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Breathing Life into Your Characters: Tips for Effective Character Development

This week we are discussing how to breathe life into your characters - AKA: character development. When it comes to telling a story, there are often three main focal points: plot, character, and setting. Since the beginning of stories, characters have been important. They are the ones who stay in your mind years after you've finished reading the book. They teach us lessons about ourselves, and we grow to either love or hate them through our reading process. Below you will find tips on creating characters that will stick with your reader long beyond the last page of the story.

Goals and Motivations

Whether a character is a protagonist, an antagonist, or a secondary character, they are going to have goals and motivations that propel them forward throughout your plot. When it comes to goals, they do not need to remain the same throughout the entire story. For example, at the start of The Hunger Games, Katniss' main goal is to provide food for her family. Her goal then shifts to making sure her sister is not chosen for the games. And then finally, the goal becomes to survive the Hunger Games and return to her family to once again continue to protect them. These are three different goals, all held by the same character, but what do they tell us about Katniss from the start? That she is a character who cares about her family and will do anything to keep them safe. This leads into character motivations. A character's motivation is the thing that drives them. It is the "why" they are doing what they are doing, but it does differ a bit from goals. So in the case of The Hunger Games, Katniss' primary motivation is to protect her family and her friends, no matter the cost.

Establishing a character's goals and motivations early on in the story is extremely important because it is going to drive the decisions they make going forward. Write it down: What is your main character's goal at the start of your story? What is their motivation? How do the two interact?


Relatability is especially important when it comes to your protagonist and secondary characters. You want to create a character who your reader empathizes with. You can do this by describing them in familiar terms that readers can relate to. Peter Parker is a great example of a main character who is relatable to the reader, and because of that relatability, Spiderman is iconic. Peter Parker is just your average, nerdy guy. In many versions, he is the classic "boy-next-door" type. Teenagers all over the world are able to relate to him because they have had similar experiences to his life (I.e. being shy about a girl he likes, getting picked on in school, struggling to discover ones own identity, etc). So, even though the average person doesn't know what it is like to get bit by a spider and become a superhero, they can still relate to Peter Parker, and that's what makes him such a memorable character. Another great thing about Spiderman is the establishment of empathy with the reader. In many versions of this story, Peter loses his aunt or uncle, which sets him on a path toward responsibility, destiny, and life changing choices. The reader at that point cares what happens to Peter and his family, because they can see themselves in parts of him.

Establishing an empathetic relationship between your reader and your character doesn't have to be as drastic as killing off someone important in their life, but it does need to be done.

Write it down: What are some characteristics about your character that are relatable? What readers might find themselves drawn to your characters? Who will be rooting for them to succeed?

Just a note: this can be done with more than just your protagonist. It's important for your secondary characters to also have little things about them that round them out.

Conflict & Progress

The best protagonists have internal and external conflict that they must overcome and resolve in order to grow, defeat the bad guy, reach their goals, etc. Conflict will create tension, while progress will push your character forward through the plot, give your reader an idea of how your character is doing with their overall motivation and goal, and help the pace of your story. All good characters need both conflict and progress. Also, there can be (and often is) more than one conflict in a story between different characters.

Let's go back to The Hunger Games to discuss conflict. Katniss returns home and attends the reaping with her family, only to find that her little sister has been chosen to be a contestant in the games. The story has already established that Katniss cares for her little sister and will protect her. So when she volunteers as tribute so that her sister does not have to go, the reader is given what they were promised at the start of the story, a character who is willing to do anything--even risk almost certain death--to protect her family. This is progress in the story. We no longer have a character who will remain in district 12. We know she is going to be taken to the games. This progress is what kicks the story off into full gear. This moment of conflict also establishes empathy for between the reader and the main character as we see her say goodbye to her family and friends, knowing she probably will never see them again. Write it down: What is the first conflict that your character faces in your story? How do they overcome that conflict or attempt to overcome it? How does this progress your plot?

Other important factors of Character Development:

  • Physical Description: mannerisms, hair color, eye color, height, stature, etc

  • Flaws: make sure you give your character flaws and limitations

  • Personality: characters need to have personality quirks, just like real people! Stay consistent and don't give them too many to keep track of though.

  • Backstory: you don't need to tell your reader everything, but your character should have a good backstory, even secondary characters!

  • Voice: just like real people, characters have unique voices. This might be something you need to work on during revision, but try to keep it in mind while you're developing your characters as well. A good test for this is to read something without blatantly stating the characters name and asking yourself if you can tell that section was from that specific character.

Of course, there are many different ways to develop your characters. These are just a few of the points you should really pay attention to when writing your first draft and/or revising your novel.

If you want to delve more into this topic, head over to our podcast tomorrow to listen to the TWC hosts provide their insight on character development.

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