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The Ultimate Guide to Character Development (24 Tips For 2024!) 

Congratulations … 

You’ve stumbled onto the secret of all great storytelling. 

If you’re a storyteller, then this page is about to become invaluable to you. Characters are the backbone of every great book, movie, or television show. Unforgettable narratives are driven by human frailty and the broken or brittle decisions that are a result of those weaknesses. 

Characterization is not impersonation. Great storytellers aren’t doing an impression of the personalities populating their story. Done well, it’s the author’s job to fully realize that character on the page. Most fiction writers spend significant time considering plot, but I wish I knew more who were half as devoted to developing their characters. 

As architect of the story, you must be three people: the character who knows only what he or she is supposed to, the author who knows everything, and the reader who will one day experience it all. 

Despite the headline, there is no “ultimate guide” to developing your character. I’ve been studying this stuff for more than fifteen years. Our studio has centuries of combined storytelling experience. And guess what? Even among our group of writers there is no one way to do this, or anything. 

But it’s still worth sitting down to write this guide for you. While there is a lot of industry focus on what separates self-published titles from their traditional counterparts, too many comparisons are focused on conversion elements such as the book’s title, genre listing, product description, and cover. And yes, those elements are all critical for selling your book. 

Yet that’s a poor place to focus long-term. After your book is bought, it needs to resonate with readers, and that will only happen if you nail your character work. 

Sterling & Stone is all in on character.

We produce mostly genre fiction. That means books, television, and film. Someday it will include graphic novels, games, VR/AR experiences, or any other form of storytelling that comes along. We dabble in literary, but because we have a business to run and there is generally much less revenue in literary fiction, our attention is on the sort of well-paced and strong plotted stories that currently thrive in the marketplace. 

These are the stories where character traditionally takes a back seat to what happens next in the story. But not for us, and hopefully not for you. 

Think about your favorite books of all time. Pick the first two or three that pop into your head. Once you’ve pictured the titles, your next thought probably went right to the characters rather than something that happened in the story. Now try the exercise for the last movie or TV show you saw and just had to tell someone about. Even if there were a staggering number of events and all of them bordered on lunacy, most people are still only driven to share their experience if they are emotionally-invested in the journey. And those storytelling treks always come down to character. 

You don’t have to care as much about character as I do to have a successful career as an author. Truth is, these days it’s easy enough to focus on plot, write fast, tickle the algorithms, enroll your book in the right marketplace, and see a nice enough return on your titles to keep you writing. 

But if you want to create perennial work that is human-focused, can remain independent of the algorithms, and gather passionate and fiercely-loyal readers who will inhale your work and tell their friends, characters must come first. 

This is one of the hardest jobs for a storyteller. Fortunately, it’s also the most rewarding. Readers deserve complex characters like the people in their lives, not the paper dolls that populate the narratives of amateur authors. Well-developed characters are rarely obvious. They are nuanced, with subtlety and subtext prioritized over blunt force personality traits. 

Here are 24 strategies to keep your characters strong and make your stories stronger. 

1. Know who your characters are and (just as important) why they are in the story

Every character in your story should have an essential role to play in the unfolding of the story. Your protagonist’s personality traits and quirks aren’t there just to make them recognizable: they will also affect the choices your protagonist makes while pursuing their goal, both what they do and how they do it. In other words, who your protagonist is should drive the plot of your story. (This list of tips isn’t in order of importance, but this first one is still up top because you should never, ever ignore it.) 

You don’t have to know every character in your story beforehand, and you can absolutely allow the narrative to unfold to reveal people you never expected populating the pages almost a step ahead of you, but there should be a reason for every character in your story that goes beyond the needs of the plot. Even if the person’s only job is to tear the movie stub of the couple going on their first date. 

Beginning storytellers will add characters for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with story. Maybe they like the way a certain character thinks or dresses or talks. But that’s not enough of a reason to justify the character’s existence, especially if their role is minor. Look for ways to eliminate or consolidate characters — could you skip the ticket-taker altogether and start the scene with the couple taking their seats in the theater? Or could the ticket-taker also be the random dude on the bus that your character runs into the following week and gives him some tough-love advice? Maybe not, but it’s always worth considering ways to streamline your story’s cast to the essentials.

Once you’ve established each character’s story role, ask yourself how you can use this character more fully. 

