Best Character Development Strategies: Tips from Kristen Kieffer
Character development can be frustrating whether you’re an author of a dozen titles or just embarking on your writing journey.
Luckily, there are a few tips and tricks that will help you craft unforgettable characters. Don’t worry: it’s not rocket science. However, you still need to put some effort to understand how the process works.
Consider this article your quick course on how to develop characters for your fiction novel.
Wait, it gets better. We’ve got something special in store for you.
An expert opinion on character development from the one and only, Kristen Kieffer! Kristen is a fantasy fiction writer and the author of “Build Your Best Writing Life”, where she shares fantastic strategies for personal writing success. Kristen Kieffer is also the founder of Well-Storied.com – one of the best sites for writers. There’s tons of useful information and advice on how to improve your writing skills, create wonderful novels, and build a successful author career.
Let’s do this!
What is the character development and why it’s important
Let’s start with the obvious. Character development is an art and process of creating a relatable and unique character with their own personality, opinions, motives, goals, and needs. It’s closely connected to the plot of the story and changes that the characters might undergo. The experience, events, and adventures shape up the characters’ personalities and help to develop them further.
Your novel is probably all about how the main protagonist interacts with the antagonist, secondary characters, and events in the story. Without character development, your readers will not understand the main ideas of the book. As a result, they won’t appreciate the value, importance, and meaning of what is happening.
Right, let’s take it from the top once more. Check out some mind-blowing tips and tricks on character development from our expert, Kristen Kieffer.
Character development strategies and writing exercises from Kristen Kieffer
We had an amazing opportunity to ask Kristen Kieffer a few questions about the character development.
Kristen, could you please share 3-5 best character development writing strategies fiction authors can use?
Characters live at the heart of every good story. Their actions drive the plot, their motivations engage readers, and the struggles they experience keep readers turning pages. Therefore, when developing characters, don’t forget to identify their GMC:
- Goal: What do they want?
- Motivation: Why do they want it?
- Conflict: What’s stopping them from getting it?
These elements should drive your characters’ actions and reactions on both a story level and a scene level.
Your characters’ backstories exist to serve their present stories. While it’s good to have a basic understanding of each of your characters’ histories, don’t get so caught up in the details that you forget to identify the most important element: your character’s ghost (i.e., the past event or circumstance that “haunts” your character, informing their present-day actions and motivations).
One of the most important facets of characterization is voice, the unique way in which your character thinks, acts, and interacts with the world around them. A character’s voice is shaped by their personality, backstory, worldview, goals, motivations, doubts, and false beliefs, among other essential elements. Spend time defining your characters’ voices, and you’ll be sure to craft memorable characters.
What do you personally struggle the most with when developing characters for your stories?
Developing characters is one of my favorite parts of the writing process, but I often worry that I don’t successfully translate my characters’ complexities onto the page. One of my favorite ways to combat this fear is to craft scenes that push my characters to display a wide range of emotions. A character can’t be read as one-note if you find a way to show readers what makes them angry, happy, sad, afraid, overjoyed, nervous, etc.
Do you know any creative writing exercises that fiction authors can try out when working on their characters?
Fear is one of the most potent human motivators, and we all carry fear within us. Exploring your characters’ fears on the page can lend to their depth and realism. Nevermind spiders, heights, and public speaking. Get personal. What would be your characters’ worst nightmare? Are they afraid of turning into their father? Of dying alone? Of never having enough to feel secure? Whatever the case, let your characters’ fears shape their actions and reactions throughout your story.
What is the most common mistake fiction authors make when developing their characters? Could you please share practical tricks on how to avoid these mistakes?
As a reader, there’s nothing worse than when a character acts out of character because the author needs them to do so for their plot to work. Your characters’ goals, motivations, voices, and fears should determine the events that take place in your story, always. Don’t be afraid to take the time to identify these elements before each and every scene you write.
What background research method do you find the most effective when working on your characters?
The type of research a writer needs to complete when developing their characters will depend highly on the type of story they’re writing. However, I’m personally a big fan of using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as a tool for developing my characters’ personalities. I often take the free version of this personality test at 16personalities.com, answering each question from my characters’ points-of-view to better understand who they are and how they operate.
Now, we’ll guide you through tips on how to improve your character development to deliver the best experience to your readership.
Stay with us!
Tips on writing memorable characters in fiction
Check out these 8 awesome tips on how to write better characters. Below you’ll find a brief description and some excellent examples to help you understand the issue better.
Let’s blow this pop stand!
Character development tip 1: Set motivation and goals
Your protagonist’s motivation, goals, and mission are basically the reason you’re writing the story. Without clearly stating why the events occur and what factors the hero is driven by, the whole plot will become too flat. As a result, the readers won’t relate to and fall in love with your novel and your characters. When developing a character’s goal, keep asking yourself, “what’s the point?”. Take a look at a few examples:
- Jay Gatsby from “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald wants to get back his beloved one.
- The characters from “The Sun Also Rises” by Ernest Hemingway want to find meaning and fulfilment in a postwar world.
- Lisbeth Salander from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson is seeking revenge.
Keep in mind: the character’s motivation is the reason why their goal exists. It would be best to describe what happened and how characters benefit from achieving their primary aim. Is it childhood trauma, a self-esteem issue, or a love situation?
Try asking yourself the following questions:
- Why is the objective important to the character?
- What events lead to this particular life goal?
- How difficult is it to achieve it?
- What are the problems the characters will encounter while trying to reach it?
- What will happen when they achieve the goal? And what if they don’t?
Character development tip 2: Nobody’s perfect
According to the experts, one of the most significant mistakes fiction authors make when developing their characters is making the protagonist too perfect. As simple as it is, to become real and believable, your character should have their Achilles heel. We’re all human and have our strengths, weaknesses, and skeletons in the closet. Guess what? Your fictional characters shouldn’t be an exception to that rule.
