The ABCs of Character Development

Writing Workshop

The ABCs Of Character Development

Characters who are compelling and believable, who display understandable actions and justifiable emotions, are the very heart of good fiction. The protagonist, or main character, should be likable and sympathetic—but not perfect. Imperfections make a character more real, more human. Readers need to be able to identify with, and care about, the protagonist. Or even better, to be the protagonist. Readers should feel the protagonist’s fears, share the protagonist’s hopes, strive for the protagonist’s goals. It’s like the difference between driving by a horrible car accident involving strangers, and driving by one that involves your loved ones. Emotional intensity increases when the reader can identify with the situation on a more personal, visceral level.

Characters should be unforgettable, lingering in the reader’s mind long after the story is finished. They should be full-bodied and well developed, not cardboard cut-outs or caricatures. How does a writer create memorable characters? Begin by observing the people around you. Use your eyes first, but don’t dwell on the physical description. Make use of your other senses. What does a person sound like? How does their handshake feel? How do they smell? Take note of their behavior. Are there any nervous habits, mannerisms, or idiosyncrasies that make them notable? If so, what do these suggest about their personality? How are they dressed? What sort of posture do they have? For instance, if a woman is tall, and her posture is slump-shouldered, might that suggest she is, or at least has been, self-conscious about her height? In each person you know or meet, identify one or two intriguing or telling characteristics for your files. Collect those files every day, whether they are written or stored only in your head. Build yourself a portfolio of character traits that you can later pull from. Make use of every opportunity. If you’re standing in line at the grocery store, watch the check-out clerk. If you’re stuck in traffic, study the drivers in the cars around you. What can you surmise about these people during your brief and limited observations? If the guy in the car beside you is wearing a suit and driving a Mercedes convertible, what does that suggest? What if the guy in the Mercedes is wearing a raggy old T-shirt, has messy hair, and a four-day growth of beard?

Which brings us to consistency. It’s important for your character’s motivations and actions to be consistent for them to be believable. That doesn’t mean you must avoid all inconsistencies. But your baseline must be firmly established first. Let’s say you have a character who is obsessive about her appearance. Her makeup is always impeccable, her hair meticulously coifed. Her fingernails are well manicured, and flawlessly polished. Her clothes are designer fashions, well cared for and neatly pressed, with never a wrinkle to be found. She would rather be dead than be caught in public looking anything less than perfect. Would this character make a quick run to the 7-11 without her makeup? Certainly not under any ordinary circumstances. But suppose someone has broken into her house in the middle of the night and is now holding her young son hostage at gunpoint. Suppose this someone told her to go to the 7-11 and buy him some cigarettes, and that she had exactly 10 minutes to get there and back, or else her kid’s brains would be decorating the walls. Would that prompt her to go out without her makeup? And might someone seeing her in the 7-11, someone who knows about her usual obsession, not sense something is very wrong?

Let’s go back to the man in the Mercedes, the one wearing the grungy T-shirt. Here, implausibility might be a key tool. The inconsistency of the image—the rich man’s car being driven by someone who appears to be just shy of a vagabond, might be used to reveal a significant fact about the character. Perhaps the driver was once rich and successful, but then he fell on hard times and lost everything. Now he’s broke, drifting from one menial job to another, never knowing where his next meal will come from. Yet he clings to the car, even though he could eat for several months on the money he’d make if he sold it. Why? Does the car have some special meaning for him? Is his identity, his sense of self, somehow tied to that car? Is he, perhaps, living in it? Does he clean and care for the car with great tenderness, even though he doesn’t care for himself very well?

Whatever the scenario, it must be believable. Real life is full of inconsistencies and unexplainable behavior. Fiction should not be.

A good writer brings his characters to life on the page. To do that, the writer must know the character inside and out, every thought, every nuance, every trait. Much of this character information will never be used and, in fact, shouldn’t be. A handful of telling and identifiable characteristics—the primary characteristics that truly define and communicate who the character is—are all that is necessary. Finding the perfect balance between revealing too little or too much about a character can be difficult. Too often, beginning writers portray their characters through snapshots—brief glimpses of static time that reveal nothing about the person inside the hull. Overexposure can be just as deadly. Don’t overwhelm your reader with details up front, but rather leak them out as the story progresses. Let your reader get to know your characters the same way we get to know people in real life. When you meet someone for the first time, they don’t usually tell you all the details about themselves or their lives. You’re provided with a few clues, an initial impression that may or may not be on target. If you spend more time with that person, additional details are often revealed, allowing you to adjust and expand upon that initial impression. Many of those details are gleaned through your own observations, not because someone spells them out for you. A good writer will let readers do their own gleaning by showing what the characters are like, rather than simply telling them. If a writer does her job well, her characters will eventually become instantly identifiable to the reader through their gestures, patterns of speech, actions, and motivations.


