How to Write Your Book: Character Development

In their master class on how to write your book, historical mystery novelist Anne Perry and author/poet Victoria Zackheim addressed crucial elements in developing your book’s characters. One of the first points they made has been said before but really can’t be overstated: Readers have to care about your characters. If readers don’t care about your characters, they won’t care about (or finish) your story.

The women’s main tips offered information that will certainly help writers improve their craft:

  • Each character has their own story and reason for doing something, and they each have to be believable
  • Backstory is important – as an author you need to know what a character wants and why they want it
  • You don’t always have to tell a character’s story – readers can learn about them through gestures, facial expressions, what they wear, how they wear it
  • Create characters that are new as you’re writing the story – but they have to be necessary and everyone has to do something for a reason
  • Every character needs to be real and have wants and desires that drive the story
  • Consider the dilemma your character is facing, or a character facing a dilemma where either choice is bad
  • Character’s needs have to be different from one another
  • There are consequences to everything a character does, not just an event or catalyst, but consequences
  • Ten to twelve characters is manageable – if you have too many an option is to combine two characters

Reviewers often comment on the lack of character development in films. Perhaps the girlfriend of the story’s hero has little to do but scream on cue. Other than being a stereotype of a female in danger, the girlfriend serves little purpose to the story. Good writers develop characters that aren’t cliches. Maybe it’s the girlfriend who turns out to be the real hero. Or perhaps the world can only be saved by the girlfriend and the hero working together as a team of equals. Whatever an author decides, fleshing out characters that readers care about and that move the story forward can’t be overlooked.

In the past, I kept everything about the characters in my head. But once I began writing down their motivation, traits, wants and desires, I found it was easier to construct more fully formed characters. Now I know that building characters on paper is better, and it’s important that characters – no matter how small – serve a purpose in the story.


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