Developing Characters In Stories

Goodreads to Anne Tyler: You are noted for your skill in writing character-driven novels. Do you consider yourself a student of human behaviour? When working on character, do you turn to people watching or daydreaming—looking outward or inward for inspiration?

Anne Tyler: I figure we’re almost all students of human behaviour. That’s how we get along in the world—by trying to make sense of the people we have to deal with.

When I’m working on character, I search my memory for telltale traits or gestures that I may have noticed in some random passerby. For instance, the other day I met a delightfully scatterbrained woman who was wearing a plastic bracelet the size of a giant bagel. When she tried to write a note, her bracelet was so thick that her fingers couldn’t reach the pad of paper she was resting her wrist on. I loved that; I thought it said reams about her.


Here’s what Robert McKee has to say about characterisation in stories:

  • Characters are not people. Whereas people constantly change and are difficult to pin down, characters in stories stand for things about human nature that are unchangeable through the ages.
  • Be mindful of the difference between ‘characterisation’ (age, looks, job and other individuating details.) and ‘true character’ (that behind the mask). (It is a Western idea that there is such a thing as true character.)
  • True character can only be expressed through choice in a moral dilemma. How a character chooses to act under pressure will reveal the most interesting things.
  • Make sure you understand your character’s desires.
  • Don’t reduce characters to case studies. ‘Generally, the more the writer nails motivation to specific causes, the more they diminish the character in the audience’s mind.’
  • What other characters say about your character is more revealing than what main characters say about themselves.
  • To create 3D characters, what you do is give them complexity by contradiction. The trick is to make the contradictions of their character consistent.
  • The main character has to be the most complex character in the story.

Catherine Tate was asked once, ‘Where do you get your characters?’ She told the journalist that there was a shop on such-and-such-a-street.

As Dean Norris said of his character Hank Schrader on Breaking Bad: “I knew all about my character before I’d read a thing.” (He’d heard his character was called ‘Hank’.)

From an acquisitions editor: Here is a problem I find in my own writing and one I see in a lot of submissions: Characters so focused on their own agendas that they don’t react like normal human beings to what is going on around them. – Cardboard Characters from Novel Rocket  

Other Useful Links

  1.  25 Things You Should Know About Character
  2. Why it’s not enough to simply fill out a character sheet from Edit Torrent
  3. Creating Authenticity in Fiction – Where do authors draw the line? a thought-provoking article from Carly Watters
  4. 25 Things You Should Know About Protagonists, from Chuck Wendig
  5. What Is Character? Books which debunk the myth of fixed personality from Brainpickings
  6. Under Development: Ways to Create Characters, from The Other Side Of The Story
  7. Take Your Characters To Therapy from Writer Unboxed
  8. Four Things You Need to Understand about Character Emotion from Women On Writing
  10. CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT TEMPLATE FOR HEROES (based on Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey)