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You can have the most dynamic and interesting plot ever, but if your characters fall flat then it won’t matter that you put so much thought and effort into their story. Characters not only navigate the plot but also help support it, which is why developing your characters is so important. Here’s what I do to make characters organic and strong enough to stand on their own.
One of the first things you hear about character development is to give them flaws, which I agree with to a certain extent, but it’s more complex than that. I always try to give my characters flaws, but then dive deeper to see how the characters feel about their flaws. For example, say your protagonist has very low self-esteem. The only way to sell that, is to make your character believe that their negative self-talk is real. After all, that’s what self esteem is dependent on: having a distorted self-reflection.
Another example would be the antagonist in your story. Say your character wants to take over the world, as antagonists often do, but you have to consider why they want to take over the world in order to make them three-dimensional. Maybe your antagonist wants to take over the world because they feel they were wronged in some way, sort of an “if I can’t have a good life then no one else deserves to have one” retribution. This motivation would require different writing than if they wanted to take over the world because they believe “it’s broken and I’m the only one who can fix it.”
Whether it’s your protagonist, antagonist, or just a side character, ask yourself why they believe these flaws are their truth. It will make your characters more authentic rather than flawed simply for the sake of being so.
Similar to flaws, it’s important to give your characters some redeeming qualities to make them more three-dimensional. If you make your character’s merits as real as their flaws, even just in each character’s self-belief, then you’ll end up with complex characters that readers can actually relate to.
Where antagonists are concerned, this still stands. If you make your villains relatable in some way, then their atrocities become more impactful, they can make your readers question their personal morals and give them the question: “if you were in their shoes, would you act differently?” In the examples I gave above, take those sentiments and ask yourself that question. If you were wronged in the same way the antagonist was, what would you do? If you truly believed that the world was beyond repair but had a vision for fixing it, what sort of end would justify the means? Push the boundaries of belief and see where it takes you, your characters will be stronger for it.
Establishing your characters’ physical traits is important so that your readers can get an idea of what they look like, but it’s also a good opportunity for you to make your story more detailed. For example, let’s say your protagonist is very tall. Maybe the side characters keep asking them to reach things on high shelves. This could be a running joke in the story, or it could just be a reminder that the character is tall. Similarly, if they’re short, they could be frustrated that they have to keep asking their tall friends to reach things for them.
Establishing physical traits is also important for you, as an author. It can be helpful to draw or get reference photos for your characters to remind yourself of what your characters look like rather than just thinking of them as a concept represented by their name. This way, you can reference physical traits on an ongoing basis and help make your characters more real. Maybe two of your characters keep getting mistaken for twins because they have similar height and build. Maybe there’s a race difference that sticks out when your characters move through your world together.
Make sure that you keep different character traits in mind within the context of your world. Remember that they don’t exist within a vacuum, and that their physical traits are their first impression for everyone they interact with, and your characters will feel more real to your readers.
What do you think? What sorts of characters do you like writing? What about your least favorite characters to write? How do you approach character development? Let me know in the comments! And if you don’t want to miss out on any Author Rescue content, join the monthly newsletter!
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