Character Development: How To Make Your Book Characters Unforgettable
If none of your characters matter to your reader, your story won’t matter, either.
But how do you build relatable characters?
What is a character arc, and how do you create one?
How important is it for your main character to have flaws — but to still have the makings of a hero?
Character development is essential to creating a story that will hold your reader’s attention until the satisfying end.
If you know how to create a character your readers can’t get enough of, you have the secret sauce for writing a series of novels worthy of its own fandom.
This article is all about learning how to create a protagonist and antagonist who will make closing your novel (and waiting for the next one) absolute torture for its readers.
Where to begin? Let’s start with the obvious question.
What Is Character Development?
Whether you’re a pantser or a plotter, character development can be a lot of fun.
But there’s no getting around the fact that it’s also work.
So are push-ups (even the knees-down kind), but at least when you learn how to develop a character your readers will care about, you’ll have more to show for your work than sore arms and a sudden craving for snacks.
Each character’s development should take into account the following factors:
- A fitting name
- Physical characteristics (hair color, eye color, relative height, body type, etc.)
- Internal conflicts and motivations
- External conflicts and goals
- Flaws and mistakes
- Heroic qualities or potential
- Character arc (for each character that has one)
Time and energy spent developing your character are never wasted. The more time you spend with your characters, the more real they’ll become to you. And if you don’t feel attached to them, neither will your reader.
Character Development: Making Your Book Characters Unforgettable
Make Your Characters Believable
Creating characters that will take up residence in your readers’ heads takes work, which can include any of the following forms:
- Freewriting (voice journaling, etc.)
- Borrowing details from real people
Don’t discount that last one just because you’re writing fiction. If your story depends on a detail that you’re not sure of, do yourself and your readers a favor and research it.
Say, for example, a dog in your story eats poisoned food, and his owner takes him to the vet, hoping to save him. Do you guess as to the type of poison ingested by the dog and its effects, or do you look it up and make sure you have your facts straight?
Because if the dog gets a deadly dose of cyanide and ends up with nothing worse than explosive diarrhea, at least one of your readers (if not all of them) will probably bring that up in their review.
People are generally more tolerant of things that don’t make sense in real life than in fiction. Creative license doesn’t include changing the laws of physics unless you’re writing sci-fi or fantasy — and even then it has to make sense.
So, no fudging.
Create a Character with Relatable Flaws
This isn’t a job interview, so no fake flaws allowed. Pretend flaws that turn out to be assets aren’t relatable.
Make your character human — with human shortcomings and mistakes that can’t be glossed over and can potentially ruin everything.
Balance is important, too. Perfect characters will bore your reader, but if your protagonist is a bully who takes advantage of people’s kindness and takes pleasure in luring them to their deaths, your reader will feel nothing but loathing for him.
So, make your protagonist flawed but redeemable. Give your reader a reason to root for him or her.
The more relatable and interesting your characters are, the more your readers will care when you throw them into impossible situations that could either help them make the most of their gifts or cost them everything that matters to them — or both.
If you want your character to carry a series and keep readers coming back for more, take the time to craft a character you’ll want to spend a lot of time with.
Even heroes characters need flaws your readers can relate to and sympathize with, so they’ll care about them enough to keep reading.
Just don’t make them inveterate cowards or the type of people who would sell out family members or friends to save their own skin.
The aversion to characters like that is universal — which leads us to the next point.
Remember the Hero’s Journey
The concept of the hero’s journey — or monomyth — is also universal. The archetypal hero has to go through something he’d rather avoid in order to become the hero he’s meant to be.
According to Joseph Campbell, there are twelve stages of the Hero’s Journey:
- Ordinary World — This is the hero’s status quo before the first real challenge. It represents the life our hero has grown comfortable with, even if it’s not entirely satisfying.
- Call to Adventure — Something happens to shake things up and present the hero with a choice: join the quest to become something greater or hold onto what’s familiar.
- Refusal — Think of Bilbo Baggins’ initial refusal to join in the quest.
- Meeting with the Mentor — A wise advisor challenges the hero’s thinking.
- Crossing the Threshold — The hero embraces the quest and steps into it.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies — The hero and his allies face challenges together in the form of tests and dangerous enemies.
- Approach to the Inmost Cave — This represents either an external or an internal conflict that the hero has, up to this point, never had to face. Think of Bilbo in the goblin mountain when he meets Gollum for the first time (and finds the ring).