Can the ticket-tearer trigger one character’s guilt that he’s might be moving on from his late wife too quickly, or help the other appreciate that their date’s weird behavior might be anxiety? What if the ticket-tearer says something that seems meaningless now, but that turns out to be an insightful observation that helps the couple resolve a fight later? Could the ticket-tearer’s off-hand joke distract the couple (and the reader) from a vital clue that you’ve planted in this scene or draw their attention to something they might otherwise have noticed? Or maybe the love-lorn ticket-taker just got dumped, and his post-breakup depression contrasts with the couple’s new love to highlight how perfect they are for each other?

How can each character do double-duty by supporting your story’s theme, provide contrast with other characters to deepen characterization, trigger a major character’s flaw through interpersonal conflict, or embody some element of your story world in a memorable way?

When it comes to minor characters, do this with a light touch. If you color a character too much, readers will expect you to do something with that and not leave them hanging. (But if you’re introducing a minor character in book one who’s going to become a major character in book three, implying that there’s more to a minor character can be a way to get readers curious, so they’ll be excited when that character finally returns.) 

When you’re learning how to create compelling characters, ask your self the following questions: 

  • What role does this character play in my story? 
  • Is this person essential to the story I’m trying to tell? 
  • What is his or her relationship with the other characters? 
  • Are they considered an addition or subtraction when around others?
  • Is my character a stereotype, and if so how can I can I round them out? 
  • How will the story change if the character doesn’t exist, or isn’t on the page?
  • How can I use this character in ways that go beyond plot? 
2. Create full character profiles

Spend some time with your characters before fulling committing to them on the page.

You get to decide everything about them, but you are also responsible for those decisions. Do your job, and a character of your creation will feel real to your reader. 

Some people are closer to the characters in their favorite books than they are to most humans in their actual life. If you’re one of those people, then you already understand the gravity of your responsibility to create compelling characters.

But what do you need in order to really know your characters? How can you get into each character’s head?

Ask yourself, what would it be like to have lived all of my life as this person? Start with empathy, even or especially if you’re brainstorming the villain.

There are a lot of different ways to do this. Interview your character, either in your imagination or as a journaling exercise. Or write some journal entries from their perspective. Choose some key people in their lives and write a few getting-to-know-you scenes where they’re having a minor conflict with those people — or interview those key people to find out how they see your character. Create a timeline for their life that highlights their defining moments. 

We use something called Character DNA, a set of 350 questions. We never use them all, but we have a bank to draw from. Everything from What was your earliest childhood memory? to What would you like to be doing five years from now? 

Give your character a secret. Treat this as an essential step, even if the reader never knows what it is. That part isn’t important. You’re getting to know this character and secrets often drive behavior.

Make the character complex. You probably don’t have a single simple person in your life, so don’t disrespect your characters by making them one-dimensional. Give them backstories (we’ll get there in a few minutes) and contradictions (we’ll cover that, too). 

See the world from their perspective. Your character’s childhood, parental relationship, religious and political beliefs, peer group, political leanings, sexual preferences, and strong opinions all inform the way he or she sees the world. That means you have to temporarily see it that way, too. 

Give your character a strong enough identity that it helps you to understand their place in the world. The more your story feels like a container of truth, the more weight it will carry. If you can properly make the reader believe in your character on the page, then your story will mean more to them. 

Much of understanding who a character is comes from knowing where they came from. 

3. Give your characters a strong backstory

We all have our baggage, so does your character. 

Consider the mile markers in your protagonist’s life. That matters for all your characters to some degree, but with the usher tearing your ticket it only matters whether he had a good or bad day before showing up to work, and whether he was nice to the couple on their first date. For your protagonist, that backstory is everything. 

You should have fun here, without getting carried away. Some of us could write imaginary memoirs for our characters, that doesn’t mean we should. But we do want enough personal history to understand why a character responds to situations the way they do. There is no limit to what you can know as the author, but you should only hang a lantern on what’s important for your reader. 

Your life is made up of every moment until the one you just inhaled, and so is your character’s.

If you interview your character before creating their history, you will have naturally colored some of this in already. If not, you can still interview yourself as the character after you understand their backstory. The process will be illuminating. Ask yourself: 

  • What are the significant events in my character’s childhood that affected the person they became? 
  • Was anything about their adolescence especially traumatic? 
  • Where on the income spectrum did your character’s family fall? 
  • Did they accept their upbringing, or rebel against it? 
  • What are the three healthiest relationships in your character’s life, and how are they defined by them? 
  • What are the three most toxic relationships in your character’s life, and how are they defined by them?
  • What is my character’s biggest ambition? 
  • What is my character’s biggest secret? 
  • Has my character ever gone into mourning? 
  • What is the most destructive patterns in my character’s life? 
  • What are my character’s three pivotal life moments?

