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Character Development: 20 Steps to Write Better Characters

header image for how to develop characters

Character development is what the majority of readers care about. It’s a fact.

You have two options: Invest in your characters or disappoint your readers.

If you create characters your readers want to follow through the end of your story, expect positive reviews on your book’s Amazon page.

How do you write better characters? Follow the 20 steps I have laid out in this comprehensive article to write engaging, complex characters. I have gathered every character development tip, trick, and must-have that I’ve ever encountered in my career as a writer — all for your benefit!

Whether you’re writing a full-length novel or a short story — no matter your word count — this article is perfect for you.

As I take you through all the steps to write good character development, I will end each short section with a 1-3 rating of whether the action is required (3), recommended (2), or simply to be considered (1).

In this article, you will learn:
  1. Types of characters and character development
  2. 20 steps to write better characters
  3. Templates and resources to help you develop your characters

Links in this article may give me a small commission if you use them to purchase anything. There’s no extra cost to you! This helps me continue to write these articles that you can always read for free.

What is character development?

Character development is how a character in a story moves a step forward (or backward) along their character arc.

A character arc is the overall trajectory of how a specific character changes, learns, and grows during the story.

A satisfying character arc is one where a character experiences genuine, believable change — often for the better and often evenly paced out through the story.

A character may become worse, but this change must satisfy the story’s central theme. In other words, it’s okay if the character doesn’t grow as a person or experience something positive, as long as their change is believable within the story’s greater context.

What is a well-developed character? A well-developed character is someone who has gone through multiple changes throughout the course of a story, leading them to either evolve or devolve as a result. A well-developed character often has all of the following:

  • Compelling backstory
  • Strong motivations and goals
  • Multiple difficult decisions to make
  • Bold personality, leading to bold choices
  • Relevance to the external conflict
  • Captivating internal conflict
  • Change of heart near the end of the story

There are 4 types of character development (or lack thereof):

  1. Dynamic
  2. Static
  3. Round
  4. Flat

Dynamic vs. static: A dynamic character changes. A static character stays the same throughout the story.

Most of the main characters in a work of fiction should be dynamic characters.

Round vs. flat: A round character is fully fleshed out; you know a great deal about them. A flat character has no distinguishing characteristics or complex emotions.

A round character can change (dynamic) or stay the same (static). A flat character usually stays the same (static) but might change by the end of the story (dynamic), though a flat dynamic character is hard to pull off.

Not every character needs character development or a character arc. However, your main character needs a character arc. Your antagonist would benefit from one. Your main character’s love interest should probably have one.

Basically, all your main characters should experience character development.

How do you develop a strong character? You develop a strong character by giving them strengths, weaknesses, backstories, unique traits, several difficult choices to make, and an evenly-paced, satisfying character arc.

1. Start with a unique trait.

Consider starting your character creation with a unique trait — physical, idiosyncratic, mental, emotional, etc. Invent a character who will stick in the reader’s mind because of their unique quality.

The best unique traits contribute to a character’s arc.

Example 1: If your character loves money, and her arc ends with valuing family over money, her unique trait that you describe at her introduction could be a comically large purse, which she eventually misplaces.

Example 2: If your character plays too many video games, and his arc ends with selling his Playstation to feed a poor family, you could introduce him with notably calloused fingers juxtaposed to his otherwise soft skin. Have the poor family comment on his calloused fingers.

Beware — you don’t want this single unique trait to define your character. You want it to enhance the overall character arc. Also, you do not want to write an insensitive stereotype of a character. You can start with a character archetype, but you should continue to weave complexity into the character after initially creating them.

How important is a unique trait to character development? It’s recommended but not required. (2)

2. Name your character something significant.

A lot of authors name their characters something significant. I recommend always doing research on your character name, even if you don’t care. It at least avoids an unnecessary meaning.

A character name may reveal character, ethnic background, religion, time period, and other traits.

If your character is a narcissist, you could name him Ovid. In history, Ovid wrote Metamorphoses, which contains the original telling of Narcissus, from which we get the word narcissistic.

Or, if your character is obsessed with the stars or space, consider naming them Polaris or Orion or Vega.

You don’t want your character’s name to be too on the nose. An obvious name can turn a reader against you and make it feel like you’re force-feeding them subtext and symbolism.

