Just Creative Writing

Character Development


It is not enough to just understand the relationship between Character, Setting, Situation, and Theme. Once the author unearths these four foundational elements, the elements must overlap, one on top of the other; they must weave together to form a story foundation for the story to progress. To make this happen, we have to understand the primary techniques that complement the four basic elements.

There are a variety of primary techniques that the author will employ in order to weave these elements together. Although each technique has its own skillset, these too will overlap onto one another. In applying these techniques to the four elements, the author’s goal is to tighten and shape the story, taking it to its logical conclusion, and meeting those goals discussed earlier. When finishing the book, the reader should say, “Yes, this is right…” and remember the story and characters for days after closing the book.

There are two sets of techniques for the author to use to begin this weaving together, primary and secondary. These techniques are discussed in no particular order, but each is crucial to the fundamental elements discussed in last week's blog and to the growth of the story. Each of these techniques is discussed as a whole and with regard to how it relates to the four elements and its importance to the entire story. These primary techniques are:

• Character Development

• Viewpoint / Point of View

• Narrative

• Dialogue

• Description

• Conflict, Tension, and Suspense

• Beginnings, Middles, and Endings


The major characters should be the first ones we meet in the story—the protagonist, the antagonist, and other major characters that support both. These are the forces that move the story forward. The reader cares about these characters, regardless of their role. The reader should become emotionally involved with them—love them, hate them, worry about them, or fear them. These characters must be the most fully developed in the story, and they will make the choices that affect the story and the other characters. Their desires and actions drive the story forward, and they travel with it through its twists and turns.

Scenes are populated by characters and, in order for a scene to be believable, the characters must take actions that are indicative of their personalities. They cannot take action that would not be in keeping with who they are.

The Protagonist

The protagonist is the good guy: the hero or heroine of the story, the character the reader cheers for, the person we want to see accomplish their goal. At the beginning of the story, the protagonist may be weak, or confused, or not confident in his or her place in life, but when the situation occurs that drives the story forward, the character’s life begins to change and by the end of the story he or she should have grown mentally, spiritually, and/or morally. The protagonist should have a new appreciation for the situation. The transformation of the character is achieved through conflict, sacrifice, and self-evaluation.

Example: In Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, the heroine, the second Mrs. de Winter, is introduced to the reader as a simple, nondescript, rather mousy individual who is easily led by her employer. She is incapable of making decisions without specific guidance from others. She is swept off her feet by Max de Winter and marries him after a whirlwind courtship. But she is terrified at the prospect of running Manderley, her husband’s family estate, and is further intimidated by Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper. By the end of the story, she has grown through the many troubles set forth by du Maurier, to truly become the lady of the house.

A note about character growth: The level of growth a character displays may vary in genre fiction. Mysteries, which are often more situation-driven than character-driven, may show less growth in the character. On the other hand, Romance novels will have a higher level of character growth from the beginning of the story through to the end, because these novels are primarily character-driven. The bottom line, however, is that in each story, the protagonist will grow—to what extent may be determined by the nature of the story.

While there are no cut-and-dried rules in writing, there are guidelines that writers should be aware of, particularly when developing the protagonist. It should be noted that many of these characteristics listed below might be portrayed as weaknesses at the beginning of the story in order for the character to grow and strengthen them as the story progresses.

Intelligence. The reader appreciates a character who is clever enough to think her way through a problem to its logical conclusion. The writer is responsible for throwing roadblocks in the protagonist’s path, and the protagonist must find her own way around each of these problems. The protagonist cannot rely upon a second person to trot into the middle of a predicament and pull her fat out of the fire; the protagonist is responsible for getting herself out of any, and all problems put before her. She can get help from other characters, but the ultimate action to extricate herself (or others) is hers, and hers alone.

Example: Snidely Whiplash ties Miss Nell to the railroad tracks and demands the deed to her ranch for her freedom. She refuses, and Snidely leaves her to her certain death, sure that he can claim her property once she is dead. If Miss Nell is the protagonist, she must extricate herself from the predicament. She cannot rely upon Dudley Do-Right to pop out from behind a tumbleweed to save her. If, however, Dudley Do-Right is the protagonist, then it is his responsibility to save her.

Dependability. If the character breaks his word, there must be a good reason for it. Dependability is a characteristic we all find necessary in our lives. We want to be dependable for others, and we expect dependability from others.

Courage and Fair Play. The character cannot do anything deemed underhanded by the reader unless it is set as a red herring or foreshadows an event that will be explained later in the story.

Attitude. The character’s attitude toward others, herself, and the events of the story will go a long distance toward winning the sympathy of the reader. The writer must not allow attitude to come across to the reader as arrogant. Save arrogance for the antagonist. The protagonist does not flaunt her superiority. In many of today’s suspense thrillers, the protagonist does show moments of arrogance, and the reader accepts this. In the end, however, she generally does not trip over her arrogance.

Victimhood. This can be seen as a weakness unless the character starts out weak, and the author develops the character’s strength and courage throughout the story. Abused characters (husbands, wives, children, animals) are victims, but the victimization can be turned into a positive role from which the protagonist will grow as the story progresses.

Savior. The protagonist should not rush in but be reluctant to intrude until the urgency of the situation is known. She should be thoughtful and intelligent in that she considers her options before moving forward—even if that thought is momentary and the situation requires immediate action. It should be noted that even in today’s action stories, the protagonist would take a moment to reflect on the outcome before rushing in to save the day.

Sacrifice. Sacrifice for the good of the story will endear the character to the reader; however, the audience will reject martyrdom if it is for no good reason and will see it as wasteful. If the writer deems that sacrifice is a trait important to this character, it must be for the right reason.

Appearance. Physical attractiveness can be overdone. Beauty is not synonymous with good. (Exception: Romance stories, unless the character develops from ugly duckling to beautiful swan). Strong protagonists do not need to rely upon good looks, and indeed the author should establish flaws in his protagonist in order to flesh out the three-dimensional aspect of the character.

Endearing traits. Like appearance, endearing traits can be excessive. While these can add to the character’s dimension, be careful not to overdo them to the point of making the protagonist look foolish. The lovable rogue, humor in the face of adversity, a bumpkin—these are traits that often work well with major secondary characters—the sidekick or the best girlfriend.