You can do a lot with those last two, which will often point to the character’s core wound or flaw. Consider your own destructive patterns and how they’ve held you back. Now do the same for some of the people in your life. Most of us don’t pay nearly enough attention enough to the rhythms of our own behavior, but we can’t afford to ignore that when it comes to our characters. Know when she’s looping, so you can give her an earned exit from the loop as she grows through the story.

Use the three pivotal moments to find the pattern. Tell yourself three stories of significant events in their life, or times when they had to make an important decision, then find the common elements. Congratulations, your character just gained another layer. 

4. Draw upon your own experiences

This is one of the greatest joys of being a writer, so please don’t miss out. Creating characters who fall on every part of the spectrum of human behavior isn’t just fun, it also helps drives your own creative self-development. 

People who know me agree I’m a really nice guy, but I’ve been heinous on the page. One of our studio’s most popular characters is a serial-killing genius who couldn’t be more fun to write. Heroes or monsters, I’ve had a blast with both. 

I’m also used to drawing heavily on my own life to tell a story. This doesn’t mean that everyone I know always shows up, or that my characters are writers or anything like that. But if I see a clever billboard while driving, it’ll probably make the page within the next week. That comes with writing an average of 5,000 words a day. You’re always mining details from your life. 

You should do it too, in big ways and small. It’s easy. 

  • Do you remember a time when you were really scared? 
  • How about a time when you couldn’t stop laughing? 
  • What about getting your heart broken? 
  • Or breaking someone else’s? 
  • Have you lost a grandparent, a child, a cherished pet? 
  • Were you ever abused or molested? 
  • Have you ever been unkind? Or perhaps even the perpetrator of evil?
  • No matter who your characters are, there is always at least a splinter of you inside them. Be intentional. 
5. Explore your character’s relationships

No character exists in isolation. Just as our own identities are shaped by our connections, your character’s relationships (familial, romantic, antagonistic) will deeply influence who they are and how they behave. A protagonist with a supportive family will likely approach challenges very differently than one carrying wounds from a neglectful childhood.

To fully understand your character, dig into their web of relationships, past and present. Explore their dynamics with parents, siblings, friends, and lovers. Have they experienced any significant betrayals or losses? Are there any unresolved conflicts or secrets simmering beneath the surface? How have they always been there for each other, and what would happen if they stopped?

Probing these intimate bonds will not only make your character feel more authentic, but can also provide rich fodder for internal and external conflicts that drive the story forward.

As you flesh out your character’s relationships, consider how these connections might manifest in their behavior and choices. A woman striving to prove herself to a hypercritical mother may be driven to perfectionism in her career. A man grappling with the death of a beloved mentor may be hesitant to take on leadership roles himself. 

Explore how your character’s relationships have shaped their identity, for better or worse, and let that influence their arc throughout the narrative.

6. Make sure your backstory always has purpose

Drafting your character’s personal history for your understanding is great, but deluging the reader with it is not. It’s a natural desire to share what you know. You’ve spent all that time inventing this person, of course you want them to crackle on the page. Don’t worry, they will. But sometimes addition can lead to subtraction — your reader didn’t buy a biography, they want to be told a story.

There are three simple questions when adding backstory from your brainstorming into the narrative. 

  • Does it drive the story forward by changing how you understand what’s happening in the present? 
  • Does it define something about your character that changes how the reader expects the character to behave in the future? 
  • Does it explains something that the reader was already curious about and/or raise a new question?  

If you can’t explain how a piece of backstory does one of those three things, the backstory is for you and not the reader. 

7. Pepper your character’s history throughout the story

Don’t let that last tip scare you off from adding a liberal amount of backstory. You absolutely should. Just make sure it’s the best stuff, and sprinkle it throughout the story. You’ve never gone up to someone at a party and started telling them everything about your life in one big info dump, like Chunk when Mama Fratelli’s about to shove his hand into the blender. (If you have, I’m sorry, about all of the times you’ve probably eaten alone.)

Ask yourself, where will this information have the greatest emotional impact on the reader? Where will it feel like a big reveal instead of an infodump, because the reader is already wondering? 

It is okay to tease at things without fully explaining them. Curiosity is a highly effective driver. But don’t raise any questions you don’t intend to answer, unless you’re intending to leave the reader to ponder that question when the book is over (or you’re using the question to pull the reader into the next book). Ambiguity should never be an accident. Related: 

8. Never send your characters to Exposition Laboratories

Even if you get super, stupid successful and your books are optioned for movies, then they commission you to write the screenplays for those movies, please don’t ever have your characters go to Exposition Laboratories. 

