One of the most common things new writers hear when receiving feedback on their work is that they need more character development. But what does this oft-flung phrase actually mean? How do you develop a character, and how do you tell the difference between a developed one and an undeveloped one?
Character development is one of the most integral elements of developing a story—particularly a longer work, like a novel. Without it, your readers won’t care how clever your plot twists are or how well you’ve described your setting. Readers care about people, and character development is what brings your fictional people to life.
Read on to learn everything you need to know about developing vivid, lifelike characters in your writing.
What does character development mean in writing?
Character development is the process of creating authentic, believable characters in a story. A writer does this through careful consideration of their character’s wants, needs, core beliefs, personal history, relationships, and view of the world. Character development should also involve exploring the way a character changes over the course of a story.
Effective character development before and during the writing process helps you create memorable characters that transcend typical tropes and clichés. We’ll look at the sorts of fictional characters to explore in your story, and how to create good character development, further below.
Why is character development important for writers?
Character development is one of the most important steps in the writing process because it’s how you create believable characters that the reader will want to follow from beginning to end. Although readers might pick up a book for the plot premise or cool worldbuilding, they’ll stay for characters that feel alive and real.
Your main character in particular should have a full, dynamic character arc in order to give your story emotional resonance (and we’ll look more at the role of the protagonist below). However, all the characters in your story can benefit from this creative process.
If you don’t know your characters thoroughly enough, they’re going to read as flat and one-dimensional in your final draft. Great character development is your key tool when it comes to creating compelling characters that illustrate what it means to be human.
Types of characters to develop in a novel
Most stories will have at least a few different characters rattling around in them. Short stories might have somewhere between two and five, while complex novels can have dozens. Here’s a quick overview of the key players most stories will have.
The protagonist is the main character of a story. Most will have only one protagonist (the word means “principal actor,” or the lead), but some novels, such as those with dual timelines or dual points of view, might have more than one. These should be complex characters with empathetic motivations and transformative character arcs.
To create a well-developed character that readers will follow across an entire novel, you should have a strong sense of who they are, what experiences have brought them to the moment at which your story begins, what hole in their life they’re trying to fill (because everybody has a hole, whether they’re aware of it or not), and what it’s going to take to fill it. These are the elements that will drive your story forward.
Without a strong, relatable, and compelling protagonist, any kind of story will fall apart.
The antagonist is a character whose primary objective is in direct conflict with the goals of the protagonist. Often, this makes them the villain of the story—though not always. They might just be someone with opposing beliefs or a different way of approaching their goal. Regardless of whether they’re well-intentioned or nefarious, they and the protagonist can’t each get what they want at the same time. The conflict that arises from this mutual exclusivity is what creates your story’s plot.
Some stories will have a primary antagonist and several secondary antagonists. For example, in the Harry Potter series, Lord Voldermort is the story’s primary antagonist while Draco Malfoy, Dolores Umbridge, and Vernon Dursley are some of the many secondary antagonists.
When crafting an effective antagonist, good character development is hugely important—maybe, just maybe, even more important than when developing your protagonist. This is because your readers probably won’t agree with your antagonist’s actions, but they’ll be much more engaged if they can at least understand them. If your story’s villain does evil, unforgivable things, they should feel human enough to make the reader think, “What would I do if I were in their situation?”
This means thoroughly exploring your character’s backstory, beliefs, and formative experiences that led them to make these choices.
The supporting cast
Secondary characters can be some of the most memorable figures in literature. Very often the protagonist is what delivers the story’s key message, but the secondary characters—the smart-alec best friend, the covetable love interest, the toxic workplace boss—are the ones that readers remember most.
Some of your supporting players will be static characters, while other characters will be dynamic (quick refresh: a dynamic character undergoes an internal shift between the beginning and end of the story, while a static character remains constant). But whether or not they’re given their own transformative character arc, they should still be fleshed out enough through your character development process to feel real to the reader.
Secondary characters are also a great opportunity to create character foils that enhance your protagonist and antagonist even more.
Steps for developing a strong character arc
As you develop characters, look for ways you can give them dynamic growth—even if it’s only in small ways. Here are some things to think about as you explore the fictional characters who will populate your story.
Explore your character’s backstory
Diving into your character’s past can be one of the most fun elements of building a story. You get to ask character development questions like: What was their relationship to their parents, and how did it shape the person they grew to become? What sort of household values and ideals did they grow up with? What is their best memory? What about their worst one?
Every time your character makes choices, these choices are driven at least in some part by the experiences of their past. This is especially important when developing villains and other unsympathetic characters. By knowing what your character has undergone and what has led them to the present moment, you can better understand your character’s motivations and create someone who is authentic, multifaceted, and human.
Give your character a goal
Your character’s goal is the thing they want most. This might be something practical, like money to cover the next month’s rent or to save a love interest from alien invaders; or, it might be an aspiration like making it to the Olympics or writing a bestselling novel.
Other goals might be interpersonal, like satisfying a demanding spouse, getting a love interest to agree to a date, or helping a friend get their life back on track. Once you have a goal in mind for your protagonist (and a conflicting one in mind for your antagonist, if you have one), the pursuit of that goal will create the story’s plot.
Establish your character’s needs
All of your main characters should have things they need in life. Your character won’t always know what they need—sometimes the things we need most are completely subconscious—but they’ll still be chasing after it on some level.
Sometimes, this will be the same thing as their goal. More commonly, however, the character’s need is a deeper, unconscious desire that informs their surface objective. For example, if their goal is to find a way to cover next month’s rent, maybe their need is safety, security, and a place that feels like home. If their goal is to write a bestselling novel, maybe their hidden need is validation from a blue-collar family that discouraged their creativity.
In a novel, not all characters will end up getting what they want. Most of them, however, will end up getting what they need.