- Ordeal — A dangerous physical test or a deep inner crisis the hero must face in order to survive and to prepare himself for the ultimate challenge.
- Reward — The hero defeats the enemy, survives, and changes. He comes away with a reward of some sort — possibly a token of great power (like the ring Bilbo found).
- The Road Back — The hero begins the return home, possibly thinking the worst is now over, but the journey isn’t over yet.
- Resurrection — This is the hero’s final and most dangerous encounter with death.
- Return with the Elixir — The hero’s enemies have been vanquished, allies have been rewarded, and the hero returns with new hope for his people and a new perspective for them to consider.
While exploring these twelve stages, my mind keeps returning to Bilbo’s journey in The Hobbit, but maybe a different story and hero come to mind for you. Can you think of moments in that hero’s journey that match up with the twelve stages here?
Not every protagonist has a hero’s journey, though. Because not every protagonist goes through a positive change.
But if you want your protagonist to have a hero’s journey, go through the twelve steps mentioned above and brainstorm scenes in your character’s story to match up with them.
If you’ve already decided to give your protagonist an arc that results in a positive transformation, you probably already have some scenes in mind that will match up to one or more of those stages.
Don’t worry if your ideas for your character aren’t “original.” There are no ideas that no one has ever thought of before, but the way you express those ideas can be unique — because you are.
Go ahead and take advantage of the timeless hero’s journey to make your protagonist as richly relatable and inspiring as you can make him or her.
And don’t forget the antagonist’s arc, too. The more the reader can see the motives behind an antagonist’s words and actions, the more they care about what happens to them, too.
How do you outline your character’s development from the beginning of your story to the end?
Every story has a basic structure that makes it recognizable as a story, and every character’s arc follows it.
Look at the parallels between the following plot elements and the hero’s journey described above.
- Opening — Introduce your main character by name and give the reader an idea of this character’s status quo. Introduce other characters as they enter the story (Ordinary World).
- Inciting Incident — Something happens to shake up your protagonist’s status quo and present him or her with a quest or a choice (From Call to Adventure to Crossing the Threshold).
- Rising Action and Developments — One problem after another gets in your protagonist’s way, and it starts to look as though the antagonist (or antagonistic situation) will beat the protagonist (From Tests, Allies, & Enemies to Ordeal and Reward).
- Crisis or Climax — All the developments have been leading up to this moment, and the stakes have never been higher for your protagonist — and likely also for your antagonist (Ultimate Test and Resurrection)
- Resolution — The consequences of the protagonist’s victory are becoming clear, and the characters take stock of their new reality (Return with the Elixir).
- Closing — The story comes to an end or hints at further adventures with your protagonist.
Use each of these elements as hangers for important moments and events in your story.
P.S. At this point, you might ask, “Do I really need the hero’s journey if I’m writing a series with the same character, who changes bit by bit over the course of several installments, instead of undergoing a bigger change in one story?”
Answer: When it comes to novel series, it’s perfectly reasonable to scale down the changes so that your protagonist learns and grows with each novel, resulting in a large cumulative change by the end of the series.
There are also series out there with protagonists who don’t change at all.
But regardless of whether or not your protagonist undergoes a positive change, you’ll still follow a recognizable story structure to grab your reader’s attention and give them a reason to keep reading.
What Is A Protagonist
Your protagonist is the main character and should be the first character your reader gets to know. If you can’t spot the protagonist within the first couple pages of your novel, something is wrong.
And if you take too long to introduce a character of interest, your reader will close your book and move on to something else.
When you do introduce your protagonist, though, choose his or her name wisely.
Protagonist names should be appropriate to your character’s ethnic background, as well as to your story’s setting in time and space. A female refugee from Syria probably doesn’t go by the name Brandi or Jennifer. An Arabic name like Rima or Amira is more likely.
And if your story takes place in medieval times, a simple internet search can turn up more appropriate names for a male protagonist than Bill or Bob. How about Merek or Althalos?
Besides the name, your protagonist needs a real challenge to his comfortable life and a strong enough incentive to risk that comfort and possibly his life in pursuit of something better — or in defense of the one really good thing in his life.
That challenge often comes in the form of an antagonist.