This isn’t an actual place, but you’ve seen it plenty. Most genres have a version of this trope. Imagine every disaster movie ever. At some point the hero goes to Exposition Laboratories so some scientist who doesn’t matter to the story otherwise in the slightest can explain what’s happening to the audience. A version of this scene is sometimes necessary, it’s up to you how ridiculous you want to make it. We suggest subtlety. 

Audiences don’t want big dumps of information. Even done well, they are an interruption to the story’s flow. The larger the dump, the bigger the wall you’re erecting in front of your story. Characters can’t express the obvious through dialogue because it undermines their believability, and delivering the information through inner monologue can add unnecessary weight to your story. 

Whenever there’s exposition you need to deliver to the reader, ask yourself if there’s a way that the information can be uncovered through story action. Can the characters puzzle it out as part of exploring a bigger mystery, or at least discover part of the information, so that there’s a reason for them to seek an explanation from an expert? Can you imply some of the information through setting elements? Or give each major character part of the puzzle and a reason for them to come together while solving it?

And if you absolutely must have a representative from Exposition Labs pop in to explain something, can you have them do it in a way that incorporates conflict or humor or some other technique for creating a strong emotional charge? 

9. Who your characters will become is just as important as who they are.

Backstory is great, but that isn’t what your reader came for. The character’s quest should be informed by their past, but remain in the present. If you’re writing genre fiction, it’s essential for your character to change over the course of your story. 

The pilot for Breaking Bad does this perfectly. Walter is perfectly milquetoast. No respect from anyone. A true sad sack. But the story never wallows in it. Once that backstory is established it’s used to fuel one of the most impressive character arcs storytelling has ever seen. 

Give your characters places to grow, then make sure they do. And let the backstory appear in the story as it drives your character’s growth arc.

10. Give your character plenty of internal conflict

Even if you’re conflict-avoidant in real life, you can’t afford to turn a blind eye on your character’s problems. Heap them on without apology, and force your character to wrestle with them. 

The problems your character will have with the world are actually problems he or she has with themselves. They are projections, or perhaps reflections of the demons inside them. Cognitive dissonance, the clash between want and need, the chasm between who your character is are and who they’ve been telling the world they want to be with their behavior — it’s all a part of the cocktail, even if your character doesn’t know it.

11. Give your characters fears and desires

You already know your character needs an arc, and that it needs to tie into theme. You probably also know they need strengths and weaknesses, though we’ll cover that next. But realize that fear and desire are a pair of elements that influence everything else in your character’s life. Ideally, your character’s biggest fear will be the #1 thing keeping them from achieving their desire at the start of the story.

Once you know your character’s desires and fears, you can design their world and the situations that you’ll put them in to both tempt them away from their goals by promising short-term or partial satisfaction of their desires and derail them from their quest by forcing them to confront their fears in order to get closer to achieving their story goal.

Psychologists say that all fears fall into one of five categories:

  1. Fearing extinction: this is the fear of no longer existing, which includes fear of death, fear of being forgotten, and fear of not mattering.
  2. Fearing mutilation: these fears are about loss of bodily integrity, including fear of injury or any other event that would cause our bodies to stop working, like poison, insect bites, infection, brain injuries, parasites, infection, etc.
  3. Fearing loss of autonomy: this is the fear of any situation which strips us of our volition or our ability to take control, including paralysis, imprisonment, enslavement, or any other situation where we are trapped and at the mercy of someone else or our environment.
  4. Fearing separation: these fears are about isolation and loss of connection, and includes being shunned or treated like a non-person as well as fear of abandonment and rejection and fear of the deaths of those we love.
  5. Fearing ego death: these fears are related to the integrity of the self being threatened or destroyed, including fearing shame, humiliation, or any other situation that threatens your sense of self-worth.

