Five Traps and Tips for Character Development

by C.S. Marks

We all have the same goal as fiction writers—we want to transport our readers inside the pages so that they feel like a part of the story. Characters are an extremely important part of making that happen. And characters don’t just transport the readers; they drive the story, or at least mine do. In fact, I’ve learned to listen to them when they argue with me.

So how does one develop effective, memorable characters? To begin with, it might be helpful to examine what distinguishes an effective character from an ineffective one. In my experience, most writers like to read, so you can probably think of characters that are particularly memorable for you and also some that you didn’t feel any connection with. Let’s look at five potential traps that can lead to ineffective characters. You’ll notice they are all connected, because one often leads to another, and some characters are guilty of all five: they’re one dimensional, they’re stereotypical, they’re too perfect, they’re inconsistent, or they’re dull.

Five Traps

One-dimensional characters don’t seem real. They’re flat. You get one-dimensional characters when you don’t devote enough time to character development. Of course, you should bear in mind that not every character deserves or merits equal development. All novels have their main characters and their secondary characters, and you can’t develop each and every one of the secondary characters or your books will be thousands of pages long. It may be okay for a character to be one-dimensional if that character’s role is not significant. But if it is significant, that character needs to be fleshed out and developed. For example, let’s say there’s a character in your book who is a detective, and he’s married to a woman who is described as a Midwestern housewife. She may be described physically, but if all we know about her past, her personality, and her motivations is that she’s a Midwestern housewife, that’s not very much to go on. We only know that she can cook a pot roast. That character is going to fall off of the stage of our memories in a hurry, and we’re not going to care what happens to her one way or another.

Stereotypical characters are uninteresting because they’re not unique. It’s important to note here that being stereotypical is not the same thing as being consistent. Your characters should behave in ways that are consistent with how you’ve developed them, but that’s not the same thing as being stereotypical. Imagine all of the rich people in your stories are shallow, greedy, and uncaring. All of the wealthy women are tall and extravagantly dressed, and they’ve all had plastic surgery. Or imagine you’re writing a fantasy story and all elves are haughty and all dwarfs are gruff, and they hate each other. Those are stereotypes. It’s when a character breaks free of the stereotype that he or she becomes believable and memorable. Real people rarely act according to stereotypes in every respect. Everybody is unique in some way. You don’t want your readers to think, Didn’t I just see that character in so-and-so’s work, only now he’s got another name and brown hair? You want your characters to be uniquely memorable.

The too-perfect character tends to make your reader’s eyes roll. Sometimes it’s okay to have a character who is perfect in every way, especially if you’re doing a parody. But perfection doesn’t exist in real life, so it shouldn’t usually exist in your writing. It’s hard to empathize with a perfect person, because none of us is perfect. Everyone, no matter how noble, is flawed in some way. For example, an effective character might be someone who is heroic in almost every way—he’s a good fighter, he’s nice to look at, he rides well and shoots well, and he’s brave and compassionate—but he’s totally indecisive, so if he has to take command in a battle, everyone’s going to die. It’s much easier for readers to relate to someone with a flaw, because they can say, “Yes, that’s just like my buddy Jeff. He’s a great guy, but he can’t make up his mind to save his life.”

There’s also a particular kind of too-perfect character that I refer to as the Mary Sue or Gary Stew character. This kind of character is the writer’s idealized version of himself or herself. Usually this character comes from humble beginnings, achieves impossible goals, ends up saving the galaxy, and then dies in the arms of King Arthur after having become the first female knight of the roundtable. How is anyone going to relate to that except the author? The author is living out his or her fantasies. We all do that to some extent, but Mary Sue is the extreme version of that kind of wish fulfillment, and we need to be careful about it.

Inconsistency in your characters will jar your readers mightily. In fact, it will probably jar the reader out of the story more quickly than almost anything else. You have developed a character in a certain way. Readers are expecting that character to behave in accordance with his or her personality and motivations as you have defined them. If that character behaves in a way that doesn’t make sense, your readers will notice it every time. Consistency applies to everything from small things, such as a character’s hair color, to big things like the character’s manner of speaking and important choices. If a character has brown hair in chapter 1, she’d better not have red hair in chapter 5. If a character speaks like a high elf one minute and uses street slang the next, that’s going to take the reader right out of the story. Or if a character slaughters a bunch of kindergartners and then goes on about the evils of child abuse, that’s also inconsistent. The fictional characters that we create need to feel like real people to the reader. If you don’t have a firm picture of them in your mind, they’re going to become shaky on the page. You should be able to see them and hear them speak and watch them go through their actions. And because you know them that well, they will be consistent, and you won’t fall into that trap.

And then there are dull characters. Of course, some characters are supposed to be dull, but in that case they’re usually foils for more interesting characters or events. If you think you might have a dull character in your book, the first thing you should ask is whether you need that character at all. Why is that character there? What is his or her role in the story? If you can’t come up with an answer, then that character is just stage dressing. Some stage dressing is allowed, but if you don’t even need the character for stage dressing, maybe its time to do away with that character completely. Another option is to make a dull character come alive by adding some unique traits. Perhaps your drab character has a secret fantasy life or an intriguing hobby, indicating that he or she is much more interesting than appears on the surface. That sort of thing will give a character life.

