The Secret Sauce for Developing Memorable Characters

Think for a minute about some of your favorite books or movies. What do these have in common? Stories that illuminate universal themes? Yes. Deep conflict and escalating stakes? Certainly. A thrilling and unexpected ending? For sure. These are important elements of any blockbuster book or movie, but the best novels or films would be nothing without one thing: authentic and memorable characters.

How do writers create memorable characters? Many books and blog posts give writers advice on this subject. Some essays on the subject list essential elements of character development, like Tom Pawlik’s Writer’s Digest article, The Nine Ingredients of Character Development. Read Tom Pawlik’s post.

This is a solid list, but for the purposes of this discussion, let’s focus on these elements—a character’s goals (ambition) and obstacles (character defects and restrictions) – cited by Pawlik.

Some beginning authors rely on character questionnaires, and there are many online. Here’s one good questionnaire from Gotham Writers.

When discussing character development, blogger and author Janice Hardy eschews detailed character questionnaires. Hardy instead urges authors to begin the character development process by asking eight key questions, beginning with: what are the main character’s critical needs and the character’s greatest fears? This feeds into the next thing the writer needs to sort out: who are the main character’s friends and enemies? Next, what personality traits help or hurt the main character? What is the character’s perception of fair and unfair? This gets at the character’s moral compass. Next is what does the character like or dislike about friends? And, finally, how does the character cope with stress? Read Janice Hardy’s post.

A key and often overlooked aspect of character development is back story. In her excellent book, Story Genius, author and writing coach Lisa Cron emphasizes the importance of establishing the main character’s “misbelief.” A misbelief is the one thing that the main character firmly believes to be true, but which is actually false, Cron writes. The misbelief stems from something big that happened in the main character’s past—her back story. The Origin Scene is when the misbelief takes root. If a main character believes her father is a paragon of virtue, the writer must craft a scene when the father does something to make the main character believe in his strong moral center. This misbelief often occurs before the story begins, so the author must weave it into the narrative. At some point, though, the character will make a discovery that will debunk this misbelief. Perhaps she will witness her father cutting corners or compromising his values. The result is the main character’s misbelief is shattered and the character sees the world differently and more clearly understands what is preventing her from reaching her goal.

Lisa Cron discusses the character’s misbelief in this interview on the Writers Helping Writers blog.

Another key point Cron makes about character development is this: stories are internal. As she puts it in this interview on Writers Helping Writers:

“Story is not about what happens on the surface, but what goes on beneath it. It’s about what the protagonist has to face, deal with and overcome internally in order to solve the external problem that the plot poses. That means that the internal problem pre-dates the events in the plot, often by decades. So if you don’t know, specifically, what your protagonist wants and what internal misbelief stands in her way, then how on earth can you construct a plot that will force her to deal with it?”

All stories are internal. A character’s goals are internal and are manifested through the external events of the story.

Cron disputes the notion that a main character must be likeable. Instead, she believes the main character must be relatable. In an interview on the Writers on the Storm blog, Cron explains: “The reader needs to be able to relate to the protagonist, and to do that the protagonist must be vulnerable, flawed – in other words, decidedly not perfect and definitely not a surface, sanitized version of “a good person.” Otherwise, what do they have to sweat over?” Cron said.

Character development is a topic that is too vast to cover adequately in a single blog post. Focusing on the main character’s goals, needs, motivations, and fears—and identifying the character’s misbelief—can give authors a great start.

What about you? What are your thoughts on character development?

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