A lot has been written about desire by psychologists — Maslow categorized human desires into five levels of needs that must be met with his famous pyramid

  1. Physiological needs
  2. Safety and security
  3. Love and belonging
  4. Self-esteem
  5. Self-actualization

Researcher Steven Reiss theorizes that humans can be motivated by 16 different desires:

  1. Acceptance
  2. Curiosity
  3. Sustenance (food)
  4. Family
  5. Honor
  6. Idealism
  7. Independence
  8. Order
  9. Physical activity
  10. Power
  11. Sex and romance
  12. Accumulation
  13. Social contact
  14. Social status
  15. Security
  16. Vengeance

And screenwriter Michael Hauge says that movie characters can have four types of story goals they want to achieve: 

  1. To win (the prize may be tangible or conceptual)
  2. To stop something from happening
  3. To escape (either a physical prison or a situation or circumstance)
  4. To retrieve something 

There are plenty of other tools out there that you can use to help identify your character’s fears and desires, but whatever you use, be sure you drill down far enough to understand why the character wants what they want and fears what they fear.

Fears and desires add shade to your characters strengths and weaknesses, so let’s talk about those next. 

12. Give your characters strengths, weaknesses, and at least one specific flaw

Do not make your character a Dudley Do-Right. I created a character in one of my first series with Dave. I made Desmond a little too knowing, a little too honorable, and a little too courageous. Dave called him Desmond Do-Right, and we had to make him go dark in later books to account for my earlier lack of judgment.

No one wants to read about a perfect character. Anything close is boring. You want a character who is as flawed as everyone else you know. Human, vulnerable, and real. Even Superman, a living god, is occasionally forced to deal with kryptonite. A perfect protagonist is alienating to your reader. 

But please, don’t make your character Barney Fife. Unless that’s the point. Your reader needs to relate to the character, so that means making them human, somewhere in between wonderful and needs some work (just like you and me).

Once you’ve determined your character’s strengths and weaknesses, it will feel more natural to find places in your story to exhibit their positive and negative behaviors. If your character is scared of the dark, it will seem noble when he enters the abandoned mansion first. If he’s naturally courageous, it might be more heroic to hang back and let someone else take the lead. 

And don’t forget to give your character that flaw. Humans are imperfect. Know what it is that your character always gets wrong. This will be closely linked to their patterns. When in their lives have they felt most restless, been the most discontent, afraid, or hungry? When have those negative emotions led them to regrettable behaviors, and how often do those feelings resurface? 

We’re all different, because we’re all dragging different baggage behind us. To be imperfect is to be human.

13. Let your character be vulnerable

Perfect characters are boring. Readers can’t relate to flawless, invulnerable heroes who breeze through challenges unscathed. To make your protagonist compelling and sympathetic, you must allow them to be vulnerable. Let your swashbuckling action hero hint that he’s terrified of abandonment after being orphaned as a child. Or if your poised queen secretly battles debilitating anxiety attacks behind closed doors, make sure the reader gets to open that door. They don’t have to confess their deepest fears, even to their closest confidant, but the reader needs to see behind the mask the character wears to protect themselves from the scrutiny of those around them. Soft spots will instantly make your character more human and relatable.

Vulnerability also provides rich opportunities for character growth. After all, it is through vulnerability that true strength is often found.

14. Make your characters distinct

It’s fine to have character types you can lean on. Actors and directors do this all the time. If you’re watching a Scorsese movie, odds are good that you’re also watching either Dicaprio or Deniro. Sawyer Black stories are all about found family, often with military vets. Dave regularly features lonely teenagers, abusive fathers, and someone taking too many pills. Kathryn has a thing with mean girls. Ninie writes characters that are pure salt of the earth. Still, each of those authors uses character types in different ways from one book to the next. 

I referred to them as sketches for a reason. Even if you’re starting from the same place, there are things you can and should do to refine the character type and shape them into something unique, by adding fears and desires, strengths and weaknesses, detailing how speech, dress, or physicality might influence or express these qualities. 

Make your characters unique by giving them individual ways of talking, dressing, and behaving — and most important, have them take a stand on something that matters to them. Or give them a passion for something that most people don’t appreciate. Add diversity to your cast, not just so the social and ethnic makeup is representative of the world you’re presenting for your reader, but also so that you have a balanced lineup of personalities and worldviews to act as foils for your most important characters. 

Giving your characters strong beliefs or passions that are grounded in their life experience helps you to avoid stereotypes and tired clichés. 

Finally, give your character a quirk, if you haven’t already. We all have odd habits that seem normal or innocuous to us but are noticeable to others. These are the sorts of small details that help your character stand out, even if you’ve used a similar character type before. 

15. Make things really difficult for your character

We’ll keep this one simple, because I’m sure you’ve already heard some version of it plenty. Story is conflict, so we can probably agree that the same is true for character. You want to make your characters: 

  • FAIL: This is the only way they can grow. 
  • SUFFER: This gives meaning to their success.
  • WORK: It isn’t enough that things go well, the reader wants to see the results of your character’s effort. 

