How To Begin To Develop Character In Your Story?

best writing coaches Carrie Jones

The character in your story is pretty much the key to make it all work, to inspire the readers to keep turning the page or scrolling down the screen.

Dwight Swain writes:

“A character is a person in a story.

“To create story people, you grab the first stick figures that come in handy; then you flesh them out until they spring to life.”

So, the question becomes how the heck do you flesh them out, right?

Matt Bird writes, “Character is the human element of your story, the aspect that the audience actually cares about.”

And that’s the big deal.

You can have the best plot in the world and most of the time, it won’t matter because people want characters that they can cheer for, commiserate with, worry about.

Bird believes that there are certain elements that need to be there for readers to care about your character:

  1. They have to identify with them (the character).
  2. The character needs to be resourceful.
  3. The character needs to be active.
  4. The character who is misunderstood is more lovable than the one who saves the cat.
  5. The character doesn’t have to be likeable to be lovable. Go for lovable.
  6. A character who is vulnerable is good and even a badass can be vulnerable.

In the Secrets of Story, Bird brilliantly splits three aspects of hero/protagonists into three needs:

  1. Believe – They have to feel like the character is real.
  2. Care – The reader has to be emotionally engaged with the character’s journey.
  3. Invest – The reader has to be into the character. Bird says this comes from active characters who are resourceful and aren’t like the other characters in the book.

Bird further goes on to say:

Matt Bird from his blog (link here).

But it’s his first bit that interests me the most right now.

Humans are stunningly complex. We contradict ourselves. We don’t always make sense and to encapsulate all of that in a novel is pretty impossible, so we have to pick and choose the contradictions and details to highlight. How do you deal with that?

Swain writes,

“A story is a record of how somebody deals with danger. One danger, for a simple story; a series of inter-related dangers, for one more complex.”

He advocates developing your character only so much as it is needed to deal with the story or to ‘fulfill his function in the story. You give an impression and approximation of life, rather than attempting to duplicate life itself.”

Swain believes that character begin with a fragment and then the author adds more and more on to that character, individualizing her until she becomes more real, more believable.

That individualization occurs through free association and layering in observations and details. What begins as a fragment of an idea (guinea pig hero) becomes a believable, lovable character as the author “supplements” that fragment with “Thought and insight.”

And that can be hard.

Swain thinks it’s hard because in real life, we tend not analyze people’s behavior and motivations. We take them and their actions for granted, he says.

“Consequently, when we try to build story people, we find that we lack a grasp of mental mechanisms: motivations.”

And motivations? They are a big deal. They are why characters go after goals. They are the yearnings that we readers connect to.

So, Swain says this is where the imagination steps in.

“To understand a man,” he writes,” you have to grasp the essence of that wholeness . . . its gestalt, the totality of its configuration.. . Each of us is an entity, a personal and private whole that transcends its components.”

I advocate taking a journal or diary when you’re really lost developing a character and go somewhere safe and observe people, think about why they might be acting the way they are. What is it that’s going on with them. Practice trying to understand people and you build those character development skills. 


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This is because most of my books are quirky.

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Author: carriejonesbooks

I am the NYT and internationally-bestselling author of children's books, which include the NEED series, FLYING series, TIME STOPPERS series, DEAR BULLY and other books. I like hedgehogs and puppies and warm places. I have none of these things in my life.

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