It’s not always easy to develop a fictional character. And yet we all want to write characters readers won’t forget. There are many different ways you can do character development, and one way is not necessarily better or worse than another way.
So what do you choose then?
This article will tell you my technique for writing strong main characters. Creating characters can be done with the following steps.
- Decide what drives and motivates your character.
- Find their underlying flawed belief (you need this to write a good character arc).
- Create their background.
- Think about their appearance and how it ties to your story.
- Start writing.
You’ll see that this order isn’t set in stone either—you can play around with it and see what works best for you. For instance, you might know your character’s flawed beliefs before knowing what drives them. Or perhaps you already have an idea of their background. You can also write scenes with your character in between the steps to figure out more about your character if that’s how you enjoy working.
It’s a flexible framework.
1. Decide what drives and motivates your character
What does your character want?
This is an essential question with character development, as it will determine the process of your story—it’s the goal your character hopes to achieve. Why does your character do what they do?
If you already have an idea about your story, this may not be a tough one to answer. Depending on the genre of your story, they can want love, defeat the villain, save the princess, have revenge, find the killer, and so on.
So, first, think about what the global genre of your story is that you want to write. Don’t know yet? Then consider what you’d like your character to pursue, which should give you an idea of the global genre of your story.
Now you know what your character wants...
Now you can start to question why they want it.
With character development, it’s always important to know your character’s underlying motivations. Otherwise, they’re not going to seem real to the reader. We’re all driven by something, after all. Practically no one does something just for the hell of it—there is some reason that’s behind why we want something. So, knowing this is essential for writing characters readers won’t forget.
For instance, your character might want revenge because someone has wronged them. Their motivation is to make them pay for what they did. Or perhaps your character wants to find love. They may be driven by a need to feel complete—they think a relationship is the only way they will feel whole.
What your character wants and what drives them will determine the type of actions they will take. They may sign up for a dating app, start dating, etc.
But that’s not all that drives their actions. Because even though people can have similar wants and motivations, their actions can still differ based on the character’s underlying beliefs. This is an important part of how to develop a fictional character.
2. Find their underlying flawed belief
To me, this is the most important thing when it comes to how to develop a fictional character. I know most of the time people talk about “flaws” within the character, but I think that’s still a bit too general. A flaw can also be that they let everyone walk all over them, but that doesn’t really tell us why they do that; it’s more a consistent action that they take.
So, I look at character development from a belief system point of view or schema. These are terms from psychology and are often used to treat certain disorders or emotional issues like anxiety or depression. The psychologist will unearth the beliefs that make them act and think in a certain way, so they can then determine the best actions to take to change these beliefs.
We all have a belief system. This is not something religious, although religion can also play a part in shaping certain beliefs. Our belief system is formed by experiences, lessons, and norms. For instance, when parents tell their children repeatedly that going to college is the highest possible standard, it’s important and will ensure we’ll have good chances in life. The children then indeed believe that college is the only way they can succeed.
For each person, their beliefs are their truth. It’s how they view themselves, others, and the world. While these beliefs are not the truth, they’re their truth. We subconsciously use those beliefs to make assumptions, for instance, about other people.
Now that we have the terminology straight...
This is why when you think about how to develop a fictional character, beliefs are an important part—it helps you create more realistic characters.
You don’t need to know all the beliefs your character has. Just the ones that matter for your story. For your main character, I’d always consider one belief you want them to change by the end. This is what will determine your character’s arc. An important part of writing characters readers won’t forget.
If you know the belief you want to change within your character, you can determine the type of situations that are necessary for them to face that belief and eventually change it (since they can then no longer act based on their existing belief).
The other beliefs will be determined by your character’s main reactions to situations.
There are different ways you can go about this. One way is to just determine the type of character you want them to be. For instance, you want them to be a pushover who is insecure but also loyal and understanding. Then, you need to ask yourself why.
Why are they being a pushover?
Imagine a situation where they were being pushovers; for instance, when someone bullies them, they just let them wash all over them. Why do they do that? What are they feeling at that moment?
Ashamed? Then perhaps they let others walk over them because they feel that’s what they deserve. Their belief is that they’re not worthy and should be punished in some way.
Alternatively, they might feel angry at that moment. Then perhaps they’re being pushovers because they’re afraid of what they might do if they react. They believe that they’re an uncontrollable monster once they let themselves out. Same behavior, different reasons.
On the other hand, you can write out a few scenes with your character in them. This can help your character development, so you’ll be writing characters readers won’t forget.
