I say in fantasy, but much of this will be able to apply to other genres of fiction as well.
Characters drive story. You can build a setting, you can even create a plot, but with no characters to get from A to B to C and so on, you won’t have much of a story.
Characters are who the readers cheer for, the ones we hate, the ones we ourselves in or wish that we could be like.
You could have a brilliant plot, a brilliant setting, but if your characters suck, your story will suffer. That’s why we’re covering character development here. I’m going to avoid talking about a lot of super basic stuff or I’m going to gloss over it, but all the same, this may be helpful.
Goal, obstacle, and overcoming that obstacle.
Every character should want something. Every character. Even your simple courier character who is just there to deliver an important letter to the protagonist should want something, whether it’s his/her pay, doing a good job, or a place to rest after a long journey. There are 3 parts of this that your main (and even your secondary) characters should strive for in development:
- Goal. What does this character want?
- Obstacles. What stands in the way of them reaching their goals?
- Overcoming obstacles. What steps do they take and what choices do they make to overcome said obstacles.
Goals should be specific. The more narrow and specific the goals are, the better defined they are. The better obstacles you can put in place. The more interesting and challenging steps they have to take to overcome that goal.
Your character wants to be a scholar. Okay, cool. Be more specific. A scholar of what? Why do they want that? What do they want to do with that knowledge? A better goal is that they want to become a scholar so they can study medicine and find a cure to for a disease. This goal is specific.
Because goals are narrow, obstacles should be narrow. Let’s say your character wants to be King of the land. If they’re a prince or next in line, than this isn’t really a goal, it’s just something that’s gonna happen eventually. If your character wants to be king, but is an illiterate peasant, there’s a ton of things that now stand in their way. If your character is a prince, make them 13th in line to the throne.
Now that you have specific obstacles (I’ll talk more on obstacles in a minute) what your character has to do to overcome those obstacles is a lot easier to figure out. Your illiterate peasant will need to go to school, work his/her way up in the ranks, gain support and respect, etc. Your 13th in line character will have to get rid of all the ones that stand in his/her way first.
The more specific and narrow you make goals and obstacles, the more the story will unfold in front of you.
Background influences goals and choices.
Your character wants to be a wealthy merchant. Their background should reflect this. A royal character who has plenty of money and has never really been exposed to the art of trade and owning a business in this way might not make sense. A peasant who once met a wealthy merchant, is tired of being poor, and wants to take charge of their destiny makes more sense.
A character who has been hurt by lovers/spouses/significant others isn’t as likely to be going out trying to find a long term partner. They may not want that, they may not be able to trust people in relationships very much. They can have relationships, but their background of being hurt over and over is going to influence their behavior and choices. Maybe they get really jealous, maybe they’re constantly anxious that this person will leave them, maybe they can only have one night stands and can’t form lasting bonds.
Think of your background and how it had an impact on your choices moving forward.
Give your characters real obstacles.
I’m talking real things that are actually challenging to overcome. Things that your character can and should fail at. Even if they win in the end, they need to be seriously knocked around and learn, rework their strategies, and undergo some change before the story’s end.
If your 13th in line character has to get rid of the ones standing in his/her way, does he have to kill them? Is he a weakling who has to train really hard in order to fight his buff siblings? Let’s look at examples:
George R.R. Martin is pretty well known by now for giving his character’s crazy obstacles and having them fail. Arya Stark wants to avenge her family, but she’s an 11 girl who has to hide her identity. She has no armies, she doesn’t have many friends/allies, and she can sorta use one weapon. Her sister, Sansa, wants to get out of the capital where she is more or less a prisoner, but she’s abused, constantly watched, beaten, married off, and has to rely on one of the creepiest dudes in the series to help her get out.
Let’s say your character wants to be a rich merchant but is currently a poor peasant. Their obstacles should reflect this. They will have to learn numbers and math, gain capital, market their wears, work really hard, be ruthless, maybe get involved in some sketchy stuff, etc.
There shouldn’t be something that randomly comes into save the day and is just super convenient. There needs to be real challenges and consequences to these characters lives because of their goals and obstacles. At times they should feel helpless, sad, experience horrible things, lose, etc.
This shouldn’t be the whole of your book and beating down your characters too much can be tiresome, but far too often the character is conveniently a math genius and can instantly become really rich, even if they’ve never done a math problem. Your illiterate peasant just so happens to be a political genius. It’s possible to do this in a way that works, but in that case you need to change and tweak your character’s goals.
Force the character’s hand.
Back them into corners. Make them do things they never imagined doing. Have them make really hard choices.