It’s your job as god of the story to be at least occasionally unkind to your characters. Make them insecure, uncomfortable, and uncertain of their future. This is for the best, even if it’s hard. Readers will thank you with five-star reviews.

16. Show, don’t tell

You’ve heard this over and over, because it’s the golden rule of fiction: tell stories as you want them told to you. Whether we realize it or not, we all prefer showing over telling, and that applies to your character development as much as to anything else in your story. 

You could tell your reader everything there is to know about your character through narrative summary, but she will never appreciate that (or love your story) as much as she’ll care if you trust her enough to paint the picture and let her see it all for herself.  

Readers chose your book at least in part because they have have an active imagination and part of the joy in reading is in activating and using that imagination. Telling her about the characters in your story creates a passive experience that only requires the reader to process information, but revealing character through dialogue, behavior, and subtext triggers imagination and empathy, giving the reader a chance to step into the mental movie you’ve helped them create. (Even though we write in isolation, we are still co-creating the story with our readers.)

  • TELLING: Sam didn’t feel well, but he couldn’t let that stop him.  
  • SHOWING: Sam clutched his cramping stomach as bile rose in his throat, but he entered the room anyway. 
  • TELLING: Sam was happy. This was the first trophy he had ever won. 
  • SHOWING: Sam couldn’t stop smiling as he set his trophy on the shelf. Alone for now, but not for long. 
  • TELLING: Sam was scared. There was something evil on the other side of the door. 
  • SHOWING: Sam’s brow and face were slicked with sweat, he couldn’t slow his heart. He thought he might choke on his own fear. A heavy breathing sound was coming from the other side of the door, and the creature making it was probably going to kill him. 

Occasionally, your narrative will need a little telling, to sum up the boring bits or to deliver a quick bit of exposition, but if you’re doing a great job of showing the important action, readers will zoom through the brief passages of telling.. 

17. Add perspective by using secondary characters intelligently

Much of a storyteller’s focus should stay fixed on developing their protagonist and antagonist. But secondary characters often deserve more attention than they receive. Done well, it’s your story’s side characters who can show facets of your hero or heroine that you’ve not yet revealed to your reader. Who knows what your hero was like before he became a hero? Who brings out the best and worst in your heroine? 

Maybe your protagonist seems weak, and perhaps even sees themselves that way. And yet, after viewing the world from another character’s perspective we come to understand that the hero isn’t weak at all, they’re holding onto some pain so that secondary character doesn’t have to. What appeared as a frailty was actually a strength. Of course, that works the other way around as well. Your character could appear strong, until another personality enters the story to disclose their weakness. 

Great characters have layers, but no matter how much complexity you add, a single perspective can only say so much.

18. Reveal character through dialogue

We’ve talked a lot about different ways to reveal character, but one of the most rewarding, both for the reader and for the character herself, is dialogue. 

This can be difficult, especially for beginning writers, since dialogue is one of the hardest things to consistently nail. Sure, you want your characters to have witty banter and memorable one-liners, if that’s the sort of story you’re telling, but that can’t be all there is. The point is to know who your characters are, not how clever they can be. 

Each character should have his or her own speech patterns, vocabulary, rhythm, and tone. In other words, a personalized  way of speaking. Is their language more likely to be timid or bold? Do they curse like my mother, or are they afraid of bad words like my son? Are they honest, excitable, manipulative, calm? What do the things a character says reveal about where he or she has come from? 

Miles Davis said that music lies in the silences “between the notes.” This is true when it comes to dialogue as well. What isn’t being said is often as important, or even more than whatever is explicitly stated. Consider all of this when crafting intelligent dialogue that moves your story forward. 

But don’t overdo it. You want your characters to be unique, but as in real life there should also be overlap. You don’t want a cast where every character has an entirely different way of speaking to the point where it becomes a distraction for the reader. 

Keep your dialogue tight and avoid unnecessary exchanges. It’s okay to let your characters go on and on in the rough draft while getting to know them, but be vigilant in the edit and make sure that every line you leave in the story has a specific purpose and moves the scene forward. 

And always read your dialogue out loud. If it sounds unnatural, it probably is. 

19. Use body language to reveal character

Dialogue is a powerful tool for revealing character, but it’s not the only one at your disposal. Non-verbal cues like body language, mannerisms, and facial expressions can speak volumes about your character’s inner world. By including  telling physical details, you can make your character leap off the page and into three vivid dimensions.