How important is a significant name to character development? I suggest you do this, but by no means do you have to. (1)

3. Decide how your character will grow.

Before you start writing, you should decide how your character will grow over the course of the story. Even if you only know the beginning and end of their character arc, that’s a whole lot better than writing blind.

If you can’t figure out how the character gets from the beginning to the end, don’t worry. Let’s start with the broad strokes, then narrow in on the meat of the story. For now, just determine the beginning and endpoints of your character arc.

Maybe your character starts the story hating elves but ends the story realizing that elves are just like him in many ways.

Maybe your character begins without regard for human life due to a tragic backstory but ends the story with a new appreciation for the miracle of life.

Do this for every main character (each person in your story who features prominently).

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How significant is the growth of a character to character development? This is a must. You have to do this in almost all circumstances. (3)

4. Outline your story.

You need to outline your story so that your character development is evenly paced, incremental, and believable.

Read my full article on How To Outline a Novel for more in-depth info. Or read my article on The Best Software to Outline Your Book.

Some of you will hate me for saying this, but you need to jot down some sort of outline. Whether it’s a bare-bones skeleton outline or a detailed scene-by-scene outline, you need to order the progression of your story (and character arcs) before writing your story.

via GIPHY

You must outline your story to have believable character development and consistent characterization — not to mention that outlining staves off writer’s block.

You could start outlining at this point, or you could wait till you know more about your characters. Both ways are valid. (This article is not necessarily in chronological order.)

Consider the following novel outlining tools:

How important is outlining your story to character development? This is a must. You have to do this in almost all circumstances. (3)

5. Give your major characters strong motivations.

Characters without motivations are boring. Readers won’t have anything to cheer for! Give your significant characters strong motivations to justify the narrative in which they take part.

A strong motivation leads characters to make bold choices that advance the plot, which develops their character. A strong motivation is often rooted in a compelling backstory and a high-stakes, present-day conflict.

Weak motivation example: A father wants to take his family on vacation because he got a work bonus.

Strong motivation example: A father wants to take his family on vacation because his marriage is on the rocks, his kids don’t respect him, and he’s envious of his neighbors going on vacations. Also, he doesn’t have the money to pay for it. Isn’t that a more gripping motivation (and conflict)?

How important are strong motivations to character development? This step is a must. You have to do this in almost all circumstances. (3)

6. Write down your character’s details.

Write down each character’s details somewhere you can easily access at all times.

What character details do you need to write down? Here are some of the big ones:

  • Age
  • Birthday
  • General disposition
  • Hair color
  • Eye color
  • Physical build
  • Occupation
  • Family life
  • Gender
  • Sexual identity
  • Sexual orientation
  • How they dress
  • How they spend their free time
  • Likes and dislikes
  • Unique physical traits

Feel free to use people from your own life to inspire character details. Don’t copy and paste a real-life person into your book. However, it can be beneficial to let real life inspire your compelling characters.

If you ever misremember a character detail and a reader notices, it immediately sucks them out of the experience. Errors like changing eye color distract readers from the story and the character arcs you’re trying to convey.

Knowing these character details gives you confidence in your writing, and readers can often subconsciously tell when a writer is confident in his/her work.

Helpful hint: My favorite word processor, Scrivener, has this innovative Binder feature that keeps unlimited documents, images, audio files, and more all in one window. I keep all my character details in Scrivener’s Binder. I can split screen those details across from what I’m writing with only two clicks.

Building a character in Scrivener
Do you have to write down your character’s details? This is a must. You have to do this in almost all circumstances. (3)

7. Connect your setting to the character development.

Without getting too on the nose or cliché, you can connect your book’s setting to character development. Change the environment as the book progresses at a similar pace to the character arc.

Examples of connecting setting and character:

  1. If your character starts to value their job over family, spend more pages in the office at that point in the story rather than at home.
  2. If the character becomes depressed in the middle of their arc, it might be winter, when depression levels spike in real life. (Proceed with caution; this tiptoes towards pathetic fallacy.)
  3. If a character descends into madness, trash could pile up in the once-clean streets of their neighborhood, symbolizing the character development.

You can connect your characters to any part of the setting:

  • Country
  • City
  • Neighborhood
  • Workplace
  • Any building
  • Season
  • Time period
  • Nature around them
Do you have to connect your setting to character development? I suggest you do this, but by no means do you have to. (1)

8. Give your character a nickname.

This might seem silly, but giving your character a nickname, or sobriquet, automatically gives your character backstory, memorability, uniqueness, and so much more.

