Storytelling

Five Signs Your Character Is Fully Developed

After realizing his purpose, Jack is able to repair his magical staff.

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.

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Comments

  1. Victoria Grace Howell

    Really great post! Thank you. I feel this way about many of my characters.

    Stori Tori’s Blog

  2. Cay Reet

    Thanks for this post!

    I really was surprised when the characters of my series started to feel like that. When I realized what they would or wouldn’t do, how they would handle a situation. When I realized they were changing, developing relationships and gaining new skills. It’s an amazing feeling.

  3. Gwen

    Hi, I was wondering if you could answer a question for me.
    I’m having a bit of trouble writing a platonic relationship between two characters who are heterosexual, and making it believable.
    I’m obviously not saying that it isn’t possible. I have several platonic guy friends. But I’m having issues portraying friendliness without it coming off as flirting.

    • Cay Reet

      Hi Gwen!

      Perhaps you should ask yourself why the friendliness comes off as flirting. Or why you want to portrait something as friendliness which is more likely to be flirting. Without reading those scenes, it’s hard to say. Perhaps you only think it comes off as flirting, too.

      I think taking a step back and looking at the relationship of your characters again might help. Perhaps, as they’re fully developed, they’re trying to tell you something.

    • JT

      Another thing to consider is that just because two characters “flirt” doesn’t mean it’s going to turn into something romantic. A lot of people enjoying flirting or teasing each other, without it “meaning” more than fun. That said, if it’s a guy and a girl and they’re “hetero” (I’m not entirely clear here on whether they are, or whether it’s two guys who are supposedly “hetero” but have chemistry, but I’m leaning towards the first, yes?)…yeah, maybe you’ve stumbled onto some chemistry and should try exploring that!

      I’ve had the reverse happen – two female characters who were originally not necessarily bi, who had pasts with men, who just developed such chemistry I wound up acknowledging they’re each a degree of bi lol. It’s wound up throwing some unexpected directions in my plot and character development but it’s so hard to see them now as anything other than bi, and in that continuity at least, attracted/in love with each other…and you know? It’s actually created an interesting redemption arc for one of them!

      If the problem is really that you had intended to pair them up with other people though…maybe you should reexamine who has the best chemistry?

  4. Priscilla

    Hi! So… I have a few questions
    I have this project for a long time now. I’ve been thinking about it since I was a teen and it’s been 6 years since then. I care so much about my characters and I feel like they are part of me. For the 5th point I can feel it so vividly…I can feel their passion, their love, their struggle, their pain(and sometimes I even cry with them :D) For all of your point I can say YES YES YES YES and for the first time in 6 years I’m really investing my time to write this story. I want to ask you a question that is really important to me.
    Is it normal to be able to “SEE” your characters? I mean, I know their physics and I know what they look like. They don’t have random features but their faces are really vivid in my mind. Is it normal for all author or is it only me???
    And the second question…as an author is it only me that are constantly thinking about my characters and building up their story in my head? I always place mine in the real life and over the years I tend to know them well(even better than myself).
    And last question…is it only me who feel reeeeaally frustrated because I feel like my characters are really nice and it would have been great if they were “real”?
    Do you sometimes feel that way?

    • Cay Reet

      I don’t know if it’s normal or we’re just both weird, but it’s the same for me. I have a clear vision of all of my main characters’ physical appearance, up to their features, their favourite clothing style, and what to find in their wardrobes. I also constantly push them around in my head (especially when I’m on a walk and have time to just let my mind run around) and put them in new and different situations to see what happens. And sometimes I do wish they’d really exist.

      I should perhaps add, though, that my main characters have already gotten several novels under their belts by now. Still, whenever a new main joins, I do flesh them out that much and play around with them.

      • Priscilla

        I’m so happy to hear that. I wish I could hug you. I’m writing in french(sorry for my really bad english)and my characters means so much to me My best friend is telling me that I’m keep thinking about the story because it means so much to me and that I should just write it. My mom said it’s normal to see your characters as if they were REAL humans. This story is fairly long and I don’t want it to be my first project because I want to polish my writing style. But, I’m stuck a little bit, they were my first characters and it’s hard for me to imagine other characters now…this year I’m planning to work on a little project but every time I’m imagining a scene my characters come to my mind even if it’s the world that I’m creating right now is not related to them.

        • Cay Reet

          If they’re blocking you from other projects, you should write them. I opened a new file a few weeks ago to add a few scenes which won’t make it into my novels … called it ‘The Stories That Weren’t.’ Perhaps that would be an option for you as well.

          Also remember when writing that your first draft is never what others get to read. You will work on it again and make it better. The first draft is to put the story together and see how it works out, it will get severely edited over time.

          Btw., English isn’t my native language, either, I’m German.

          • Priscilla

            Thank you so much for advice. Little story: this morning I had a really bad panic attack because I don’t know why…sometimes I feel like it’s only me who feel that way. I feel like I’m weird and that I’m “trapped” in this world that I created and that there is no way out.
            I’m feeling a little bit better since that other author can feel their characters emotions, see their faces and build up the world in their head. I know it’s stupid and silly but at one point I hated those characters
            When I was younger I loved this part about me: the ability to build this world and just feel the characters. I feel like I lost my way but now I’m coming back slowly into the game.
            For you advice thank you so much because I’ve been doing that since this summer. Thank you Cay

          • Cay Reet

            You’re very welcome.

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