8 Ways To Reveal & Develop Characters In Fiction Writing

To keep the readers invested in your story, they should be able to identify with and care about your characters.

Identification is how the audience experiences a character, feels his feelings, and become the character as they immerse into the story.

Characters may be fictional, non-fictional or somewhere in between, but your audience wants them to seem as real as possible, worth caring about and believable.

As you show your writing to others, some people may have feedback that your character isn't likeable. Most of the time, the problem of likability has to do with identification.

The more readers know about a character in depth, the more they can identify with him.

There are a number of ways to let your audience know more about a character, and most often writers use a mix of these tactics than relying on just one.

What The Character Wants

If your character is at a party talking loudly, spilling his drink and making rude comments, those actions may help the reader reach a level of judgement about him, but the reader can't be sure.

The character is not revealed unless the action is attached to a motive. It's important that your reader gets a sense of the protagonist's agenda as soon as possible - what he wants and why?

Only when you explain somehow that the character is doing all this to divert attention from something else in the hall, the reader will understand what he truly is and what's he actually doing.

Without motive, we cannot interpret an action, and the associated character traits, with certainty.

So as a storyteller, it's your job to help readers understand the intention of your characters with clarity and certainty.

Character Background/Inner Issues

If you're introduced to a person in a social gathering, you'll try to make sense of him only from what he says or does at the gathering.

But what if you were told by a friend that this person had been a prisoner of war for 10 years who managed to escape and come back?

Or that all his family members died in a car accident a few months ago?

Or that he's a local journalist who criticized your latest novel last week?

Just establishing what the character wants is not enough. You also have to figure out and convey a long-standing inner issue that the character needs to overcome to get what he wants.

You do this by building a backstory for your character before you begin writing. You can't make the reader experience the story from the character's point of view unless you know what the character's point of view is.

You need to know and establish beforehand how your character sees the world and interprets the events happening to him; what are his biases, flaws and inner issues; and why he is and thinks that way. For example:

Alex doesn't trust people and thinks that everyone is trying to con him. The more someone is nice to the Alex, the more suspicious Alex gets about that person.

You don't have to write a long, boring, done-to-death bio. You only need to include the details that affect the story and are required for the plot, and discard everything else.

Because a story is usually about a character trying to overcome a long standing inner issue, belief or fear, your bio should only have the information required to establish the root cause of that inner flaw.

In other words, you want to focus on just two things:

  • What event or series of events specifically caused the character's inner problem or fear?
  • What event or series of events triggered the goal or intent he is trying to satisfy?

Once you have prepared how these two opposing forces have helped shape your character, you're now in a position to create a compelling plot that'll push the character to get a grip on his mistaken beliefs.

Here's an example to illustrate this:

Lisa has a hard time making any relationship work. In every relationship she gets into with someone, she eventually makes herself emotionally detached and pushes him away.

She does that because, deep down, she doesn't feel worthy of love, and she doesn't want to be vulnerable, manipulated or get hurt.

When Lisa was 13, she was attracted to a boy in her class. The boy said he liked her too. So she'd take notes for him, do his homework and also help with the tests.

But one day, she overheard the boy making fun of her in front of his friends. She was devastated and heartbroken. 

So in every relationship she goes into, she's overly defensive and puts up shields to protect herself. But now something has happened in her life that's forcing her to deal with this problem. 

She's met a man who she really likes and is serious about. This time she's really desperate to break the pattern. She doesn't want to mess up again.

She's worried to hell, constantly wondering if she can do it. 

The above piece works because it has a specific fear triggered by a specific event, going against a specific goal and the specific event that triggered the goal.

Not only that, when you take the time to establish these details, you'll also come to know where the story is heading.

You'll know what big lesson the character needs to have learned to conquer his inner conflict and satisfy his intent. And how he'll change by the end of the story.

Another benefit of this exercise is that it also answers a common question many writers struggle with - where should a story begin?

The story begins where both these forces are about to get active at the same time, are equally strong, and about to confront each other.

It's the moment when the character can no longer avoid his inner issue. He'll have to deal with it in order to achieve what he wants.

What The Character Does

We tend to judge people from their actions. When we describe a character through his actions, we don't need to make the trait explicit. It's understood without an explanation.

If a character steals something, we can tell may be he's a thief. If he tells two people different accounts of the same story, we can assume he's a liar. If he beats someone brutally, nobody need to tell us that he's violent. We know because we "saw" him doing it.

But not every action matters to the reader. The action should be triggered by the plot. A character is best expressed/developed by how he handles challenges. What he does when faced with a conflict.

Some writers often say that their plots are strong but characters aren't developed enough. But in reality that means the plot isn't great either.