Don’t reveal the meaning of the nickname right away. It makes your reader ask, “Why?” And if a reader asks why, they want to keep turning the page.

In Game of Thrones, there are literally thousands of characters. One of the ways we're able to keep track of some of them is because all the important ones had nicknames. George R.R. Martin clearly gave half his major characters nicknames to help his readers sort through the enormous cast.

This also works in children’s books. If a bully gives our main character a rude name, the reader will probably hate the bully and feel for the bullied. The reader also quickly remembers both the bully and the nicknamed character because of the memorable character nickname.

How vital are nicknames to character development? I suggest you do this, but by no means do you have to. (1)

9. Set up payoffs.

Payoffs are probably the most satisfying part of a book, especially when the payoff directly relates to a character that the reader cares about.

When you have your outline (or you’ve already written the book), look for opportunities to set up payoffs. You may already have a payoff with no setup, in which case you can go backward in your story and weave a clever setup.

Like foreshadowing, you can take character development from the end of your book that might otherwise be collateral, coincidental, or uninteresting. Then, add a setup beforehand to make that character development more rewarding, exciting, and satisfying.

If there’s a secondary character death at the end of your book, go back to the middle and set up the death. E.g., you know a character is going to die heroically. Set up early on that that character wants to die a hero’s death, even if he’s simply boasting in a tavern.

If your character will become pregnant in the conclusion, set up early on how she would react to getting pregnant. Preferably, the setup should be different from how she actually reacts when it happens — an easy way to show growth and character development.

Do you need to use payoffs for your characters? I would strongly recommend you do this, but you don’t have to. (2)

10. Give your character a title.

Similar to giving your character a nickname, you should give your character a title. This adds to the world-building, the setting, and most importantly, the character development.

Examples of giving your character a title:

  1. Instead of your main character being just some private investigator, she could have won the award for “Best P.I. in Chicago.””
  2. Instead of a love interest being a cute pie server, he could own the town’s only pie shop. Call him the Pie Shop Owner, or Mr. Croust of the Pie “Croust” Emporium.
  3. This is easiest in sci-fi and fantasy, where you can give people fanciful titles like Emperor of the Third Quadrant, Lord Protector of the Eastfront, Grand Admiral of the Milky Way, or Princess of Peasbury.
Do all characters require titles? I suggest you do this for some major characters, but by no means do you have to. (1)

11. Be specific.

When describing and developing characters, be specific. This can apply to writing in general, but let’s focus on character development for now.

Specificity helps readers remember details. Specificity builds credibility with the reader. Specificity is simply more interesting.

Don’t say, “He had orange hair.” Instead, say, “His ginger curls hung just long enough to tickle his big, red ears.”

Instead of “Her badge was shiny,” say, “Her ornate police badge shined brighter than her oily forehead.”

“He danced poorly,” can be turned into, “His graceless pas de chat tainted the otherwise immaculate stage left ensemble.”

When I say specificity builds credibility with the reader, I mean that you should use some jargon when discussing topics that are not general knowledge. Readers can tell when you’re bull crapping.

via GIPHY

Even subconsciously, readers appreciate when a writer knows more about a topic than the reader. You can show that you have done your research by being specific without completely alienating and confusing your audience.

How crucial is specificity to character development? This is a must. You have to do this in almost all circumstances. (3)

12. Make your antagonist powerful.

To have stakes, your antagonist should be more powerful than your protagonist for most of the novel. Make your antagonist as powerful as possible. When your protagonist finally prevails, it will be even more satisfying.

Ask yourself if your antagonist would win any fight with your protagonist up until the final climax. If not, then you gotta power up your antagonist even more.

Important: The reader needs to understand how powerful your antagonist is early on in the story. Demonstrate your antagonist’s power in the first chapters of your story. (This is kind of the opposite of “saving the cat,” which I’ll talk about later.)

The protagonist should grow more powerful than the antagonist at the very end as they wade through your carefully paced character development.

For example, Katniss probably wouldn’t have threatened to kill herself with those berries to save Peeta at the beginning of the Hunger Games. Character development in the body of the novel helped Katniss to learn how she might “defeat” the Capitol — in the short-term, at least.

via GIPHY

Another example of a powerful antagonist: In HBO’s Veep, Selina wants to be president. A political rival outmaneuvers her and costs her the presidency by 3 votes. When she runs again, she is more ruthless and takes out that same political rival by irreparably ruining his reputation. Not a happy tale, but it is darkly satisfying to see her finally overpower him.

