Character Development

A while ago, a good friend of mine, Bryan Edmonson, asked me for advice on character development. And I didn’t know what to tell him. How do you create characters? How do you make them feel like real people? To be honest, I’m not sure is as simple as following some strict conventions or rules. Or as complicated as that.

Actually, all the characters that mean something to me are one of the following:

  • Inspired by people I’ve known/met/read about
  • Inspired by people I’ve loved or cared about
  • Inspired by the type of person I was or wished to be at some point in my life
  • Inspired by the type of person I am now or wish to be in the future

And that’s it.

But if you take a closer look at this list of mine, they’re all powerful ways of fleshing out a character. People I care about on a personal level, people who have inspired me to become the person I am today (after all, my first dedication went like this, “To all the people that changed my life. For better or worse.”) And then we have the past, which is a tremendous influence on any writer. My past or someone else’s, but something I can relate to. Or something I consider to be important.

How I see it, the only way to make your characters feel real is to write about real people. Change, embellish, discard as much as you like, but at the core, the human element, that’s something you shouldn’t change. All my characters start as people… then they become characters. Not the other way around.

I can make them do anything or everything I want, I can make them as fantastic or as bland as I desire, but in essence, they still resemble the people who have inspired the characters in the first place.

A lot of writing has to do with observing. Seeing how other people act/react, how they talk, how they behave under certain conditions.

Imagination is useless in a dark room if you’ve never stepped out of that dark room.

Like another friend of mine, John. He writes down titles for his paintings. It gives him a starting point. The canvas feels less empty that way. Maybe this is a good way to create a character. Start from somewhere, start by writing about a person you know, and then make it something else.

And now for one of those subtle marketing technics: “buy my books.” If that didn’t work, go here.

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48 comments on “Character Development

  1. lsotera says:

    When I write all of my characters are me, in some form or fashion. I don't do it on purpose, it just happens. At any rate it certainly helps with getting inside the character's heads and understanding them.

    • Jhaneel says:

      I think i'm a little bit this way too.. A lot of the things my characters do are things I would do. I of course make changes and draw from other people, but at the end of the day there all in some way versions of me..

  2. win says:

    Reblogged this on reflections of a writer and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

  3. I'm with you on that one. There's no one way to create a character, like there's no one way to create a good story. All of my favorite characters have an origins story that is unique and (to me at least) interesting, and no two characters came about in the same way, which I suppose is a good thing.

  4. suanqu says:

    This is something I've given much thought to in my own novel. I began using people I know as a foundation, but also created characters based on human potentiality. At first this may seem odd, but with practice its very easy and the hard part is knowing those characters well enough so that their personality remains consistent throughout the story.

  5. ruleofstupid says:

    A boring but practical thing that can help is to invent them outside-in. What hat, what coat, glasses? hair-style? Accent. Think of as much as you can for the outside. Then ask what that person would be like to choose that hat, pipe, slippers etc.
    Otherwise I think, yes, they will be people from your life, or patchworks of people you like/admire/dislike etc.

  6. When I think of a character I think of songs and echoes. What conspiracy of haphazard events happened to craft the character's world view, and how will this engine echo through the landscape of their life and touch the lives of those within earshot in ways both known and unknown to the character. I play these patterns out like a melody repeating until they converge in a finale.

  7. davidmcgowan says:

    Funny you should write this, because I've been working today on (yet another) piece about character development, and the value of character biographies. Should be publishing it on my blog tomorrow, so watch that space!

  8. Hey, love the subtle marketing "technic". For its simplicity, directness and lack of fluff. You could pay good money to an agency to come up with that technique. Love it!

  9. avwalters says:

    Also, for characters with malice in their hearts, since I can't quite go there, it's helpful to get to explore and understand their motives–almost like forgiving them in advance but still patiently watching them make the missteps that lead to their wrongful acts. I struggle with this.

  10. Character development is a tough topic to tackle. I find that most of my characters are at least loosely based off people I know or have seen on TV, and all of them have a piece of me.
    I just wanted to mention that well-built, developed characters will often times take on a mind of their own (which of course we want them to do so that they feel as real as possible), rather than doing what you want or what you have planned for them. And that's perfectly ok. If your characters are so life-like that you can't seem to control them, it's a sure sign that you're doing something right.
    Great post, by the way.
    I agree with what you wrote about the importance of observing. It's the only sure way to develop the sensory skills so essential to our writing.

