Whether you’re working on a new short story, writing a screenplay or planning a game narrative, your characters are your key component. To ensure your writing shines, you’ll need to put in the work to bring your characters to life. It doesn’t matter how compelling your plot premise is, or how well-planned your twists may be. If you haven’t spent enough time developing engaging characters, the work won’t have as much impact.
In this post, I’m going to be exploring ways you can develop stronger character development skills for writing. It definitely takes time and effort but is worth it in terms of giving your narrative depth and immersion.
Before diving into character development too deeply, it’s helpful to make a note of some of the most memorable characters from literature, film, TV and games. Your choices will probably be different from mine, but if you make a list, it’ll give you a focal point for character analysis. That’s where we’re going to start.
How to develop engaging characters
To really improve your character development skills beyond idea generation, it helps to take stock and think more critically. To write compelling characters, you need to work on your understanding of how characters are designed and developed in the first place. A good way to start this is to look at some characters that you consider to be highly memorable, transformative or powerful.
My list might look something like this. For each one, I’d create a new analysis document and start asking questions about their values, actions and emotions.
- Majima Goro – Yakuza 0
- Ellen Ripley – Alien
- Frodo Baggins – The Lord of The Rings
- Arthas Menethil – World of Warcraft
By critically analysing these characters, you’ll gather a deeper sense of how to make your characters tick. Authenticity is key, ultimately, so taking the time to get to know a character will allow you to design your own with greater emotional depth.
Carry out a character analysis
Choose a character from your list. Use the following points to carry out an analysis of them. Try to dig down to the possible roots of their actions and behaviours. Establishing a character’s emotional core is central to understanding their development.
Some points to consider when analysing characters are as follows.
- What do they think they want? (Immediate goals)
- What do they really want, deep down? Explore their motivation. (Longer-term goals and their driving force)
- Which personality traits do they show?
- Do they have any secrets?
- What role or function do they serve in the story?
- What are their flaws?
- What’s their internal conflict?
- How do they change over the course of the story?
These are just a few of a number of questions to ask when analysing characters. Digging into their appearance, mannerisms, quirks and attitudes towards other characters is also incredibly helpful. You could use your character analysis points as the starting material for a new character template. That way, when it comes to developing characters in your own work, you’ll have a format that can give you plenty of food for thought.
Establish their tone of voice
Once you’ve got a better grasp on who your characters are and why they’re like that, you should explore their tone of voice. Regardless of whether you’re working on characters for a piece of fiction or a game narrative, establishing a character’s tone of voice is vital.
This means working on their dialogue. You should try to examine how your character talks. What kind of vernacular do they use, if any? Are they calm and measured in their speech? Or snappy and fraught? Your previous analysis should reveal what kind of temperament and personality your character has, which should then inform their tone of voice.
Practice writing dialogue as your chosen character by creating lines of speech they’d typically use. I like to do this in a Google Sheet, but you could use whatever software you like. For each character, spend time writing out different types of greetings and goodbyes. Consider unique or interesting sayings or vocabulary choices they might make. Write out some different dialogue lines for different scenarios, to gain a deeper understanding of who they are.
Remember to consider their personalities and driving emotions. How would they respond to attackers, for example? What about someone who wanted a favour? How would they apologise to someone they cared about? Create dialogue for situations such as these to really establish and develop their reactions. You can go back and refine this as you get to know your character even better.
By the end of this exercise, you’ll have a sheet full of character-specific expressions and phrases that’ll help you write in their voice with confidence and emotionally rooted context.
Give them problems
Developing engaging characters means giving them problems to solve or overcome. These could be issues from their past or obstacles that they encounter during the events of your story.
Either way, characters that are packed with problems and flaws are always the most interesting. Even if you’re writing about fantasy creatures, aliens or animals, rooting their character development in emotional issues that we, as humans, can relate to, is how you make them feel authentic.
Give your characters problems. The greater or more emotionally complex the problem, the more interesting things will become as your narrative unfolds. Perhaps your character needs to confront some inner conflict. If you make it an internal conflict that your audience can relate to, then you’re more likely to have built a character they’ll care about.
Develop your grasp of psychology
It’s hard to understand characters without understanding a little bit about psychology. Learning about why humans behave in certain ways is highly useful when it comes to developing personalities for your fictional characters.
If you don’t want to do a deep dive into psychology textbooks, a simple place to start is by exploring a tool like 16 Personalities. This is an in-depth, research-based resource that explains what the 16 different human personality types are and how they work. You can take a personality type test for each of your characters which will provide a more detailed breakdown of their traits, flaws and behaviours. Of course, they’re your characters, so you can adjust and omit things as you see fit!
The important thing is to learn a bit about the psychology of people, as it’ll help you to develop engaging characters that are compelling, problematic and ultimately, highly believable.
Consider their character arc
As well as giving your characters internal conflict, you’ll want to try and present them with some kind of lesson to learn during your story. To ensure you create engaging characters, you’ll need to explore ways of taking them on a journey away from their starting point. Without an arc or path for your characters to follow, they’ll feel one-dimensional from the start and at the end.
Perhaps their character arc could be a change of attitude or opinion thanks to the events that unfold. It may be that they face up to someone or something from their past, and this gives them a new outlook. Perhaps they embark on a chaotic spiral of self-destruction. Or maybe they change their motivation after a narrative event that reveals an unknown truth. Transformations and emotional changes can be positive or negative, so consider different angles for your character’s journey.
Whatever character arc you decide on, ensure it feels authentic and relevant to your character’s emotional core and personality. If you’ve developed a shy and vulnerable character who fears authority, you’ll need to give them a believable catalyst for change if you eventually want them to end up as a power-hungry militia boss!
Character development is important
Taking time to fully develop your characters is crucial, no matter which creative medium you’re working in. Perfect, flat characters without well-defined voices and attitudes of their own will quickly reveal themselves as being dull to your audience.
Make some analysis templates and practice writing some dialogue for them. You’ll see that it pays off hugely when it comes to writing scenes and events in your storytelling. You owe it to your story to make sure you’ve developed engaging characters that your audiences will care about.
If you’ve got any advice or further resources for character development, I’d love to hear from you. Let me know in the comments below if you’ve got any questions about character development and I’ll try to answer them as best I can. If you’ve found this post useful, please give it a share or a pin on Pinterest. You might also enjoy this post about Preptober planning, as well as this quick character development prompt sheet.