Your antagonist represents the chief external stumbling block for your protagonist. As such, this is one of your main characters and should be developed as thoughtfully as the protagonist.
A protagonist who is also a hero will most likely clash with the antagonist and come out the victor. A protagonist who is not a hero may clash with the antagonist but will not act in a way that is typical of a hero.
Your story doesn’t have to have a hero and a villain.
Though the heroic qualities of your protagonist may face off against the darkness in your antagonist, the reverse could also happen, with the darkness in your protagonist clashing with the heroic potential of your antagonist.
There doesn’t have to be a hero’s journey for your protagonist, but what happens to this character — who is typically the main character — is what drives your story.
Your protagonist’s choices have consequences, not only for them but for other characters in the story (especially characters you want your readers to care about).
And the protagonist doesn’t have to become a better person in the end. Maybe the antagonist will instead. Maybe neither will gain anything but other characters will somehow benefit from their conflict.
So, again, to sum things up…
- Protagonist = the main character, whose experiences and character arc drive the story
- Antagonist = the character who actively opposes or works against the protagonist
- Hero = someone whose character and self-sacrifice inspires others and wins the admiration of your reader. This is often the protagonist but doesn’t have to be.
- Villain = someone who actively opposes the hero. This is often the antagonist but doesn’t have to be.
Whether or not you have a hero and villain, your story and its protagonist must evoke an emotional response in your reader. They have to provide a compelling answer to the reader’s question, “Why should I care?”
And this has everything to do with that character’s arc.
Your Character Arc
There are three different types of character arcs:
- Positive Change Arcs — where the character undergoes a positive change or transformation
- Flat Arcs — where the character doesn’t change in a positive or negative way
- Negative Change Arcs — where the character undergoes a negative change or transformation
The term “character evolution” implies a positive change, so a protagonist who is more “evolved” at the end than at the beginning has a positive change arc.
According to K.M. Weiland, the change arc is all about “the lie your character believes.”
Whether your protagonist’s outlook on life is rosy or grim, the lie beneath it all remains undetected, subtly sabotaging them, until a critical moment in the story — when your protagonist has to confront it and either destroy it or be destroyed.
This is similar to the Inmost Cave and subsequent Ordeal in the hero’s journey.
Lewis Jorstad (The Novel Smithy) calls the lie the “central problem,” which he describes as the “damaging belief your character must face to complete his arc.”
So, two characters could start out feeling equally lost and struggling with false beliefs about their places in the world.
But their responses to the tests and trials that come differentiate them: one faces and destroys the false beliefs, while the other retreats more deeply into them.
The conqueror then becomes a hero, whereas the one who holds onto what is familiar can very easily become a villain — antagonizing those who reject the harmful belief and become more than what they were before.
At that point, it’s easy to see that the first character has a positive change arc, while the second has a negative one. The first exchanged the lie for the truth, while the second held even more tightly to the lie and reacted negatively to those who didn’t.
What about flat arcs? They’re used less often than positive and negative arcs, but they can also be powerful.
The character with a flat arc already knows their truth but lives among those who hold onto damaging beliefs.
This character ultimately risks their own life or well-being to help those around them to discover the truth and reject the damaging beliefs.
If the flat-arc character succeeds, change does happen, but it happens in other characters — those influenced by the flat-arc character.
And then there are characters with no arc at all.
Characters Without Arcs
To answer a question you might already be asking, not all characters in your story need character arcs. So, you haven’t failed as an author if one or more of your characters don’t have a well-developed arc.
You’ll want at least one character besides your protagonist to have a well-developed arc to complement your main character’s journey, but it’s perfectly fine to have some characters who don’t change.
Say, you have a side character named Hamish O’Connor, who owns the dockside café your protagonist manages (and lives in). Your reader’s only encounters with Hamish might be the occasional bit of dialogue from a character who remains largely the same throughout your story. And that’s fine.
On the other hand, if your antagonist is two-dimensional and the reader never gets to understand what drives him or her, your story won’t be as powerful as it could be.
High stakes on both sides make for a more compelling story.
Romancing the Antagonist
The antagonist needs a compelling arc, too, though, as a rule, it shouldn’t eclipse that of the protagonist. Your antagonist doesn’t have to be either a villain or a sympathetic character.
But if your reader doesn’t care about your antagonist or find them interesting, your protagonist’s victory won’t be as interesting, either.
