Jon on Writing: How to Develop Characters

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Character. Funny word, isn’t it? Writers often tell stories from the perspective of a character as if they were a real person – with wants and needs and hopes and fears. In other words: a three-dimensional human being that drives the plot forward. So how might we go about developing Characters? Why do we need them? And what does this have to do with story? Try our step-by-step guide to creating characters to bring your ideas to life…

Step 1: Create a Three-Dimensional Character

We know what one-dimensional characters look like. People that arrive with information, provide a convenient explanation for events, or exist merely to make jokes or threats. These characters might also be objectified by someone else, so do not move the story forward. And this is where the three dimensions come in:

  • A character has an internal want or desire. This is the thing that drives them
  • Your character has an external reaction.This makes them behave a certain way
  • This creates interpersonal conflict with other people. This creates obstacles to resolve

Step 2: Conflict is King

Remember the cheat’s guide to conflict: Put your character somewhere they don’t want to be; on a day they don’t want to be there; with someone they don’t want to be with. Give them a task they need to fulfil. Ensure that something, stands in their way. What your character chooses to do in that situation will drive the plot forward…

Jon Barton on developing characters - City Academy writing courses

Step 3: Stakes and Consequence

Perhaps you have a great idea for a story but you don’t have a character – say, a cat-and-mouse thriller about a suitcase full of money. Perhaps the reverse is true: you have a character but no story – say, a dedicated English butler repressed by class and gender. Either way, try this handy formula:

Characters + Decisions + Time pressure + Circumstances = Plot.

If your characters face pressure to act, and it is clear what will happen if they don’t, you are creating dramatic tension. Think of any crime fiction: what happens if the police don’t catch the killer in time? Clearly dramatic tension comes in very handy if you’re writing a Thriller!

Step 4: Consider the Given Circumstances

I like to play a game with writers on our Creative Writing for Beginners course. The game is this: answer a series of set questions about the character’s background. Be as general as you like – sex, age, circumstances, for example, the character is female; in her thirties; she is Head Chef at a restaurant. She was working class but now she’s middle class. She is an only child. Her parents are separated. She has a guilty secret and a greatest fear…

These circumstances indicate the character may behave in a very specific way to a dramatic situation: say, witnessing a hit and run on her way home from work one evening? What is the first thing she will do? What’s the next thing? And the next? Knowing what a character’s circumstances are means your audience will have certain expectations of how they act. If you know what these expectations are, it means you can have fun doing the opposite, subverting expectations. Given circumstances also establish characters in a specific world, for example, rural Texas in the early Eighties.

Step 5: Give your character a moment of crisis

This is crucial to why we need characters at all. Someone takes a journey to discover something they needed. If this tradition of storytelling is fundamental to ways we view the world, characters must be surrogates for our experience. As Ian McEwan brilliantly observed: “imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity”. A moment of crisis forces your character to confront a problem they always had, or something they always needed.