Know your character’s strengths
Every character will have something that they’re great at. Try to come up with some general value strengths as well as at least one concrete strength. Value strengths can be things like kindness, creativity, or ingenuity (things we would consider “soft skills”). A concrete strength would be something like the ability to fix cars, cook lavish meals, or speak several languages (what we would call “hard skills”).
In a fantasy or science fiction novel, these concrete strengths could also be super powers or something magical in nature.
When your main characters come up against adversity (even if, in the antagonist’s case, that adversity is the hero), they’ll need to rely on all of these strengths to carry them through to the end.
Know your character’s weaknesses
Protagonists that are too pristine and perfect (sometimes called a “Mary Sue” or a “Gary Stu” character) are unrealistic, unrelatable, and boring. A character’s flaws are what bring them to life. They’re also the aspects that create conflict and tension in a story.
Some examples of character flaws might be impulsivity, greed, cowardice, internalized stigma, or cruelty disguised as humor. In a tragedy (or a tragic character’s story, like your villain’s), these flaws will prove too powerful and ultimately lead to the character’s downfall. In a more positive story, these negative traits will be things your characters will overcome on their way to their happy ending.
A character’s weaknesses are also important because your readers are going to have weaknesses, too. If they see their own flaws reflected in your protagonist, and then see your protagonist overcome those flaws, it makes the reader believe that they are capable of the same strength in themselves. This makes them believe in and root for your characters as they find their way.
Push your character to their limit
Once you know your character backwards and forwards, inside and out, you need to see what they’re capable of. As your story progresses, the main characters will face increasingly challenging obstacles that make them draw on all their strength—and, sometimes, fall prey to their own weaknesses. Every time they face one of these obstacles, they’ll learn something from it.
When your novel reaches its climax—at the cusp of Acts Two and Three, or about three quarters of the way into the book—your protagonist will face their biggest challenge yet. This might be a battle that takes place with outside forces (in other words, an external conflict), or it might be a reckoning that comes from within (in other words, an internal conflict).
How your character responds to this moment is what decides your protagonist’s future—if they will fall beneath the weight of their flaws and become a cautionary tale, or if they’ve learned and grown enough along their journey to attain the thing they need most.
Show how your character has changed
Finally, show your reader how the character’s development has changed over the course of the story. This comes in the novel’s resolution, or denouement. The most interesting characters are always ones who transform in some way from beginning to end.
Your main characters will have largely attained the thing they needed (even if they didn’t realise they needed it at the time), or lost everything as a result of being overtaken by their flaws. A secondary character might change in a subtler way, or they might instead, if they’re a static character, highlight how much the protagonist has changed by comparison.
In the final pages of a novel, allow the characters to accept who they’ve become and consider where their journeys will take them next.
Character development examples
To see how other writers have used character development effectively, check out these examples of strong characters from stories with a complex overall character arc.
Note that these examples will contain spoilers for the books!
Inés Chauveau from The Winemaker’s Wife, by Kristin Harmel
The eponymous protagonist of The Winemaker’s Wife begins as a cheerful, optimistic, shallow, and self-involved newlywed barely out of her teenage years who still believes the world is a place of champagne bubbles and romance. While she’s not an unlikeable figure, she still has a thing or three to learn about how the world works.
As the story progresses, she comes to understand her own need—to be valued and loved. When she doesn’t receive this within her own household, she begins searching for it elsewhere. This leads to a complex web of betrayals, and then a long, slow journey of redemption and self-forgiveness for the mistakes that she made. By the end of the novel she has grown, matured, and taken steps to overcome the weaknesses of her past.
This novel uses a dual-timeline format which follows the protagonist as a young woman and as an elderly one. This allows the reader to see the two distinct stages of this compelling character side by side, and follow her story as these two parts of herself ultimately come together.
Tristran Thorn from Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is a classic example of a Hero’s Journey story, which is all about self-discovery and transformation. Tristran Thorn begins as an “everyman” character who’s socially awkward and uncertain, with big dreams of winning the heart of the babe next door.
His goal takes him on a quest into fairyland, where he faces baddies and beasties and eventually learns a startling truth about his past. For the majority of the novel, all of his actions are in pursuit of the thing he wants—the heart of the woman he thinks he loves. Along the way, however, he learns that what he really needs is something else entirely. It’s not until he discovers his true strengths and overcomes his weaknesses that he’s able to earn it.
In true Hero’s Journey fashion, the novel closes by bringing the hero back to the world from which he came. Except now, the ordinary world is the same but the hero is different. This juxtaposition highlights how much the main character has grown and how his experiences have made it so he no longer fits into the home he once had.
Mortimer Folchart in the Inkworld trilogy, by Cornelia Funke
In the Inkworld books (which include Inkheart, Inkspell, and Inkdeath), Mo Folchart is a kindly bookbinder and devoted father to the first novel’s protagonist, a young girl named Meggie. As the series matures, however, the focus of the novels shifts from her and Mo starts to take center stage.
As Mo faces increasing dangers and becomes enmeshed in a thrilling, fantastical world, he starts to leave his real-life persona behind and adopt the mask of a folk hero robber called The Bluejay. Although he never forgets his loyalty to his family, his more traditional suburban values become overshadowed by his new life. By the end of the trilogy, this character has learned to bring all the discordant elements of himself into balance.
Character development is key to keeping your reader interested
Great character development makes a world of difference in all kinds of fiction writing, whether you want to write high fantasy or literary fiction, epic novels or short stories. By developing a strong character arc for your main characters and secondary characters, you create living people on the page that your readers will want to walk beside.
To take an even deeper look into developing characterization, you can check out an entire character development worksheet in our article on crafting character biographies! It will lead you through developing your character’s personality, your character’s history, and ways to create great characters for your story.