Classic and Contemporary Tips for Developing Characters in Fiction

Woman Typing On A Typewriter

The heart of any compelling story or novel is its characters. Without memorable characters, a story will fall flat and the reader won’t care. Here we’ll explore how three classic authors approached the question of developing characters in fiction, followed by some contemporary resources.

Characters don’t need to be good or even sympathetic, but they do need to be driven by their beliefs and motivations to create a strong narrative arc, and to create and resolve conflict.

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Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L'Engle books on a bookstore shelf

Madeleine L’Engle suggested keeping one’s eyes and ears open: “I don’t suppose it’s possible for a writer to create a wholly imaginary character. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are drawing from every human being we have ever known, have passed casually in the street, sat next to on the subway, stood behind in the check-out line at the supermarket.

Perhaps one might say that we draw constantly from our subconscious minds, and undoubtedly this is true, but more important than that is the super-conscious level which comes to our aid in writing — or painting — or composing — or teaching, or listening to a friend.” (from A Circle of Quiet, 1972)

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Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott quotes


Louisa May Alcott made it sound simple — she observed the characters as they developed, almost letting them be in charge of her, rather than the other way around:

“While a story is under way I lie in it, see the people, more plainly than the real ones, round me, hear them talk, & am much interested, surprised, or provoked at their actions,” she wrote in an 1887 letter, “for I seem to have no power to rule them, & can simply record their experiences & performances.” If only it were that easy for the rest of us!

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L.M. Montgomery

L.M. Montgomery quote

L.M. Montgomery carried a notebook for jotting down her ideas for for plots, incidents, and characters. They were at her disposal when she needed a jumping off point:

“Two years ago in the spring of 1905 I was looking over this notebook in search of some suitable idea for a short serial I wanted to write for a certain Sunday School paper and I found a faded entry, written ten years before: 

‘Elderly couple apply to orphan asylum for a boy. By mistake a girl is sent them.’ I thought this would do. I began to block out chapters, devise incidents and ‘brood up’ my heroine. Somehow or other she seemed very real to me and I thought it rather a shame to waste her on an ephemeral little serial.

Then the thought came, ‘Write a book about her. You have the central idea and character. All you have to do is spread it out over enough chapters to amount to a book.’ The result of this was Anne of Green Gables.” (from her Journals, 1907)

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Open Book

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It’s always fascinating to see that accomplished authors of the past dealt with the same kinds of writerly issues we all face. But now, let’s get to more nitty-gritty. Here are a few contemporary views on how to create memorable characters, with tips that are a lot more specific:


Learn the basics with “Character 101”

If you’re a beginner and don’t know where to begin, Vicki Essex breaks it down to the basics in Building Complex, Interesting, Memorable Characters. Just one of her tips is to give your character a code — more of an ethical code rather than a secret code.

“This is your character’s iron-clad rule that they will not, under any circumstances, break,” she advises. And there’s lots more good advice on where this came from, when it comes to character development.

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Writing in notebook

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Name your characters

T.J. Ellison, author of best selling thrillers, has a simple tip that can go a long way — name your characters. “As I begin writing a new manuscript, I make a cast list. All the main characters are there, as well as all the secondary characters.” See more about this in her post on How to Build a Character

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Writing in a journal

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Nail your characters’ personality types

Here’s a “novel” approach: use the Myers Briggs Type Indicator to get deeper into the personality of your characters. That’s what Kristen Kieffer describes in My Favorite Method for Building Characters’ Personalities

Using this technique, she doesn’t merely write from the character’s perspective, she becomes the character. They come to life in a way she was never able to accomplish before nailing down their personality type.


Dig deep into each character’s motivation

Ellen Brock believes that characters lack depth when a writer focuses too much on personality. She had some great tips on delving deep into a character’s motivation — what they want, their goals, and their emotional state. Learn more in Creating Deep Realistic Characters.


13 more great tips on developing characters in fiction

Justine Musk offers a treasure trove of inspiration for developing characters in fiction in 13 Ways to Create Compelling Characters. She offers tips from making the character exceptional at something unique, to giving them “blind spots” that stand in the way of their own self-perception. 

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Book in snow

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See more from our writing advice category — timeless tips from past and present!

Photos: Bigstock and Unsplash

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