldview, etc.?

4. Make sure your protagonist is human, vulnerable, and flawed. Even superheroes have flaws and weaknesses. For Superman, there is Kryptonite. For swashbucklers like Indiana Jones, there are ssssnakes. Lead characters without human qualities are impossible to bond with. Nevertheless, make sure their flaws aren’t deal-breakers. They should be forgivable, understandable, and identifiable. You want characters with whom your reader can relate, and to do that, they need to be vulnerable. Create events that subtly exhibit their strength of character and spirit. For example, does your protagonist respect a waitress and recognize her by name? Would he treat a cashier the same way he treats his broker? These are called pet-the-dog moments, where an otherwise bigger-than-life personality does something out of character—something honorable that might be considered beneath him. Readers remember such touching episodes, and they make vital moments more dramatic. It was George Bailey’s sacrificing his travel-the-world dreams to take over the lowly savings and loan that made his standing up to the villainous Mr. Potter so heroic in the classic movie. “It’s a Wonderful Life.” You want to turn your Jimmy Stewart into a George Bailey. Make him real. Give him a pet-the-dog moment.

5. But also give your central character classic, heroic qualities. While working to make your leading character natural and human, be sure to insert the potential to be courageous. Do not make the mistake of making a hero perfect. What reader can identify with perfect? Potentially heroic, yes. Honorable, sure. With a bent toward doing the right thing, yes! But perfect, no. Your hero must overcome his failures to rise to the occasion and win against all odds. Give your lead character human strengths and weaknesses your reader can identify with. In the end, after he has learned all the lessons he needs to from his failures to get out of the terrible trouble you plunged him into, he should rise to the occasion and score a great moral victory. A well-developed character should be extraordinary but relatable. Never allow your protagonist to be the victim. It is certainly okay to let him face obstacles and challenges but never portray him as a whiner or a coward. Give your character qualities that captivate and compel the reader to continue..


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