How to Develop a Character: How to Develop a Character’s Personality
You just found the holy grail of the blog articles about how to make a successful story. This is it, my friend. Congratulations. I am going to tell you here how to develop a character. You will learn to create a character that is unique and strong. You will learn how to develop a character’s personality throughout the story.
In order to create a wonderful story, this is what you need. You need to develop a character well.
Of course, it is not the only thing you need. You might want to read more about how to create a story step by step, where I talk about other important things, like inspiration and outlining. I also have an article about how to outline and it has a downloadable story outline sheet.
But now, let’s find out how to develop a character.
The Importance of Character Development
A story can be literally about anything (don’t let the myth of the twelve-year-old orphan boy with magical powers deceive you. Or the love triangle with two different cliché creatures). However, if there is only one thing you need, this thing is to develop a character well through character planning.
Don’t believe me? Let’s think about some classics. I bet you don’t know what happens in most scenes in ‘The Catcher in the Rye‘, do you? But I definitely remember the bold main character. Or in ‘Tom Sawyer‘. Did he paint a fence or was it a wall? But you’ll never forget his courage and indiscipline, will you? What was Frodo‘s journey again in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, I mean, can you list the places he went to? Probably not (if you can, OMG, let’s be friends), but you’ll never forget how he put his pacific hobbit life aside to rid the world of the One Ring. Also, I don’t know why I like ‘Pride and Prejudice‘ that much, but I do remember Mr. Darcy very well.
You see that these stories are absolutely different, which proves that you can write about anything and be successful. And you might not even remember all the scenes very well, however, the characters are always the ones you will. You might think that the revolutionary sword you invented in your story will be the differential, but if the one that is holding it is total bland and boring, the book will be abandoned even before you can cut someone with the sword.
I hope I convinced you with this explanation. Now, I am going to tell you how to create a character in a story, how to develop a character and give you some character development ideas.
How do you develop a character’s personality? Should I use archetypes?
In order to do that, you’ll need to think about the DETAILS.
I say forget archetypes to develop a character well.
I really do say that.
Archetypes definition in writing
Archetypes are a universal symbol, which means a character is created to represent a pattern of behavior, an ideal example, a model. For example, The Hero, The Bully, The Mentor, and so on…
I will tell you that archetypes are some of the things that make your story the most cliché and makes it fall under the sea of poor-developed stories.
The problem is not with the archetype itself. Sometimes you can’t run away from them. The problem is that people decide that they want to put ‘the hero, the villain, the mentor, etc’, create them as a total cliché as possible (the hero is strong and powerful, the mentor is wise and kind, the villain is disturbed and evil) and think: that’s it! Now I’ll create the story and it will be successful!
It most likely won’t.
Because these are overused and honestly bad.
Even if you try to develop the archetypes ‘to run away from the cliché’, it is almost impossible to do that. For example, a hero that turns out to be bad! Wow. A villain that actually was good! A mentor that betrayals the hero!
Why not focus on archetypes to develop a character?
That is because every story out there has already been written in some way.
When you focus on the archetypes, you forget about what differentiates a story from the other. I promise you that every idea you ever had has been made by someone else. That is because there are trillions of stories out there. Archetypes are literally the definition of models that have been written over and over and over again. They can EASILY become cliché, poorly developed, even if you can’t run away from them.
What does differentiate a story from another are the details.
Should I not use any archetypes to develop a character?
I am not telling you NOT to put any archetype, because this might be even impossible to do!
The other side is also bad: when you focus on trying to do something extremely original and never made before, it can become nonsense and impossible to relate. I also go further to say that it is impossible to do something 100% new.
What I am telling you is that your focus shouldn’t be on the archetypes.
How to develop a character then?
Your focus should be on CREATING REAL PEOPLE for you to develop a character well.
What does that mean?
Think about Earth. There are literally billions of people out there and A LOT of them wants to be writers as well. Yet, there isn’t a single human being on Earth that is the same as the other. Not even identical twins. The stories are like that as well. Even fanfiction, even if you try to make the same story, not one story is like the other. Some word will change. The vision of the author will change as well.
That is because even though we are all the same, we are very different. We had different pasts, different ways to see the world and different DNA. Observe how two brothers, brought up in the same environment, can be extremely different, one from the other.
This is what you should aim for. In order for you to develop a character, you don’t want to create ‘the hero’ that turns out to be ‘the bad guy’.
You want to create Joe, a dentist who found out that losing the bus because he was late with a patient made him fall into a radioactive puddle and develop superpowers. He HAPPENS TO BE a hero, who also happens to have been really hurt by his ex-girlfriend and now he is bitter and might end up using his powers to egoistic pursuits.
How do you build a strong character? How to develop a character?
1- You probably should forget about archetypes. Let them happen naturally. Don’t force them.
Even ‘the bully’ in your school has a past. He is not ‘the bully’ for his best friend or for his mom. He might love his gold-fish and he might be really feeling depressed because his grades suck. While he might be ‘the bully’ for your character, actually, he is Billy, Charles, Dan, he has a house, a family, a past, and THIS NEED to come through your story.
Even if the reader never gets to meet this part of Billy, Charles, Dan, etc, YOU have to know that, because he will act accordingly. Your reader can never think ‘Oh My God, this character is SO SHALLOW, he only exists to bully the hero’. This is the WORST thing a reader can think about a character. You have to develop a character to be as deep as possible, and you do that with adding details.
This doesn’t mean you need to spend HOURS creating each character in your story, but the more the better.
2- Details, details, details.
What I mean by that is not pages and pages of never-ending descriptions. What I mean is that you have to know your character’s favorite flavor of ice cream, and which drink he would ask for if he goes to Starbuck, his nightly routine, etc.
You NEED details to develop a character.