I’m not talking “What am I going to have to for breakfast?” choices, I’m talking really backing them into corners. Choices with no real consequences don’t tell me anything about who your characters are other than maybe food preferences or favorite colors.
Your character loves their spouse, who is the King/Queen of WhateverLand, however the King/Queen has become a really bad ruler. He/She is murdering people, devastating the economy, and causing all sorts of horrible problems. Their spouse is the only person they trust and the only person that can get close enough to do anything about it. After exhausting all other possibilities the spouse must make a choice: Let the realm go to hell, or kill their love to save the realm. The reader will learn a lot more about the character from this kind of choice than an inconsequential one
In The Last Wish (a series of short stories in The Witcher series by Andrzej Sapkowski) the protagonist is stuck with a choice: the lesser or greater evil. He says “If I have to choose [between the two] I’d rather not choose at all.” Another character forces his hand. He realizes she’s going to murder a bunch of innocent townspeople so he stops her. He kills her and her band before she gets the chance to do anything. All the townspeople saw was him senselessly murdering random people who haven’t done anything, but he knew the truth. It gave him a bad reputation in those parts and the character he killed was one that he kind of liked and got along with (in the brief time they knew each other.)
The protagonist’s hand was forced and we learned way more about him as a result. That’s how characters grow.
Never use absolutes.
Giving a character a moral compass (depending on their culture and background) is fine. But try not to speak in terms in absolutes.
“This character always does what is right.” Now I, as the reader, know that when this character is offered a chance to take power for themselves, they won’t. You might accidentally spoil your ending by doing this. They will never do anything wrong, no matter how dire, and this is your classic good guy.
A better way to do this is to have the character think this about themselves and test them. Maybe your character says “I will always do the right thing” and force them into a situation where they have no good questions, maybe they get offered something that is just too great for them to refuse.
If you’re speaking in absolutes. You better prove it. In A Song of Ice and Fire Cersei Lannister is often described as: “She would do anything for her children.” That’s a pretty high claim to make, especially in that world. The author better prove it, and Martin does. She constantly protects her eldest (who is a horrible person) even though she knows he’s awful. She imprisons people, murders people (or indirectly causes their deaths), lies, schemes, etc.
So if you say, “my character would do anything for their friends.”, prove it. Push them.
“My character would never harm an animal.” What if they’re starving and they need to hunt their own food? What if they’re attacked by a snake or something? That’s boring storytelling. If the character says “I’d never hurt an animal.” have a wild dog attack them and they have to defend themselves. Put them through a hard winter in the wilderness where they have to hunt for their food. I’m not saying it should be an easy choice, it could be really difficult for this character to accept. But if you’re character is speaking in absolutes, than I’m either going to get bored knowing that, or I’m going to be interested in how they’re tested.
Any character should be capable of anything. Even (especially) good ones.
Everyone has a price. Everyone has a breaking point. This is good storytelling. Even your classic good guy should be capable of some bad stuff if they’re pushed enough.
If you give your character some kind of ultimate power, they don’t even try to use it for their own ends? Even if they have good intentions and suffer bad consequences, they should at least learn this. Even if they ultimately are good in the end, they should at least explore darker parts of themselves.
Your character is offered ultimate happiness for themselves and their loved ones (at a terrible cost, perhaps. Maybe not). You’re telling me that this character wouldn’t even consider it? Wouldn’t take it and then learn some other horrible truth as a direct result?
Your bad guy should be capable of sympathy and empathy (unless you’re purposely writing them that way). Your good guy should be capable of evil, cowardice, weak to temptation, etc. I’m not saying your good guy has to “go to the dark side” so to speak, but their morals and resolve should be tested along the way.
Your secondary characters should have history and goals too.
Goals that aren’t exactly the same as the protagonists. They should not be shadows of the protagonist. They should have different experiences, opinions. They should want their own things.
If your protagonist’s buddy is a pirate, are they really going to give up their life of plundering to go on a life threatening journey with the protagonist? Nah, probably not.
Think of you and your friends. Do you agree on anything? Do you always get along 100% of the time? Do you all have the exact same goals and career plans? Would they all give you their life savings without a second thought? Do they all worship the ground you walk on? Chances are, no. They have their own lives, opinions, goals, and responsibilities.
Your secondary characters should be just as developed as your protagonist.
Ask yourselves questions about your characters.
I don’t mean “What is their favorite food?” questions, those are helpful only to you to help envision who this person is, it doesn’t really help the reader figure out who this person is.
Here are some better questions to ask yourself:
- How far is this person willing to go for their goal? What is their limit?