The antagonist should present a credible threat — not just because “I am evil, and you’re good, and evil always attacks what is good.”
The faults in your protagonist may be a more formidable enemy than the antagonist, and the good in your antagonist might ultimately save your protagonist’s life.
It could happen.
So, while your readers don’t have to love your antagonist the way we love Loki of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it pays to make this character more than a stereotype.
Character Development Sheet
Whether you’re a plotter working on a detailed character sketch or a pantser who has reached an impasse in your story and is willing to try anything to get out of it, a character development sheet can help you get started or unstuck.
You can answer the questions in a separate Google or Word doc or write down the questions and answers in a planning notebook you bought just for this story — or just for that specific character.
After your character development sheet, use a character notebook to explore different aspects of your character through voice journaling, interviews, or short “fan fiction.”
A story planning notebook or journal can have character development sheets for each of your most important characters, followed by voice journaling entries, interviews, mind maps, sketches of each character, maps of each character’s home, etc.
Use the following questions to make each character development sheet as comprehensive as you want it to be.
Character Development Questions
Use the following list of questions to get to know each of your most important characters — particularly the protagonist and antagonist, but also important side characters such as close friends, close family members, and love interests.
These are questions you’ll answer for each character after you’ve nailed down the following personal details:
- Full name
- Date of birth
- Place of birth
- Place of residence
- Names of parents
- Names of siblings
- Physical description (height, weight, hair color, eye color, etc.)
- Type of home (house, apartment, etc.)
- College major (?)
- Disabilities or Injuries
- Health challenges / Illnesses
- Mode of transportation
There are plenty of character development lists available on the internet, and some are hundreds of questions long.
But for this article, once we get the above details out of the way, a careful selection of 25 questions is enough to create a character who will come to life in the minds of your readers (as well as your own).
- What is your character’s biggest fear?
- What does your character see (subjectively) when they look in the mirror?
- Is your character religious, spiritual, agnostic, etc.? What does your character believe about God and the afterlife?
- Is your character an introvert or an extrovert?
- What is your character’s relationship with money?
- Does your character have a good relationship with one or both parents?
- What is your character’s ideal pet?
- Does your character have a superpower — and if not, what superpower would they choose?
- Who is your character’s best friend, and how long have they known each other? How did they meet?
- What is the worst thing that has ever happened to your character?
- What unusual something is on this character’s bucket list?
- What is something this character could not live without (or wouldn’t want to)?
- List five of your character’s most important personal values (e.g., courage, independence, freedom, respect, compassion, etc.)
- If your character won the lottery jackpot, what would they do?
- What is your character’s strongest desire, and what are they willing to do in order to get it?
- What are your character’s biggest flaws — or at least one major flaw — and how has it held them back?
- What are this character’s expectations of a romantic partner? And does this character have a romantic partner?
- Has your character lost someone they loved, and, if so, how did they react to that loss?
- What is this character’s idea of a dream vacation, and why?
- What “sins” would this character consider unforgivable? Does this character put more value on being free or on being right?
- How would this character’s closest friend or family member describe them?
- How does this character dress? If their personal style had a name, what would that be?
- How active is this character? Do they exercise regularly? Do they have an exercise regimen or just live a fairly active lifestyle? Or is their lifestyle mostly sedentary?
- What are this character’s favorite foods — and what foods repel them?
- Is your character a reader? If so, what books are on their bookshelf (real or virtual)? If not, what are their favorite forms of entertainment?
If you want to dig even deeper, try using a list of “Would You Rather” questions, and record your character’s answers and explanations.
Ready to Create Unforgettable Characters?
Now that you know what makes a character unforgettable, what will you do today to create or develop a character your readers won’t ever want to let go of?
This will be your most memorable character yet. So, after you’ve chosen a fitting name, immerse yourself in your character’s personality, their strengths and weaknesses, their loves and fears.
Let them bring you into their intimate circle, so you can learn all you need to know in order to bring them to life on the page.
And don’t forget to reveal your character through their own actions and dialogue, rather than long descriptive paragraphs. They’ll come to life more readily if you let them express themselves on the page.
You already know this is important work, but I hope you also have fun with it. That spirit of fun is an essential ingredient of character development, too. Creators really do have all the fun.
So, may your creative fire and sense of adventure influence your character development and everything else you do today.