3- Think about yourself, your friends, the people around you
You, as a human, has many facets. You might want to write, but you love Indie Music, your favorite hobby is playing ice-hockey even though you might suck, and you are really interested in collecting coins. Even you wish that you could work with this hobby, but you are too afraid of failing and you pursued the ‘safest’ place, that is work full-time in a bank. However, you have to pay your bills, and your biggest dream is also leave everything behind and move to Canada. Also, you love horror movies, but you prefer comedy books since you get too involved in them. You are a Scorpio, but also an introvert that wouldn’t hurt a fly. You feel guilty about eating meat, however, it is too good for you to let it go and become vegan.
Imagine if, instead, someone wrote about you based on an archetype. They would NEVER know that your favorite flavor of ice cream is mint chips, but they would focus on your ‘good’ traits (brave? honesty? fairness?) if you were to be a hero or in your ‘bad’ traits if you were to be a villain (aggressive? arrogant?).
Tell me: are you brave and honest and fair at ALL TIMES in your life? No. You might have been brave when you made that call to the doctor even though you are very afraid of using a cellphone because of social phobia, but you might have been really aggressive when someone honked at you in a red light.
Real people not always have a purpose. Real people not always know what they are doing.
You need this to make your character feels real and to develop a character very well.
They can be the toughest cop out there, but his hearts probably melts when he sees his baby. Or he might really like the color purple, even though he hides it because he feels that people shouldn’t like a vain thing like a color. This might be perceived as ‘gay’. He doesn’t want that, but deep down he really feels excited when he sees a nice well-made painting. He hates graffiti because he knows that only delinquents (as he calls them) do that, however, sometimes, he really likes them!
You must do that. Think about things that don’t quite match that stereotype and decide on which traits will be part of his personality and which won’t.
It is a thin line between exaggerating and feeling real.
How can an author show character development?
This is the one-million question.
Because you might know that your character loves pasta and hates broccoli, but you can’t devote a paragraph in the middle of nowhere to write about that.
So how do you SHOW readers the details?
The easiest way is through DIALOGUE.
That is why dialogue is also key to a great story.
You are going to use it as an opportunity to present the character’s personality and make it more in-depth.
Character Development Examples:
1- Develop a Character Through Dialogue
For example, let’s invent a dialogue here:
– Hi, Martha. I’ve been thinking about you. – said Sara, entering the room. It was an old office room and it really needed some refurbishment, (here you can detail more the office if you want, it depends on your style. I would, so, let me continue:) the old motivational boards on the wall were almost falling down. The happy face in the ‘never forget to smile!’ board was almost crying with how dusty it was. (see how this detail helped to create ambiance? Details are key, remember! I could have said ‘the office was dust and old’, however, this wouldn’t really create a picture in someone’s head).
– Always trying to flatter me, aren’t you? – Martha said, rolling her eyes, while pushing away her cat miniatures from her desk (wait a minute, she looks very bothered, but she has cat miniatures on her desk?) She was an old lady, that used to be much more sensitive when she started, but now she couldn’t be bothered about new interns like Sara. After 21 years in this company, all she thought about was to get over with the day as soon as possible and go home to her cats.
I could have said: ‘said Martha, and old grumpy cat lady’.
How could this be any interesting?
It wouldn’t be!
You have to put elements in the dialogue that points to the characters personality.
Don’t hand the readers everything right away.
Go little by little, element by element.
This is the famous ‘show, don’t tell‘. Show elements and details in the dialogue.
2- Develop a Character through the next Paragraph:
You also can dedicate a paragraph to talk more about what an element you just told. For example, if it is really important for Martha’s personality to be an old cat lady, you can tell more about it in the next paragraph.
‘Martha was very happy indeed 21 years ago. She had just married, she was from a small town in Kansas and she couldn’t be happier with that job in accountability, even if it is a field that is rather complicated. Martha never thought she would get a job, imagine being a job as important as that one! (you showed them some important things here. Martha was insecure, from a small town and she was humble. It is much better than telling them that: Martha was from a small town, she was an insecure girl who thought she couldn’t get a job). However, everything changed when her loving husband died ten years ago. Now, all she was left with was Miau and Paw, her most beloved cats’.
3- Develop a Character through Contradiction
Now, let’s put some contradiction in it just to try it:
‘- Martha, why are you so angry all the time?! – asked Sara, a little bit frustrated, raising her voice, while pushing her red glasses closer to her blue eyes. (We have just told our readers that Sara is fierce, she is confronting a superior, and that she wears red glasses and she has blue eyes. How better is it than just saying: Sara was a brave girl, she wore red glasses and she had blue eyes).
– Shut up, Sara, just go and do your work, all right? – said Martha, bitter again. She quickly decided to close the open tabs on her computer about musical theory. She had to focus on that boring accountability work that once she loved so much.
Musical theory? An old cat-lady is interested in musical theory? What does it mean?
You are not going to tell them now, but afterward, they will discover that Martha loves to dance and she knows music very well. She dances in her room even now, being almost sixty years old, and she loves to study music. But a Kansas girl, once humbled by this job opportunity, now a sad old widow with cats, loves to study music? This is super hard and not something grandmas would do. Ah, but she does. And this will be important for the story somehow. I don’t know how, because this is just an example.
The question is: Would you want to know?
And if you do, this proves the theory. You were involved by this character that I just invented and it is just an example. But it is already well-developed enough for you to be curious. And it is like this because of the details and contradiction.
This is what makes a unique character, this is how you develop a character.
And it has to present changes throughout the story. She might be grumpy now, but in the end, she has to evolve somehow. This means for bad or for good. You will decide and you will do the same thing you just did, show the difference in the dialogues and maybe subsequent paragraphs, if it is important enough, with a lot of detail and contradiction, and never revealing everything at once. Show them.