Do you have to empower your antagonist? This is a must. You have to do this in almost all circumstances. (3)

13. Write external and internal conflict.

Characters need to endure conflict in which the antagonist is more powerful than they are. They must make multiple bold choices throughout the story that lead to the character development, which leads to the climax’s resolution.

However, don’t stick to one external conflict. You should ensure there is both external and internal conflict within your main character. It doesn’t just have to be your protagonist; you can give multiple major characters internal conflicts.

An external conflict occurs outside the character’s head, in the real world. Maybe you’ll recognize these terms from grade school, all of which are external conflicts:

  • Man vs. man
  • Man vs. beast
  • Man vs. nature
  • Man vs. supernatural
  • Man vs. society
  • Man vs. technology

An internal conflict occurs within the character’s mind, in their heart or soul. This is usually called man vs. self. Internal conflict can take the form of guilt, a mental disorder, shame, self-hate, holding two opposing opinions simultaneously, etc.

To weave narrative complexity into your book and improve your character development, give your major characters both external and internal conflicts. As the plot progresses, so should the conflicts.

Do you have to write internal and external conflict to develop your characters? I would strongly recommend you do this, but you don’t have to. (2)

14. Give your character flaws.

Nobody likes a perfect character. The best protagonists have flaws that make them more human, more relatable.

#retweet, am I right?

Yes, give your character strengths. However, their weaknesses must play a major role in the story. With happy endings, the character should overcome that flaw. With tragic endings, the character should succumb to that flaw.

Flaws can also be minor character-building traits, endearing quirks, or recognizable mannerisms. I’m thinking of Wes Anderson films where most of the characters are odd and do weird things, but audiences love them all the more for it.

However strong your protagonist is, your antagonist needs to be stronger (see step 12), at least until the climax.

Example of character overcoming their flaw: A wise old woman gets caught up in her own pride when trying to teach the young heroine. She eventually finds humility and helps the heroine learn what she needs to defeat the antagonist.

As a bonus, the young heroine sees this change, and it inspires her own character growth.

Example of character succumbing to their flaw: This lady loves her motorcycle, but she doesn’t love wearing a helmet. It represents her larger rejection of authority, which we see play out in many ways throughout the story.

Just when this character’s life is spiraling because she rejects all forms of authority, no matter what, she crashes her motorcycle and dies because she wasn’t wearing a helmet.

Do you have to introduce character flaws? This is a must. You have to do this in almost all circumstances. (3)

15. Make your major characters take bold action.

Your main characters must take bold action to progress the plot. No one wants to read about a human camera that only observes the events happening around them.

Through these bold actions, readers will see character development. Characters should make bold choices by the end of the novel that they wouldn’t have made at the beginning. To do this, you need to give your significant characters a lot of hard choices to make.

In the middle of your story, character development needs to continue. If your characters take bold actions to move the plot forward, it shouldn’t be too hard for those actions to progress character arcs, too.

If you find your main character watching plot points happen, instead of partaking in them, consider removing that character and telling the story from the point of view of the character who is making these plot points happen.

Do your characters have to take bold actions? This is a must. You have to do this in almost all circumstances. (3)

16. Craft a backstory.

You can craft a backstory for your primary characters as long as the backstory is relevant and interesting, compliments the present-day narrative, and doesn’t distract from the greater plot.

Don’t insert a backstory because you feel you need to. This wastes your time and the reader’s. Any backstory you write should establish or answer mysteries, reveal character, or affect the character’s present-day decision-making.

Good example: A businesswoman is obsessed with taking down a gorgeous young intern. Halfway through the book, we learn that she had a vivid dream long ago that an attractive intern would be her corporate downfall. This adds motivation and even reveals character: This woman is mad since she believes so heartily in a dream.

Bad example: A young woman is journeying to save the kingdom from an evil dark lord. She eventually remembers all her experiences at temple, even though they have no bearing on her current quest.

In the second example, maybe the character doesn’t need a backstory. Or perhaps the priestesses at the temple taught her something that she uses on the quest; that would make a better backstory.