The following ABC list of character development is meant to be used as a guideline. A writer should know their characters intimately, but only those traits that are key to defining a given character should be revealed to the reader. Use the list to do a profile of your characters, then cull only those traits that are key to the story line for use in your prose.

Appearance: What are the character’s basic physical descriptors (height, weight, hair, eyes, complexion, grooming, and clothing.) What does her appearance reveal about her personality?
Behavior:  What is the character’s general manner and bearing? Is he polite or rude? Domineering or deferential? Nervous or calm? Any mental health problems? List some mannerisms uniquely his own.
Chronology:  What is the character’s history? How did she get to where she is now? What sort of childhood did she have? What were the major influences & experiences that shaped her personality?
Demographics:  What is the character’s age? Sex? How much income does he have? What’s his marital status? What’s his cultural background?
Education:  How much education does the character have? High school drop-out or Ph.D.? What areas has she studied? How good a student was she?
Fears:  What are the primary fears that drive the character\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’s actions? Does he have any phobias? How does he deal with his fears? Face them head-on, or avoid them at all costs?
Goals:  What are the character\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’s main goals, both in terms of life in general and the story in particular? What will she need to do to accomplish those goals?
Hobbies/Habits:  Does the character have any favorite pastimes? Does he have any rituals or patterns in his life? What knowledge does he have because of his areas of interest?
Idiosyncrasies:  Does the character have any unusual and identifying quirks or peculiarities? How about nervous tics? Does she have any catch phrases?
Job:  What does the character do for a living? Why? What skills does he have because of his job training and experience? What jobs has he held in the past, and what skills did he gain from those?
Kinfolk:  Who are the character’s family and close friends? What type of relationship do they have? How important are they in her day-to-day life? Does she have siblings? What’s her birth order?
Language:  What is the character’s voice? Is it unique and consistent enough to identify his dialogue without attribution? What does his body language reveal?
Motivation:  What is the character\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’s primary motivation in the story? Is it believable? Consistent throughout?
Name:  What is the character’s name? Does it say anything about her? Does she like it? Is it ethnically appropriate? Are all of your character’s names different enough to avoid reader confusion? Consider the difference in how you mentally perceive a Horace as opposed to a David.
Obstacles:  What obstacles will the character encounter? How will he overcome them? What skills will he use? How will this dictate his actions and thoughts?
Perceptions:  How does the character experience her environment? Use all five of her senses to determine her response to each scene. How does her current world look, smell, feel, sound, and taste?
Qualities:  What are the character’s dominant qualities? Is he brave? Kind? Loving? Remember, even evil characters can possess a good quality or two.
Religion:  What are the character’s religious beliefs? How important is religion in her life? How do her beliefs influence her actions and decisions?
Strengths:  What are the character’s main strengths? Are they physical? Mental? Emotional? Intellectual? How will he capitalize on those strengths to reach his goals and overcome obstacles?
Temperament:  What is the character’s usual disposition? Is she a Type A, a Type B, or a mix of both? What might cause her to deviate from her normal temperament?
Universals:  What universal emotions will the character experience in the story? Love? Hate? Jealousy? Hurt? Fear? How can you make the reader feel those emotions along with the character?
Values:  List the principles, morals, ideals, standards, and ethics the character subscribes to. How do they influence his actions and behavior? Will any of his values change in the course of the story?
Weaknesses: What are the character’s main weaknesses? Are they physical? Mental? Emotional? Intellectual? How will she overcome these weaknesses? Or will she?
X-Rays:  What is the character’s overall state of health? Does he have any limitations, impairments, injuries or handicaps? How important is health to him, and how does it influence his lifestyle?  Don\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\\’t forget mental health!
Yearnings:  What longings and desires will the character experience in the course of the story? Will they be basic (hunger, thirst) or superfluous (greed, recognition)? Will she obtain them?
Zip Code:  Where does the character live? Why does he live there? How did he come to be there? What does his home environment reveal about his personality? Is the home consistent with income?