Think about how your character might carry themselves in different situations. A shy teenager meeting her crush might fidget with her hair, avoid eye contact, or bite her lip. A seasoned detective interrogating a suspect could invade their personal space, maintain unblinking eye contact, and keep his expression unnervingly neutral. These little tics and habits can reveal more about a character’s personality and emotional state than their words alone.

As you write, sprinkle in descriptive details of body language like a chef adding spices — always with a deft hand. Overloading every dialogue exchange with physical beats can quickly become cumbersome and distracting. 

Choose telling, evocative movements that crystallize your character in the reader’s mind. A subtle quirk of the eyebrow or tightening of the jaw is often more effective than an overblown, exaggerated gesture. 

The goal is not to transcribe every minute facial tic, but to select the most illustrative and revelatory non-verbal cues that will bring your character to life.

20. Keep your characters consistent

Consistency is essential to developing a strong character. 

We’ve all been there. We read a book, see a movie, or are watching one of our favorite shows when a character does something we know they would never do. At least, not according to everything the story has told us about the character so far. This makes us immediately tune out, at least a little. We can’t help it. There’s a part of us that’s stopped believing in that story. Even if this happens on a subconscious level, it is happening.

Consistent characterization will help your reader believe, identify, and bond with your story. Someone who has been faithful to their spouse for twenty years needs an excellent reason to cheat. Simple temptation in that instance is never going to be enough. 

Character stability is something you should be mildly aware of during the rough draft and deeply tuned into during revision. Try any of the following strategies to keep your work consistent. 

Create a bible. This can be simple. It can stay in Scrivener or whatever writing software you use, or in a separate document altogether. Either way, your bible houses all the details you might need for future reference. Physical descriptions like height, hair and eye color, or style of dress. Personal preferences such as favorite foods or places to visit. Style of dress, nervous ticks, secrets kept and confessed, etc. Decisions that the character has made in the past, personal rules or lines they believe they would never cross, beliefs they have that shape their behavior at a deep level. 

Give your draft character passes. This is a strategy you can grow out of for sure, but it’s especially helpful in the beginning if you’re the type of writer who has difficulty with consistency. Focus on going through the draft while paying attention to one character. Worrying about one thing rather than everything will help you to see where characterization might be uneven. Refer back to your story bible to keep the characters beliefs, personal rules, etc. to make it easier to notice when your character transgresses a boundary that you’ve established as part of their character. If they do transgress and slip out of character, is there a reason for it that’s based in their backstory, flaw or wound, or some other aspect of who they are? And do we see them wrestle with the transgression until the internal conflict it creates is resolved? If not, you might need find a way for the character to behave in the scene that’s consistent with who they are.

Cool the draft. Returning to your work after some time away will open your eyes to inconsistencies you will be more likely to let go of after some time apart. Seeing something as new can help you see it for what it needs to be.

Inconsistencies can pull your reader out of the story. But you need her to stay invested, and ready for the next one. So keep your character’s behavior dependable, and always give them something to say. 

21. Give your characters strong opinions

It doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing. It could be romance, sci-fi, or historical fiction. Your main characters (protagonist and antagonist, at least) need opinions for two reasons. First, readers don’t bond with weak or indecisive characters.But second (and more important), opinions drive action, and action drives the story. If your characters aren’t driven to make decisions and act on them, your story will grind to a halt.

Any time you have an opportunity to show conflict between opinion and action, take it. If a character feels strongly that they shouldn’t enter the cave, then have that character make a compelling argument as to why they should leave it alone. Then they can either enter the cave or not. Either way, you’ve made the reader care about the decision.

Your character can have unpopular opinions. In real life people have unpopular opinions and your audience may not like your main character for exactly that reason. It’s better to have a character with strong opinions who rubs your reader the wrong way, than a character who stands for nothing. At least the character with strong opinions will move the story along.

22. Give your character’s name the attention it deserves

Naming matters, much more than many storytellers realize. 

But the truth is, a lot of authors don’t put nearly enough thought into their namestorming, or they give it the wrong kind of attention. 

Yet, naming deserves deep thought as much as any other element of characterization. Name reveals a lot about plot and setting and background.

My father’s name was John, but he went by Joe my entire life. He was also convinced that he would have had a different life if he’d been Joe as a kid instead of John, because everyone knows that Johns are more serious and Joes are more fun.

Sure, you could pick a standard name and make your person unique throughout the rest of your characterization, but taking their name into account from the beginning can add to that character. Ideally, the name you choose should have both purpose and power. 