A character’s backstory may include:

  • When and where she was born
  • Family
  • Friends (do they have a best friend?)
  • High school, college, etc.
  • Skills and talents
  • Job/salary
  • Goals and motivations
  • Political affiliations and involvement
  • Spirituality
  • Relationship status
  • Past trauma
  • Greatest desires
  • Greatest fears

Beware — don’t create a character backstory that distracts from the present. If your character’s backstory is more interesting than the present events, consider setting your story in the past. Backstory should complement the character development, not replace it.

Do your characters require a backstory? I would strongly recommend you do this, but you don’t have to. (2)

17. Find a picture that looks like your character.

This is just a fun tip that a lot of writers find helpful. Google your character description and find a stock photo that looks most like that character. Save the picture in a folder dedicated to character pictures.

character images folder screenshot

Better yet, you can upload character pictures directly to Scrivener’s sidebar, so you don’t have to open two different windows or search through your folders every day you write. (Try Scrivener free for 30 working days.)

I would guess about half of writers don’t really care about physical description, even though many readers hate it when physical descriptions aren’t included. This tip is especially for those writers. It can help your characters feel more like real people to you.

Do you have to use pictures to represent your character while you write? I suggest you do this, but by no means do you have to. (1)

18. Be cruel to your protagonist.

You need to be cruel to your protagonist to heighten the stakes, keep your reader interested, and develop the character.

Make them sweat. Let them fail once or twice.

The protagonist should experience hardship after hardship, especially in the mid-novel buildup to the climax. Give your protagonist difficult choices to make so the reader can see how this character changes with time.

Yes, you love the characters whom you so carefully created. However, novels require conflict. When characters go through hardship, readers want them to succeed. The more the reader wants that character to succeed, the harder it is to put down that book.

This is an excellent tool for the mid-novel slump so many authors fall into. If the middle of your novel feels slow and uneventful, be cruel to your protagonist. Break their arm. Take away their privileges. Send them to prison. Ground them. Give their computer a virus. Put them in danger.

Again, I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, but your wonderful characters who feel like your babies have to go through some serious crap if your readers are going to be engaged.

How vital is cruelty to your protagonist in character development? This is a must. You have to do this in almost all circumstances. (3)

19. Give your main character a foil.

You can give your main character a foil to oppose, compliment, or emphasize the character’s key attributes and character development.

A foil is someone who often disagrees with a character but is not their primary antagonist. (Some may say a “foil” is a synonym for “antagonist,” but I find that confusing and unhelpful.)

A character’s personality traits make themselves known through interactions between characters and their foils.

A later interaction can contrast with an earlier exchange to show change: character development.

Famous examples of foils:

  • Sherlock and Watson
  • Legolas and Gimli
  • Jane Eyre and Helen Bums
  • Superman and Lex Luthor
  • Hamlet and Laertes (or Claudius, or Horatio)
  • Star Wars’ Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker
  • Scrooge and his nephew Fred (Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol)
  • Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy (Perhaps even Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley)
Do you have to give your main character a foil? I would strongly recommend you do this, but you don’t have to. (2)

20. Save the cat.

Based on the title of Blake Snyder’s enlightening book on screenwriting, your protagonist should “save the cat” in their first scene to ingratiate themself with the reader.

What I mean (and what Blake Snyder means) is that the hero of your story should do something heroic in their first scene, such as:

  • Save a cat from a tree
  • Help an old man across the street
  • Rescue a soldier from a burning building
  • Give his lunch to a homeless man in need
  • Defend a dweeb from a bully
  • Help a father reunite with his son
  • Side with an underdog instead of their boss in some argument

When your protagonist starts the story off by doing something admirable, the reader roots for that character. It’s a surefire way to make your main character likable and relatable, all while showing instead of telling.

Does your main character need to “save the cat?” I would strongly recommend you do this, but you don’t have to. (2)

Templates for Character Development

You can use templates for character development, whether it’s a character profile, a character arc graph, a GOTE sheet, or various character development exercises.

Check out these awesome character development templates:

How will you write your characters?

Writing a book is hard. I hope this article makes it easier.

You should use the 20 steps above to write better characters and improve your character development. Seriously, satisfying character arcs are what many readers want most out of a story.

I hope these tips and tricks have been helpful, as well as the plethora of templates. Let me know in the comments what you found most enlightening. I still keep up with comments long after I post these handy (free) articles.

If you’re having trouble finishing your novel, check out Kindlepreneur’s article on How to Write Faster!

Or maybe you’re looking for a podcast for writers by writers? Check out my podcast, The Book Marketing Show.



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