If you follow the basics of good plotting (intent, obstacle, action, resolution), the character will develop as well, often without trying.

This is because he'll take action against the conflict. He'll act in a more revealing and meaningful way no matter what. And so he'll develop.

Some actions may also be habits or patterns - something a character always does in a specific setting or situation, like clipping stories when reading the newspaper, or stopping at a shop on the way home, or taking out the trash every thursday, or a certain way to write his signature.

Each habit or pattern implies something about a character. The audience may not know how the habit began, but they can assume that the character will always act the same way in the same setting.

In fact, it is this reliance that opens up a range of possibilities. A deviation from a habit can be used to portray change in the character's life, personality or emotional state.

Or it may happen that someone takes an advantage of his habit. Or someone is so annoyed or delighted by a habit that creates an interesting relationship dynamic with the character. The options are endless.

Interactions With Other Characters

While it isn't practical or possible to have every character in at least one scene with every other character, you should always consider the possibility.

Some of the most joyful parts of any story are reading or watching how two or more of the most different characters interact with each other.

Fiction is about exploring the motivations, emotions and quirks within your characters and what happens when they collide with those of other characters.

Many exciting opportunities to delight the reader are missed simply because the author didn't bring two or more of the most unique characters - whose interactions would have made for great tension, drama or fun - in one or more scenes.

Now if you have a strong reason for not bringing two characters together, by all means, stick to your decision.

The idea is to consider the possibility in case you haven't. You don't want the reader to miss the opportunity to discover something interesting about your characters and the story.

What Other Characters Say

Often we assume a lot of things about someone we barely know because we heard others say them. In storytelling too, you can allow your audience to form opinions about characters based on reputation - what others are saying about the character.

It's up to you if you want the character to be exactly as what others say about him. You can also deviate from the portrayals and expectations set by other characters.

But if you do so, you'll have to make sure the audience understands why the character has a contradicting reputation.

May be he acts differently in public to maintain a positive or negative image, or victim of gossip or  misunderstanding.

May be he did something really great or horrible once, and that became his mark.

What The Character Can Do

Often a character can appear dull and ordinary - until you watch him delivering a presentation, play the guitar or move things with his mind.

A character can be known for an extraordinary skill or ability - for being unusually good or bad at something.

To make a certain talent an important part of who a character is, it doesn't have to be something extreme. Superman, for example, is unusually strong and can also fly.

On the other hand, Spenser (from Robert Parker's series) doesn't have superpowers but he's a good boxer. And that too because he practices regularly and works hard to stay that way.

If a character was able to escape from an enemy in the snowy mountains on skis, you better have established earlier that he loves or knows about skiing.

Likes & Dislikes

Apart from the ability to fight, the things that sticks out about Spenser is his love for literature, especially Poetry.

A character can be so fond of gardening that he spends a certain hour everyday attending to his plants. Our tastes and preferences are part of who we are.

They don't actually define who a character is, for two characters may have the same taste in music and movies, but still be completely different people.

Nevertheless, they play an important part in making the character more real and making the audience feel like they know the character. And in opening up more possibilities for the character.

For example, a character's love for wines may take him to a winery, give him something to chat about in a party, or to boast about his knowledge and taste in wines, or to embarrass another character for his lack of sophistication.

Physical Appearance

You may be thinking I forgot about body parts, or clothing and accessories. But I have not. And the fact that I am including these things last isn't an accident.

No doubt these details are important. A physical condition - like disease or handicap - can change the entire character within a story.

Even minor details - like obesity, weakness or lack of physical attractiveness - have an impact on how character feels, acts and is treated by others.

The reason I am discussing it last isn't that it's trivial. It's because so many aspiring writers tend to think of character descriptions only in terms of physical appearance.

They go at length on hair color, facial complexion, clothes, eyes, ears, fingers and what not and they think that's characterization.

But physical description is just one of the many factors that go into developing a character.

If you have covered a character's actions, talents, motives, history and reputation to a level that's adequate for the story, the audience don't necessarily need to know what color the eyes were, unless it's something unusual or necessary for the plot.

Actions, motives and past are probably the three most important factors you should be focusing on for the audience to feel like they know the character.

Your Turn

Let's put these principles into action. Identify how can you make this sample better with more character development. Rewrite if you have to.

Allen thinks that if he doesn't become a swimming champion, he'll disappoint his father. But Allen doesn't want to swim. In fact, he's afraid of water.

He just wants to make his father happy with him. Failing his father's expectations scares him even more than water.

What backstory can you create to fuel the character's inner issues and wants? Create specific events in his past which led to his current fears and goals.

Hitesh Sahni

Hitesh Sahni is a freelance writer, educator, consultant, marketer, and web designer helping people and businesses grow.
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