  11. artmoscow says:

    A story about observation: Leo Tolstoy was friends with Vassily Surikov, a famous painter. Life-long. Family friends. And then, one day Surikov booted Leo out of the house, after the former discovered that the daily visits of Tolstoy to Surikov's dying wife were nothing more than a writer's interest in observing a dying person. Sometimes a writer's passion can lead to dark places )

  12. All my characters start as people… then they become characters. Not the other way around.

    That's a really great way of conceptualizing it. I've never thought about it that way, but it really makes sense.

  13. If you see someone lurking in the booth behind you at Red Robin rapidly scribbling notes, it may be me jotting down bits of conversation. Real people are DEFINITELY the putty to mold fictitious character figurines. Just sometimes I need to tone them down because editors will say, "This is just to far out to feel real."

  14. Doris says:

    I am giving NaNoWriMo a try, the first thing was the story and second characters, automatically I thought of those people in my life that are great characters with good and bad traits or situations that made me grow, laugh, etc… Just like you.

    But, imagination does play a big part in character it has to be fun; having fun with these characters can make a great book. When reading a great book, I always think of the author what inspired them to use certain characters, I ask the why, what, where, when, sometimes it can take me days just to get this characters out of my mind, but that is the fun part, you have to use characters that anybody can identify with, situations, or target a certain audience. Maybe it can be audience (who will read these books)?

  15. yiyime says:

    I love reading your posts as I not only find them quite interesting but very well written as well. You seem so intelligent and observant of everything around you. The truth is I really wish that I could write like you. I got so many stories to tell but most of them I keep to myself as I fear my written words won't do them justice. Thank you for sharing your wonderful posts.

  16. Characters develop. I write a few into a progressing plot, and, as they start talking, I pay attention. Usually, they remind me of someone I have known…or a combination of people I have known. By thinking about what this person or combination of persons would think, say, or do, I can more easily let the characters be.

  17. Piscis says:

    Imagination is useless in a dark room if you’ve never stepped out of that dark room.

    That about sums it all up. Every aspect of what is created must ultimately draw inspiration from something experienced.

  18. I'll look at people in my life and think what a good character they would make, but generally when I start writing I find most of my characters end up being me, only with different aspects emphasized, so they're the me I would want to be, or the me I'm afraid I already am.

    Great post, and I love your first dedication!

  19. I don't know if my MC is one inspired by anyone I know, but my husband said something similar to what you wrote here. My MC is likeable. She has emotions and is relate-able for the most part. She's a person who experiences life, she has things that annoy her and things that thrill her. The fact that she gruesomely kills people is irrelevant once you connect with who she is as a person. The humanity has to be there, without it, it's just words on a page.

  20. Mirror MUSES says:

    I completely agree with you, Christian. I always start with something/someone I know. I believe it's what makes writing rich. Characters are often amalgamations of people I know, have known, or have known about. I mix and match sometimes (characteristics, tendencies, idiosyncrasies, physical traits, behaviors…) and that is what creation is for me. Taking the old (or known) and turning into something new and complete.

  21. Dank says:

    Cool thanks for the post. I'm just in the middle of trying to develop some characters.

  22. I really enjoyed this. Thanks and congratulations.

  23. Liana says:

    I agree with this. Most of the characters I create are based, to greater or lesser degrees, on real people. It gives them a depth that a list of characteristics (nice, conceited, whatever) can't.

    Lately I've been thinking about what drives my characters. What's the undercurrent to their personalities? I've found it helpful to tease out their fears because we're so often driven by fear, whether we realise it or not. It's added an interesting dimension to my writing.

    Great post!

  24. Yoshiko says:

    I agree with what you say. The stories that I draw in my characters contain the points that you mention.

  25. warmginger says:

    Good post. My characters just turn up and I spend quite a lot of time hanging out with them before they get onto the page. Their mannerisms and personal tics I tend to 'recognise' on other (real) people. It's hard to explain but it's like they've body-snatched a real person for a second or two and I spot when they've done it. I sound like a madwoman now! ;)

  26. gweyant says:

    Christian, I had posted my blog before I read yours. So for us to write on the same topic is nothing less than amazing in my book. I agree with you that it is a hard topic to tackle. but you must get a sense of who your characters are inside and out or the story falls flat.