Use the following shortcuts and considerations when naming your character. 

Look for root meanings. If you want your character to be heroic, you can name him something like Connor, Dorian, or Gabriel. For most genres that’s going to work much better than something on the nose like “Dash.” 

Pay attention to the era. If you’re writing a book set in the roaring twenties and your character is a teenager, do enough research to know what names were popular at the dawn of the twentieth century. Location and time should always factor into a character’s name. 

Make the name easy to pronounce. Don’t get cute. If you’re writing sci-fi, please don’t assume your name needs extra Qs or Xs. The name “Quaxelborg” doesn’t scream science fiction so much as it screams amateur.

Consider your reader by making the names in a given story distinct from one another. I’m always changing Dave’s character names. In our last book we had an Anika and an Alexa. We also had a Seb and a Sid. This creates unnecessary work for the reader, who has to keep them straight. Alexa became Chelsea and Sid became Ned. 

Borrow from your life. Sometimes the best name combinations come from paying attention. A few of our studio’s most memorable names have come from mashups of baseball players my son loves, names I’ve seen on billboards while driving, or interesting monikers I’ve come across. Keep a file of interesting sounding names, then draw on that file when you’re looking to name a new character.

Get alliterative. But be careful with this strategy. It can work great, or seem especially gimmicky, depending on genre, tone, and execution. 

How can your character’s name add nuance to their personality, their hopes and fears, or some other aspect of who they are?

23. Give your character a great introduction

Remember, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. That’s as true in your story as it is in real life. 

A lot of authors will introduce a character by focusing on their physical appearance. While this can be done well, it’s rarely the best option and should only be done with specific intention. It’s not that your character’s appearance doesn’t matter, but what a person looks like doesn’t necessarily convey the essence of who they are, and that’s the goal whenever you’re introducing a character to the reader for the first time.

Frame your character’s introduction according to what you want your reader to know most about them. Consider the following starting points: 

  • Use backstory. If you can effectively deliver backstory without dumping exposition on your reader up front, this can give them a mainline to your character’s psychological profile.
  • Show your character at work. What is it that makes this person unique? Are they great at their job, or miserable? Either way, professions (and hobbies) are often an excellent means to reveal character. 
  • Let a secondary character do the work for you. As discussed, your protagonist can be revealed through other people in your story as well. Showing other characters talking about your heroine before she’s introduced can add tension and intrigue to her inevitable introduction. 
  • Show your character mid-decision. We are a product of the choices we make. Open your story with your character on the cusp of the right significant, life-changing decision, and bonding is immediate. 
  • Have your character introduce his or herself. This works especially great in first person stories. 
  • Create a situation that has the character explaining themselves. Johnny and I have used this device a few times, where we’ll have our protagonist go through some sort of intake process during the opening scene so the reader gets to know a lot about them, without it being exposition heavy. 
  • Describe your character. Of course, this is an option, and it deserves to be on the list, but it’s down here at the bottom so you will hopefully give some of the other less exhausted options a try first. If you go this route, please make sure you know what makes the description unique, and how that snapshot defines your character — chose the details that cut to the heart of the character and don’t worry if the reader isn’t sure about the color of the character’s eyes or hair. 

First impressions matter, in life and in your story. Make your main character’s the best it can be. 

24. Use wardrobe to express personality

To the degree that you are going to describe the character’s appearance, focus on the aspects of appearance that reflect personal choice. How do your character’s wardrobe choices reflect their personality, background, and emotional state?

A rebellious teenager might favor ripped jeans, band t-shirts, and a tattered leather jacket to signal their edgy, anti-establishment attitude. An ambitious lawyer may dress in sleek, expensive suits to project an air of confidence and success. By carefully curating your character’s clothing, you can convey volumes about who they are without resorting to clunky exposition.

Of course, it’s important not to lean too heavily on superficial signifiers. A character’s wardrobe should enhance and illuminate their personality, not substitute for it entirely. Use clothing details thoughtfully and sparingly, always making sure they serve a larger purpose. When done well, style can become shorthand for a character’s essence, making them feel distinct and unforgettable from the very first page.

Characters tell the story …

Your story deserves strong, complex characters. 

But there’s no way even a tutorial as thorough as this one can do that work for you. To get good at creating truly memorable characters is to experiment ine each draft to see how the people of your creation come alive in your story. Even if you’re have a preference for certain types of characters, play with making each one unique in some way. 

Then do that again and again — and soon you’ll be a master of characterization.