All great stories are about people. In fact, you could say the characters make the story. And perhaps on reflection, it’s the characters we really love in the stories we hold most dear. Who did not urge the good-natured Frodo up Mount Doom to hurl the ring into its depths and be released of its hold on him in The Lord of the Rings? And didn’t we all want the lovable but fiery Anne Shirley with her red hair and sharp tongue from Anne of Green Gables to be adopted and stay on the island, right from the first chapter of the book?
Even if the plot is a mastermind, without great characters it is just an interesting plot. Characters with whom the reader identifies make stories jump off the page and make the plot seem inseparable from them.
We all relate to the humanness of those characters, and the better that character is, the more they bring that story to life. If you’d like to learn more about creating fantastic characters that readers find enduring and endearing, read on.
What is character development?
Character development is about creating a unique fictional character that has the same depth or multi-faceted nature as any living human being. They can have a specific name or appearance, traits, beliefs, or backstory, but a writer must also show how a character on a page grows as they face challenges, just like any real person must adapt.
By demonstrating this over the course of a story, we can see how characters interact with events over time and gain a clear understanding of who they are, their motivations, personality, and values. Without this picture of the character development, the reader may lose the significance of those events and the overall impact of the plot can falter.
Arcs for characters
The change in a character over the course of a story is referred to as their character arc. All good stories should demonstrate this arc through self-improvement, like Mr Darcy softening thanks to Elizabeth’s influence in Pride and Prejudice, or emergence from the trials they have encountered, like Harry Potter in his adventures in the wizarding world.
These arcs should reflect the physical, mental, and emotional journey the character undergoes throughout the story. Harry Potter is always an excellent example to use, because the first novel opens when he is eleven years old, and the final one at the end of his high schooling when he’s gone through puberty but also faced and finally defeated the evil Voldemort. He’s definitely not the same person at the end of the series.
Dynamic character pairs
Many stories feature dynamic character pairs that may work alongside or against each other to achieve their goals. In the example above, we have Harry and Voldemort, but you could also have a duo working together like Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. Dynamic character pairs with differing personalities or traits can create great confrontation, funny exchanges or situations, and plenty of tension and conflict—great recipes for any story.
Tips to creating unique characters
Backstory: All of us are a product of our family background and lived experiences. The same is true for characters on the page. Based on what happened before the start of the novel, they will have interests, fears, or experiences that influence what happens to them. Your job is to create this backstory for the reader.
Flaws: No person is perfect, so characters should not be either. In fact, most characters are lovable because they have flaws we can relate to. Make them perfect and they will just irritate your readers. One of the reasons Bridget Jones’s Diary was such a well-loved book and movie is because the main protagonist was just like the rest of us—a bit neurotic, overwhelmed and awkward.
Realistic motivations: The motivations of a character should be obvious to a reader throughout the course of a story, but they should also be realistic. If their goals don’t make sense, it can lead to reader frustration or even plot holes.
Unique personalities: You don’t necessarily have to create the most unique personality in the world for your characters, but they should be different from other people in the story. A diverse range of characters can really help drive a plot. Think of their body type, appearance, hair colour, eyes, traits, beliefs, morals/values, abilities, illnesses, and ethnic heritage.
Strengths and weaknesses: In addition to the section on flaws above, each character should have strengths to go along with their weaknesses. Even if they’re not perfect, perhaps they are very good at their job or a particular skill even if they’re a crusty, bad-tempered detective.
Create a problem: Every character should face problems in the story. Consider the conflicts they might face when you develop the plot and then work out how they are going to solve it! The way the character faces this obstacle will tell the reader a lot about who they are.
RELATED CONTENT: Characters Per Scene in Fiction Writing – Story Element #01
Examples of great characters
There are so many wonderful characters in literature. From Gandalf the wandering wizard to Atticus Finch fighting for justice, there are a profusion of strong characters that form the backdrop to master plots we all love and cherish. Here are some enduring examples of great characters.
A generation of children have grown up with Harry Potter over the last decade or so. From his bedroom under the stairs to his attempt to catch the Hogwarts train at platform 9¾, learn Quidditch and fight Voldemort, his world has bewitched children for years. But it’s also Harry’s intense vulnerability that makes him a powerful character on the page. He lost both his parents and despite the fame that led to in his world, he grows up an unaffected and unassuming character who is deeply loyal to his friends, and he values truth and what is right.
From the master wordsmith, William Shakespeare, comes one of his most conflicted and enigmatic characters. Hamlet is both melancholy and bitter, full of revenge and convinced his uncle has killed his father to steal his crown and his wife, and both rash and impulsive, but equally indecisive. No absolute truth fully emerges about him and he continually perplexes, surprises, and endears us to him. What a man!
Jane Austen wrote stories with wonderful female characters, but Lizzy from Pride and Prejudice is the most beloved of all her corseted heroines because of her complexity. She’s lively, playful, loves the ridiculous, is sharp witted, beautiful, and unconventional for her time. The perfect match for the hero, Mr Darcy. Austen herself described her “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print”.
With her red hair and temperature to match, the freckled orphan of Prince Edward Island put this small island in Canada on the map. L. M. Montgomery’s classic Anne of Green Gables features events that revolve around her life and family that are full of Anne’s misadventures.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby is a rather enigmatic nouveau riche millionaire chasing the American dream in the roaring 20s. He is also a rather tragic figure seeking an unrealistic dream of recapturing the past. Who can forget him reaching across the bay for his lost love, a representation of dreams that are always out of reach?
Other great characters include Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Josephine March from Little Women, Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird, the conniving but well-loved Scarlet O’Hara from Gone With the Wind, and Gandalf the wandering wizard in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings series, plus his wonderful companions Frodo and Bilbo.
As always, if you need help with any aspect of your manuscript, consider our Fiction Editing Services. There is a wide array of editing levels, and the content/developmental levels look at character development and will provide helpful advice for you to develop your characters better.
Another excellent resource regarding character development is this interview with Kristina Stanley that describes how to maintain characters in motion.
RELATED CONTENT: Character Motivation: Types and Examples