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Writing Tips: How to Develop Compelling Characters

Every compelling story needs equally compelling characters, but where do you begin?

Author Shawn Smucker, in his workshop “On Finding and Growing Ideas for Fiction” at the 2018 Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing, suggested creating a character that will act as a springboard for the plot. Even if you have a plot in mind, his strategy can still be useful if done in the context of the fictional world you are writing.

Smucker began by providing an image of a random person for each writer participating in the workshop. The writers then underwent six steps to turn that person into a fictional character.

  1. Describe the physical appearance of the character. Go into detail. Are there any distinguishing marks or features? Imagine the character’s movement. Is there anything peculiar about the way he/she moves?

  2. Go deeper. Move into the personality of your character. What is his/her aura? What are their likes and dislikes?

  3. Ripple out. Think about the motivations and desires of your character. What is the one thing your character wants more than anything?

  4. Setting. How does the character interact with his/her surroundings? What is the environment like? What does your character’s location mean to him/her? NOTE: Smucker suggests that you think of the setting as a character on its own.

  5. Conflict. What causes conflict, internal and external, for your character? In what ways does this manifest itself in the story?

  6. Dialogue. Sketch out a brief conversation between your protagonist and another character. How does your character speak? What does their word choice, sentence structure, etc. reveal?

You should have a rough sketch of your protagonist and some clues that can help you form a plot. The issue now is developing your character into a believable and entertaining guide for your readers. The reader needs to empathize with your protagonist and to empathize, reader must be able to see the protagonist as a real person. Part of this is having a morally complex character. No one wants to read about a perfect person who does everything right all the time and never faces any difficulties. On the flip side, no one wants to read about a character that is pure evil and only ever acts from a place of pure hatred and malice. The truth is, no one is 100% good or evil, and there should be no 100% good or evil person in the world you create for your readers.

To create necessary complexity in your character, it's important to understand his/her motivations and desires. In Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole extolls the importance of understanding character objective and core identity.

What is your character’s deepest desire and what will he/she do to get it? What obstacles stand in the way of your character gaining their objective? Does your character desire anything they shouldn’t? Why does your character desire these things? What are your character’s strengths and weaknesses? His/her values and beliefs?

Once you’re able to answer these questions, you should have a deep understanding of who your character is and a solid foundation to look back on as your character faces challenges in the plot.

For more information about character development, I highly recommend looking to Writing Irresistible Kidlit by Mary Kole, which offers several helpful exercises and tips on the subject that work for both kidlit writers and other authors.

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