Let’s assume for a moment to avoid these five traps; your characters are three-dimensional, unique, flawed, consistent, and interesting. Here are five tips that can make them even better.

Five Tips

First, the devil is in the details. There’s a tendency for some writers to throw too much at the reader all at once—to give a full physical description, tell the life story, and reveal the innermost thoughts of a character as soon as he or she is introduced. But that’s not necessarily the best approach. Think about a character you’re introducing as someone the reader is meeting for the first time. When you meet someone for the first time, you do take in that person’s physical appearance, but only on a fairly superficial level. If I think about the people I met today, I don’t necessarily remember very much about them except that she had dark hair and he wasn’t very tall. I don’t remember every detail about what they were wearing; I didn’t notice. Unless they were wearing an ostrich costume, in which case I would remember that, and it would certainly be worth including in a story. So we don’t notice everything at once when we meet a new person, but we do usually notice a few details that can give us some idea of that person’s personality and life situation: Is the character well dressed? Does he bite his nails? Does she have acne scars, heavy makeup, a professional manicure, any nervous mannerisms? Does the character make eye contact? These are all the kinds of things we might notice during a first meeting. Then, we interact with people and observe them interacting with others, and that’s how we really get to know them. That’s true of characters too. When you first introduce them, you should include a few details, but the rest of their personalities, motivations, and back stories should be revealed gradually through their actions.

Another tip is to base characters on real people. Some writers think this is cheating, but I do it all the time. I take a fantasy character and give him or her the personality of someone I know, and because I know that real person very well, all I have to do is imagine what so-and-so would do in a given situation. It’s a way to flesh out a character very quickly. It makes it easier to stay consistent too, because you have a fully developed idea of the character’s personality right from the start. I also like to observe human behavior. You can also base characters on real people who you don’t know as well. I like to watch people, and I like to go to places where people congregate and observe them—how they talk, their mannerisms, what they wear, their attitudes and body language. I can incorporate all of that into my stories.

Third, remember that everybody has a history. Where we came from shapes us and molds us. And even if you don’t reveal your characters’ pasts to your readers, you should know about them, at least for your main characters. You should have full biographies of your main characters in your mind so that you understand what drives them. Why is this important? Because if you don’t understand a character, your readers won’t either. Let’s look at an example of an effective character history. Captain Quint’s backstory in the movie Jaws is great. In one scene, the three heroes, Quint, Chief Brody, and Matt Hooper, are in the cabin of Quint’s fishing boat, and they’re comparing old scars. Quint has a tattoo that was removed, and Brody innocently asks him about it. In response, Quint tells the other characters a horrific story about many of his friends on the USS Indianapolis being eaten by sharks, and all of a sudden it’s easy to understand this man and why he is the way he is. I can’t imagine that film without that backstory.

Fourth, don’t neglect your secondary characters. Sidekicks can be some of the most likeable and interesting characters in the story. Often, they are the readers’ favorites.

One example of this is the Boba Fett phenomenon. Everyone loves Boba Fett; he’s certainly just a secondary character, but he enriches the Star Wars setting. In the same way, well developed characters can enrich your book. They’re sort of like the supporting instruments in a symphony. I love my secondary characters. They can be a gold mine, and every one serves a purpose. Some add color or assist in world building, and some are foils for the main characters. Foils are characters who can’t stand your hero or your heroine and do nothing but gripe about them behind their backs. They can be great fun. I make sure I know a lot about my secondary characters even if I don’t end up revealing it all to the reader.

Finally, devote plenty of attention to the villain of the piece, without whom the story would not exist. Often, I hear authors tell me that the villain is their favorite character, the one they love to write about. I know that’s true in my case. Bad guys can be very tough to do well, and it can be even tougher to get readers to empathize with them. Whenever you write a villain, keep in mind that he or she needs to be just as well developed as your main characters. Instead of being flawed, however—because obviously all villains are flawed—the villain should be imperfectly bad. In other words, the villains should have redeeming characteristics where our heroes have flaws. Gollum in The Lord of the Rings is a great example of this. We empathize with Gollum, and we feel sorry for him sometimes. We have hope for him. We wish that he could be redeemed. And then we loathe him, and despise him, and wish somebody would just squash him like a bug, because he’s so annoying. Poor Gollum is a character who is definitely ruled by evil most of the time, but he also is in many respects a victim, and so we can empathize with him. He is a great antagonist. These can be among the most difficult of all characters to create but also some of the most satisfying.

There they are: five traps and five tips. Whether you write good characters or poor ones will determine whether your readers stay with you to the end of the journey or get off at the first stop. If the characters fail, the story fails. Hopefully this article will help you avoid that, but if it does happen, pick yourself up, write the next book, develop your characters better the next time, and all will be well.

Information Provided by the Author Learning Center.