Character Development: Introduction
Kelsey Shields, UR Writing Consultant
(printable version here)
Character development is a vital part of creative writing. A story with a great plot can fall through with flat characters; conversely, a mediocre plot can be brought to life with vibrant, unique, and well-thought-out characters. While it may not be necessary to extensively develop characters for shorter works of fiction, character development is very helpful and extremely encouraged for recurring characters, short stories over 5,000 words, novellas, and novels. There is no limit to how much detail you give your characters, either; J.K. Rowling, for example, spent over five years planning out the entire Harry Potter universe, with a majority of her characters and their details never even making the final cut!
This is not an exhaustive guide by any means, nor is it expected that you will follow all the advice and "rules" given here (after all, rules are meant to be broken). This guide is mainly geared towards beginning writers who have not yet developed their own character development style and are unsure of how to design effective and engaging characters, though experienced writers may certainly learn something new as well. Enjoy!
Character development often involves bombarding yourself with questions, racking the deepest recesses of your brain for an ounce of creativity in order to make this character stand out above all the rest. While there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of character development guides available on the web, below is a relatively short questionnaire to transform your character. Obviously not all of the questions need to be answered, but rather are there to make you think deeply about your character.
- Name. Does their name have a special meaning? Do they have nicknames? Who gave them the nicknames? Do they like them?
- Age/Date of Birth. While this seems like a no-brainer, be realistic with your character's age and their corresponding abilities.
- Place of Birth. Where were they born? Do they still live there? Has it had a large effect on them?
- Race/Ethnicity. How do they feel about their race? Are they self-conscious, or do they embrace it? Do they not really care at all?
- Sexuality. What is your character's sexual orientation? Do they hide it? Are they promiscuous, or monogamous? Are they still a virgin? How did they lose their virginity?
- Education. Are they attending/planning on graduating high school? Did they drop out? Are they attending college/already graduated? What did they major in?
- Social Class. Are they lower, middle, or upper? How do they feel about this?
- Religion. If they are religious, how do they identify themselves? If they aren't religious, why?
- Politics. Are they liberal, conservative, or something in between? Are they extremely invested in politics, or could they care less?
Physical Appearance and Attributes
*Make sure to use a height/weight chart in order to accurately proportion your character, if relevant.
- Height*. How tall are they? Are they unusually tall for their sex or age?
- Weight*. Are they underweight, overweight, or average? If under or over, explain why.
- Basic Build. Are they lanky, average, toned, or athletic? Keep in mind that not everyone sports six packs.
- Hair. Is their hair short, medium, or long? Straight, curly, or wavy? What color? Is this their natural color? How do they usually style it?
- Eyes. What color are their eyes? Do they change color? Are they two different colors? Why?
- Distinguishing Marks. Does the character have any birthmarks? Scars? Piercings? Tattoos? Do they have any special meaning?
- Make-Up. Do they wear none, a little, or a lot? If male/genderqueer, why do they wear make-up?
- Clothing Style. Do they conform to a particular style, or do they wear anything they want? Are their clothes expensive, or thrifty?
- Physical Health. Are they generally healthy? Have they ever suffered any serious illnesses or injuries? Does it physically hinder them in any way?
Mental and Emotional Attributes
- Basic Personality. What are their most dominant personality traits? Are they calm, or easily excitable? Do they anger easily? Are they introverted or extroverted? Pessimistic or optimistic? What kind of humor do they have? Do they act differently around certain people?
Fears. What are they afraid of? Why are they afraid of it? How traumatizing is this fear (i.e. mild, or phobic levels)? Does it affect them on a regular basis?
Goals. What do they want to do with their life? Why do they have these goals? Are they realistically obtainable?
Desires. What do they really want out of life? Do they want to get married and have children, travel the world, go sky-diving? Write a novel?
Secrets. Do they have any secrets? Why do they keep them secrets? Have they told anyone? Do these secrets affect them on a regular basis?
Regrets. Do they have any regrets? Why? If given the chance, how would they change things?
Mental Health. Do they have any mental disorders? How serious are they? Do they take medication for it? How does it affect their daily life?
- Parents/Guardians. What are their names, ethnicities, ages, social class, occupation (if alive)? Does your character have a good relationship with them? Why or why not?
- Siblings. Same questions as above.
- Other Relationships. Are they married? Do they have children of their own? Have any other family members (grandparent, aunt/uncle, etc) had a significant impact on their life? Why? How?
- Family History. Does your character have a defined family history? Do they take pride in their heritage? Is their family close-knit, or isolated? Is there any significant/traumatic family drama that affected the course of events? Overall, do they like their family? Do they keep in contact? Or are they the black sheep/disowned? Why?
- Childhood. Did they have a good or bad childhood? What are their best and worst memories from it? Were they strictly disciplined, or not?
- Adolescence. What sort of teenager were they like? Were they rebellious, or a "good kid?" If character is an adult, did this have any lasting affect on who they are now?
Occupation and Hobbies
- Occupation. If they have a job, what do they do? Do they enjoy it? Why/why not? What do they like/hate the most about it? If they are unemployed, why?
- Hobbies. How do they commonly spend their free time? Working out, playing video games, gardening, hiking? Are they particularly good at it? What sort of music do they listen to?
- Organizations. Are they a member of a club, organization, etc.? Why? Do they ever do volunteer work? Do they enjoy it?
- Social Life. Do they have a best friend? Is their friend group typically smaller and more close-knit, or larger and shallower? What social groups do they tend to associate with? Why?
- Alternative Lifestyles. Do they drink? How much? Do they do drugs? Which ones? How does it affect their daily life? Are they vegetarian/vegan? Why, and for how long?
- Pets. If they have any pets, what kind? What are their names? Were they bought, or adopted?
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