  27. Sally Morgan says:

    I wish I had a photographic memory. I've overheard so many snippets of conversation that would have made fantastic beginnings to creating all sorts of characters. Every time, I say to myself, 'Right! I'm going to write that down as soon as I get home. This time, I'm definitely going to remember that.' And I don't.

  28. Wow Cristian, like Andy Warhol said "we all have 15 minutes of fame." Seeing my name in print was my 15 minutes. Thanks for the post,

    (No wonder my blog stats went through the roof, I usually get about 3 hits a year. I had a hundred the past two days.)

    Howdy from Houston, Texas USA.

    (We own cows)

  29. While traveling to various places in this world, I still publish a piece of my own short fiction weekly. Readers I personally know often discover meanings in the stories and characters I didn't even pick up on myself, and through that they are often able to sense how I'm feeling and what I'm doing at that time, even if I haven't spoken to them in a while.

  30. Hmm.. I guess my characters have at least one aspect of myself. Most of the time somehow I write them as myself (how I want to/would have/would react) with a twist. And my characters usually: a. Have an aspect of me amplified/decreased to almost nonexistent; b. They are me with a different personality; c. They are who I want to be like (or sometimes not)…

    Did that make sense to you? Well, I probably forgot something, but this is what I currently remember, so.. G'day.. ^_^a

  31. Chris says:

    My characters start out as hodgepodges of behaviors, qualities and people I've experienced. From there I create a backstory and a lot of the initial stuff gets thrown away. Working from the ground up, then I get to how their character is at the time of the story. this lets me develop them as realized people.

    Thanks for getting me to think about this strange, subtle process.

  32. Chris says:

    Wow, seconded! What an amoral guy Tolstoy seems to have been. Reminds me of Da Vinci cutting open exhumed corpses just to draw them and learn anatomy.

  33. I agree completely. I like to let my characters do whatever they want. Sometimes it takes the story for a twist, which I also like. Sometimes they do dumb things. Whatever they do, they're basically on their own. I just give them a little guidance along the way.

  34. Tammy J Rizzo says:

    Reblogged this on Tammy J Rizzo and commented:
    This is a wonderful post. I struggle with characters (and names, and titles, and ..), and the thoughts in this post might well help me develop more real characters I my writing.

  35. I don't know if this is a good way to come up with characters, but what I like to do is think of a group of people. Thinking of the way they interact with others, vs. themselves, helps me analyse what kind of person they are.

  36. Valentina says:

    I agree with you on this one, Cristian.

  37. Berna says:

    I think writers breathe life into people we create using bits of flesh, hair, and fingerprints of people we encounter throughout our lives. Your discussion of character development gives form and structure to this process. Thank you.

  38. One of the best things I've heard is that you "have to give your character a flaw". People don't like other perfect people, and can't relate to characters who are, either.

  39. Nicole says:

    "The only way to make your characters feel real is to write about real people."

    I agree. Great post!

  40. Sometimes a character can be inspired by a persona we despise. The key to the lasting impression of this character is not so much the evil he/she does but to find some seed at its core that elicits a sympathetic response. Then the narrative journey becomes a path to the redemption we all desire for ourselves…

  41. mjtannian says:

    Thanks for the post! This part stuck out to me. "A lot of writing has to do with observing. Seeing how other people act/react, how they talk, how they behave under certain conditions." In the novel I'm starting, I've struggled a bit with dialogue. I found myself paying closer attention to conversations I had and conversations I heard in movies or elsewhere. Thanks for the insight, Cristian!

  42. Jim Brennan says:

    I've found that the greats, Hemingway, Steinbeck, etc., character's follow events of their own lives: Hemingway in WWI and Steinbeck with farm labor, Monterey, etc. Writers in my workshop always comment on my characters, hard, flawed, colorful characters. I tell them that I'm not smart enough to make them up, that they are based either on people I know, have known or are composits of many people I've loved and adminred in my life. That is a long-ass way of saying, yes Chritian, I agree with you.

  43. yingyangyoga says:

    you've really inspired me. It's as though you just removed this long standing writer's block i had. Thank you. I loved reading everything you wrote. I will definitely have to check out your books as i love reading. :-)

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