The internet abounds with exercises to help storytellers develop their characters. Creators are told to write character back stories, establish motivations, and create inner fears and desires. These steps are all helpful, but none of them are irreplaceable. There are many paths to a finished character, and the shortest one will be different for every storyteller. What’s important is the end result: that you know your character well enough to portray them in your stories. But what does that endpoint look like? Here are five signs that you’ve arrived.
1. Your Character Has a Will of Their Own
Some storytellers feel like their characters talk to them. They might tell the writer what they want or where the story should go. You may not experience it that way, but a fully developed character has will. They have their own desires and needs, and they made decisions based on their own, internal logic.
Once your character has will, it is no longer possible to write your plot without considering their needs and desires. If you try, you’ll get to a point where you can’t imagine them doing the things you’ve outlined for them. Then you’ll have to either create a new character that would make the choice you want, or give your character a new role in the story that serves their purposes.
You don’t have to police the actions of a willful character to keep them consistent, because the character will police themselves.
2. You Can Predict Character Actions
Once your character is fully developed, you shouldn’t have to stop and reason out the decisions they would make during a scene. You should have a strong idea of what they’d say and do, in any time or place.
Once you have that, you’ll be able to do the reverse: create scenes and situations specifically designed to make your character behave in a certain manner. While there are restrictions for every character, you should be able to harness a wide variety of options. Your character may be a pacifist who wouldn’t harm anyone in the most extreme situation, but you should be able to create scenes that will trigger her to flee, stand in resistance, or negotiate. You can use those options to build tension or motivate your character to change.
If you can easily predict your character’s choices, then motivate them to make the choice you want, it will be much easier to make your plot and your character work together.
3. Your Character Has More Than One Face
Fully developed characters don’t hammer the same note wherever they go. They show different sides of themselves in different situations. Even if your character is constantly distracted by an inferiority complex, they might compensate by bragging in some scenes and begging in others. As long as these differences occur naturally in the character, rather than being imposed on them by the plot, your character will be better for them.
Often, differences in behavior are caused by the relationships characters have with other people. Strong characters will have a variety of different connections. They’ll have different feelings about each person, and different ideas about what those people think of them. That will change the impression your character tries to create, or if they put forth an effort to set an impression at all. Showing these changes in behavior will make a character feel rich and complex to your audience.
4. You Can See Your Character Changing
Great characters change during the course of a story. How they change isn’t very important; what’s important is that you know why they are changing. What emotional needs are behind their progression? What conclusion has the character drawn about how they might meet those needs? You should be able to dangle a carrot in front of them, and watch them struggle to reach it.
Once you understand the driving force behind your character’s evolution, you should know how every scene will impact them as a person. If your character dresses nicely because he’s insecure, a scene in which he’s humiliated might drive him to go the extra mile in cultivating his appearance – or he might decide his clothing was an ineffective shield, causing him to change tactics. All of his small decisions over the story will add up to a larger character arc.
5. You Feel What Your Character Feels
Strong characters are often compared to people you know in real life. Great characters, conventional wisdom goes, are as real as your Auntie May or your best friend. But once all your character development is done, you probably won’t know your character like you know your Auntie May; you’ll know your character like you know yourself.
Actors put themselves in their character’s shoes; that’s the only way to convincingly portray them. Storytellers have to do it too. It’s up to storytellers to not only give characters expressive body language and tone of voice, but also create dialogue and make decisions on their behalf. Forming those elements into a memorable and consistent character requires experiencing many of the same emotions that the character experiences.
If you find that your character-building exercises aren’t giving you a stronger feel for your character, dump them and try something else. Imagine yourself in their world, brainstorm about their dreams and desires, read autobiographies from people who remind you of them. A fully developed character is worth the journey.
Want pointers on your story? We’re available for hire.