For instance, if you have certain situations in mind that your character might get into in your story, then you can write such a scene and see how your character reacts in such a situation. Then you look at how they react, what their actions are in a situation, what they’re feeling or thinking, and question again: why. That’s how you get to their beliefs.
3. Create their background
If you know the beliefs, you can create their backstory. No need to ask your character all sorts of questions for character development. We already know their beliefs.
What we do ask is: where does their belief come from?
For instance, someone might’ve been betrayed by someone they cared about, and therefore, they believe others can’t be trusted or that it’s better not to get attached to someone.
Someone who believes they’re unworthy and need to be punished might’ve had a parent / teacher / other authority figure who would tell them they’re worthless whenever they would make a small mistake and punish them in some way.
Or it’s even possible that they were told that there’s something they needed to obtain in life to be successful (like a college degree), and they’re just not managing to get there, no matter how hard they try, which then leads to a belief of being a failure and worthless.
4. Think about their appearance and how it ties to your story
In my view, physical appearance matters the least when writing characters readers won’t forget. Determining whether they have blond or brown hair or green or blue eyes doesn’t really matter. When considering how to develop a fictional character, it only matters when it holds relevance to the story.
Now, this can be difficult because you might not know yet how your story is going to go.
That’s not a problem: you can always change your character’s appearance based on a new decision you make for your story. The beauty of writing and character development is that nothing’s set in stone. You can always revise and make changes.
Let's look at an example
Harry Potter is clearly described as looking exactly like his father while having his mother’s eyes. That this happened to come with dark hair, glasses, and green eyes isn’t really what’s important. Could’ve just as easily been blond with brown eyes.
What matters is that he looks like his parents, who are dead. So any time he would meet someone who knew their parents, they would say: “You look just like your father. Except for your eyes. You have your mother’s eyes.”
This serves a purpose in the story: it reminds us that Harry is an orphan who never knew his parents. So this creates sympathy. And it’s a great awkward moment because how the hell do you respond to that? These people are reminding him of something he doesn’t have and never will have.
Another feature is his scar, shaped like a lightning bolt. This is again related to the story as it’s a very visible reminder that he survived Voldemort. And whenever people see him, they know who he is, and he’s again reminded of that fact. For him, this is quite a sad day since it’s again a reminder that his parents died. For everyone else, it meant the end of a war. In addition, the scar also starts to hurt as a reminder of danger, so it serves that purpose as well.
When considering their looks...
So, when you consider your character’s looks in character development, think about your story. What is it about, and how does this influence your character’s appearance?
If you need your character to do a lot of physical activity, for instance, because they’re running from the bad guys, this might mean that your character is muscular and has a fit body type. On the other hand, depending on the kind of story you’re going for, it might be interesting if that character isn’t fit at all but rather more plump or just skin and bones.
It can also be used to give the reader immediate assumptions about a character. For instance, a character with pock-marked skin, greasy hair, and a big red nose usually screams bad-guy; it’s a stereotypical portrayal. This can be useful if you just want to instantly make clear to the reader that someone is bad news.
Conversely, you can also use that to subvert reader expectations and make them the most likable guy in the story. Or have a plump person be very active and strong rather than lazy, or be very mean and chagrinned rather than joyful.
You can play around with these kinds of things. It makes character development fun!
5. Start writing
When you consider how to develop a fictional character, it’s always important to have your story in mind. What story do you want to tell?
However, if you come up with the character first, then that’s also fine—you can let that inform your story.
It might be that you start writing and notice that some of these characters aren’t quite right for the story. That’s also fine. You can always determine what kind of character would be a good fit for the story and make changes.
Character development doesn’t have to be all perfect before you start. Or you can even decide to keep the character and change the story.
What’s important here is that you don’t need to have everything perfect and make sense before you start writing. It happens more often than not that our characters change as we write. Start writing a quarter, half, or your full first draft, and then review your characters again. That way, you’ll ensure you’re writing characters readers won’t forget.
What’s their flawed belief in the story? Does it fit with the story? Are there things you can change about their physical appearance that may increase the stakes of a story?
Writing characters readers won’t forget
I hope this article gave you some insight into how to develop a fictional character. If you think you like this method, I have an Easy Character Development printable available that walks you through my steps and comes with additional overview pages and lists with character traits.
You can also sign up for the free webinars and listen to me ramble more about beliefs and character development!
Get my Easy Character Building printable to guide you through the steps outlined above, in addition to other helpful resources, such as character overview pages, full character sheets, and lists with character traits.