Think about the world-famous books for a second:
- Sherlock Holmes’s weakness is an obsession with solving the case no matter what, and his addiction to cigars and opium.
- The Little Prince is a bit too naive and helpless.
- The Wolf of Wall Street struggles to contain his lust for power.
Character development tip 3: Villains and morals
Now, let’s talk for a moment about your villains or antagonists. Sometimes authors get carried away in developing the protagonist and pay less attention to their opponents. Steer clear from this mistake. First of all, even though they might be pure evil and evoke a hostile reaction in readers, your villains should also have a soul and heart. Explain to the reader what exactly has made the antagonists commit the crimes. It’s best to elaborate on their twisted and wicked beliefs and ideas. Two perfect examples from the movie world:
- Magneto from “X-Men” whose origin story perfectly mirrors his current goals and views on race and discrimination.
- Darth Vader from “Star Wars”, a villain so iconic it survived decades prompting movies, fan fiction, endless dad jokes, and his own origin trilogy.
- Dolores Umbridge from “Harry Potter”, the oppression of everyday bureaucracy, referred to as the greatest make-believe villain to come along since Hannibal Lecter, by none other than Stephen King.
Character development tip 4: Your novel needs secondary characters
A similar rule applies to secondary characters. Sure, their main function is to help to develop the protagonists’ character better. But at the same time, all of your sidekicks should have a story of their own.
The great idea is to have the secondary characters contrasting with the main ones. This technique also helps to highlight the protagonist’s strong and weak character traits better. You’ll get to explore the morality and settings of your plot from different perspectives, which helps to get stronger pacing and pique the readers’ interest. At the same time, the secondary characters can provide emotional support, sarcastic or humorous additions to the story, or become a lead in one or two chapters and, let’s say, allowing the main hero to get them out of trouble.
The best example?
Give a round of applause to Hermione Granger, the brightest witch ever, from the “Harry Potter” series.
Character development tip 5: Create more conflict
We’ll be talking about your character’s conflict here. There are a few popular tropes, and most of the time, you’ll be concentrating on more than one conflict to develop the plot better.
The most popular character development conflicts are:
- Protagonist vs. antagonist. Simple and straightforward: good and evil, white and black, yin and yang. A great example is Pevensie children trying to de-throne an evil dictator, The White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis.
- Protagonist vs. himself. It would help if you concentrated more on the inner struggle in this case. In other words, describe the protagonist’s journey of accepting himself and/or undergoing the major change. For example, the narrator from “Fight club”, who’s trying to come to terms with the monotony of adult life.
- Protagonist vs. society. This is the favorite trope of dystopian stories. To put it simply, you’d be describing a hero fighting against the whole world. The best example would be George Orwell’s “1984”, and the main character’s attempt to defy the Big Brother.
Character development tip 6: Capture your character’s physical appearance
Don’t forget to literally describe how your characters look like, move, dress, and gesture.
First of all, our consciousness is filled with stereotypes that respond to some particular triggers. As with, let’s say, hearing the word “apple” we immediately have a mental image of a fruit, its taste, shape, and color. So when describing a book’s character, your readers will associate the provided appearance with some character traits. This technique will help you to develop the character better.
Moreover, with a huge variety of titles and many characters out there, the readers sometimes face difficulties of differentiating characters from one another. Providing a decent description of the appearance will help you make sure that your protagonist, antagonist, or a secondary character will be remembered.
You might want to go through the list of questions regarding your character’s appearance:
- What’s his age?
- What’s his nationality? (How does he talk? Does he have an accent?)
- What does his voice sound like?
- How does he move? What gestures does he use?
- What is the distinctive feature of his appearance? (Blue eyes, ginger hair, scars, etc.)
The honorable mentions include:
- Henry Chinaski, the literary alter ego of the one and only Charles Bukowski. Do we even need to say more?
- Agatha Christie’s Detective Poirot is one of the most long-running fiction characters that each and every one of us can recognize from a mile away because of his Belgian accent and wild moustache.
Character development tip 7: A blast from the past
As much as your readers love discovering the current events, your characters are going through, they’ll also enjoy finding out more about their past. It plays an essential role in the character’s development process. By introducing past events, the readers can start picturing the protagonist better and living through their memories. However, make sure that when you’re introducing a flashback from the past, it has a direct influence and meaning to what’s happening to your character. Don’t create scenes without a purpose to tick a box. Everything should make sense and have a logical pattern.
Try this exercise:
- What memories are important to your character, and why?
- How did the particular event from the past you described affect the character’s development and evolution?
- Do the characters have unpleasant scarring events from the past?
- Are there happy moments in the past that matter?
The best example? Well, as you most probably already know, the past memories of detective Clarice Starling from “The Silence of the Lambs” served as a foundation for the book title.
Good-bye Clarice. Will you let me know if ever the lambs stop screaming?
Character development tip 8: Do your research
If you’re writing about something that is not your direct area of competence, conduct careful research not to disappoint your readers. Believe it or not, it’s very easy to spot the research gaps when reading a story. There’s not enough competence in the writing style and weak presentation.
For instance, J. R. R. Tolkien put his vast knowledge in linguistics to craft his very own language, used by the elves in his books, adding one more layer of depth to the already impressive work of world building.
A huge thank you to Kristen Kieffer for her expert opinion on character development.
Come back to our tips, strategies, and techniques every time you struggle with developing your fiction characters. We’re pretty sure you’ll find answers to all of your burning questions.
What’s in your opinion the best way to develop reliable characters? Share your ideas in the comments section below. We can’t wait to hear them!