- What are their deal breakers in a relationship? (not related to looks)
- What skills do they have that are relevant to their background? (woodworking, baking, sword fighting, etc.)
- How do they talk/speak?
- What are their political views? Why do they have those views? Who/what are they loyal to?
- What kind of people do they like to have around? What kind of people annoy them? (do they like talkative, outgoing people or prefer quiet people?)
- How do they feel about their family? Their past?
- What do they fear? (I’m not talking “spiders”, unless it’s a huge phobia you plan to use like Ron Weasley. Are they afraid of their significant other leaving or cheating on them? Are they afraid of death/disease?)
- What is their fondest memory? What is their worst memory?
- What don’t they know how to/what are they bad at? (swimming, reading, math/numbers, exercise, etc.)
- What are their secrets? (make it a significant secret, not “one time I picked my nose.” but more “I cheated on a lover and they don’t know.” or “I killed someone and hid the body.” (even if it was an accident)
- What do they do/don’t do? Why? (Do they not drink? Do they drink too much? Do they refuse to engage in violence? Do they get in fist fights on the regular?)
- Do they believe in life after death?
- What climate/season is their favorite?
- What do they like to wear?
- Do they believe that war is sometimes necessary or are they pacifists?
- How do they carry themselves? Do people notice them when they walk into the room or does this character prefer to stay in the background? Are they loud? Quiet? Funny? Serious?
- Are they a leader or follower
There are plenty more but there are some examples. Be careful when looking at character questionnaires because a lot of things on those are really unimportant to the plot. Feel free to even do unimportant ones for your own sake, but you don’t have to include everything in the plot or for the reader’s sake.
Your characters need to change.
Your character shouldn’t start as the virtuous good guy and remain the virtuous good guy by the end. He can still be good, but he should change.
If your character starts enthusiastic to save the world, how does he/she feel about it by the end? Are they bitter? Traumatized? Angry? Sad? Relieved it’s over?
These changes should be big and reflect the character’s journey. A character who has been to hell and back isn’t going to have the same out look on the world they used to.
A character who doesn’t change is a cardboard cutout.
Give them more than one goal.
You probably have more than one goal in life. If you want to go to London, you might also want to learn how to knit.
Your character should also have a goal that isn’t related to the big goal. This adds personality. This makes them not a robot who is only focused on the mission. Maybe your character wants to save the world, but they also want to write a ballad about their adventure.
This is helpful if your character’s journey takes place over an extended period of time. Maybe it takes them years to figure out how to save the world, or the war goes on for years. Alright, that’s cool. But what are they doing when they’re not fighting? They probably interact with other people, seek out some romance, learn a skill, make some money, etc.
Harry Potter’s main goal was to stop Voldemort and save the world, but he also wanted to get into his desired career field, hang out with his friends and loved ones, play Quidditch, and so on. He wasn’t obsessed with Voldemort for 7 years.
Your characters should make mistakes and fail.
Maybe they win in the end, but they shouldn’t win all the time.
Even if you’re character is doing the best the can, thinking they make the right choice, prove it to be the wrong one. There are a lot of ways to do this. Here are some ideas:
- Have them fail at something they love or really want to do.
- Have a good quality be used against them by their own action. (If they easily trust, have them trust the wrong person, even if they were warned otherwise.)
- Have them betray their morals or code of ethics because they want to, or see no other way.
- Put them in a terrible situation that they could have prevented. (The death of a friend, the loss of a war/battle, etc.)
- Have them destroy, betray, sacrifice, or kill the thing or person they love above everything else.
You can make these (and many others) fit in the context of your work. The point is your character needs to go through change and grow, and this is a good way to do that.
Their background should make sense.
In regards to the plot.
Let’s say that your character’s entire family was killed when they were 3. The story starts 20 years later.
Now of course this had an impact on their lives, but how much impact does it have on the story? In those 20 years they had other experiences as well. How much does this event have an impact on them moving forward 20 years later? Unless they had a bunch of other trauma as a result, chances are they probably had time to heal and move on, or at least focus on other things, meet knew people, etc.
It can still be painful, of course, but it might not be a huge motivating factor for the rest of the story depending on how long it’s been, what the event was, etc.
Considering they’ve probably done other things in 20 years since their family died, what else could motivate them? You’ve had plenty of experiences in your life that influenced your life and motivations further down the road, so consider that when developing your characters.
So there’s some thoughts on developing your characters. I’ll talk more about this on some point. Here are some links that can help you develop characters:
IAmAFiction Reddit If you’re familiar with Reddit’s AMAs (Ask Me Anything), this subreddit’s posts are in that style. You post as your character and other users ask you questions, you answer them as your character.