Character Development Writing Tips: How to Make Your Fictional Characters Come Alive

Character: \ˈker-ik-tər\ noun

  1. A fictional representation of a person.
  2. An individual marked by notable, quirky or conspicuous attributes.

What do author Daniel Handler and the unfortunate Baudelaire children have in common?

“A life rife with misery and misfortune?” you might guess. Wrong. Daniel, aka Lemony Snicket, is actually quite happy. The correct answer is: they’re fictional characters — the children in the literary sense, and Daniel in the quirky sense, as evidenced by his video interview with COG.

As we watched the video together, COG’s staff cracked up. (When people ask whether Daniel’s characters are based on real people, for example, what goes through his mind is: “No. I’ve never met a real person, so I had to make up what they were like!”) But the interview also got us thinking. We’d just read Judy Budnitz’s “Visiting Hours,” a masterful short story narrated by an unreliable character — and after a brief discussion of Budnitz’s unsparing and strategic character development, we concluded that creating complex, sympathetic characters is no easy task.

So writers, here are three quick character development writing tips on how to breathe life into fictional characters:

Fictional Character Development Tip #1: Know them better than they know themselves.

Your characters may never explicitly state their motives. They may not even be aware of their own subconscious fears, triggers, flaws, addictions, and desires. But you, the author, must be crystal clear. You must know precisely what drives them: their publicly and privately held opinions. Their pride. Their shame. Then, apply your knowledge to determining their every word, action, and reaction.

Fictional Character Development Tip #2: Catch them in their lies.

A decade-plus of research by University of Massachusetts psychologist Robert Feldman concludes that 60 percent of people average two to three lies during a typical 10-minute conversation. Think about it: you probably lie your butt off too. “I’m fine.” “Of course that makes sense to me.” “I have read and agree to the aforementioned terms and conditions.” The first story in my award-winning fiction chapbook, Salve, reads like an ode to something Mark Twain once said: “A man is never more truthful than when he acknowledges himself a liar.” Why? Because there’s no better way to make characters feel real than to reveal their dishonesty.

Fictional Character Development Tip #3: Become a stalker.

It’s easy to do, for most of us, as we deal with other people daily. I’m not suggesting you get creepy and harass anyone, or cross any physical boundaries — simply that you practice taking an obsessive interest in others. On trains and in cafes, eavesdrop on the bickering couples you’d normally tune out. At home, check out YouTube videos of real people talking unscripted. And when people address you directly — for the sake of all that is holy — lean in and listen. It will do wonders for your characters’ dialogue. Need a character tag, like Yoda’s distinctive syntax, Clint Eastwood’s squint or Hello Kitty’s bow? Watch your neighbors: how they stand when they’re watering the lawn, how they move when they’re in a hurry, what they wear to take out the trash. That way, when you publish your next piece, script your next video game or option your next screenplay, and a fan asks whether the characters are based on real people, you can lift a sardonic eyebrow and quip like Lemony Snicket: “No. I’ve never met a real person, so I had to make up what they were like!”

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