How to Write Well-Developed Characters
Why hello there, friends! It’s been a few weeks, hasn’t it?
I’m currently working on a new post for our series on building your author platform and launching your writing career. We’ll be talking about the business side of selling books, specifically how to brand yourself as an author.
But in the meantime, I thought we could discuss a topic we haven’t talked about in a long time here on the blog: characters. In the past, we’ve talked about the four major types of characters (i.e. heroes, villains, sidekicks, and mentors), as well as how to create character personalities, story goals, motivations, etc.
But one topic we’ve yet to touch on is what it means to write well-developed characters.
Well, actually we have talked about this a bit in our post on 33 Ways to Write Stronger Characters, but today I want to take a different approach to this subject and talk about the many things you may be doing wrong when crafting your characters.
Sound like a plan, Stan? Let's go!
What makes a "strong" character?
As authors, we often hear the phrase “strong character”, particularly when dealing with female characters.
Originally, this was a great expression. For so long, the vast majority of female characters in literature were presented as passive, as being in need of saving or serving solely as a prize for the male hero when he finally defeated the villain.
It should come as no surprise that women were sick of seeing themselves represented as objects that could be passed around or obtained rather than, ya know, actual human beings. Human beings that went through their own crap, kicked butt, and lived out incredible lives and such.
Women–and some pretty awesome men, too–wanted to see women presented as active characters in literature, and so they demanded it. They made sure their desires were known.
And you know what? Things changed!
Writers were suddenly taught to create strong female characters. Strong female characters.
This phrase became a broken record, and much of the progress we were seeing in women's representation became broken, too. You see, it didn’t take long for strong female characters to secretly become physically strong male characters trapped in female bodies.
Strong became synonymous with physical strength. With being able to shoot a gun and beat up bad guys and wield a dagger as though it were a third limb. And that’s cool and all. Women can totally do those things. But those women are not most women.
In fact, I’d say there are very few women like that at all. Or men, for that matter.
But once again, female readers were presented with a deluge of female characters who were valued more for what they could do with their bodies than what they could do with their minds and their hearts and their souls and their words and themselves.
If you’re thinking right about now that this post has turned into a feminist rant...well, you’re not wrong. But I’m not talking crazy, radical, down-with-men feminism. I'm talking equality. Because these tropes–these damsels in distress and badass female action heroes–they hurt male characters and male readers, too.
Because they reinforce the idea that physical strength, emotionless rationality, and violence are the only ways that people can prove themselves to be strong, capable human beings. And this idea? It’s a load of crap.
Can we take a moment to talk about the women who fight breast cancer with emotional balls of steel? Or the men who raise children after their wives pass away? Can we talk about the men and women who reform countries with wisdom and strategical thinking rather than loud-mouth claims and ridiculous threats?
How about the badasses in wheelchairs? The amputees? The rape survivors? How about people who talk suicide jumpers off of bridges and the people who fight back every day against depression and anxiety and other mental illnesses?
How about the incredible people who strive each and every day to live out their dreams in a world that tells them to stick to the safe route?
Friends, I am so far off the outline I wrote out for this post, and I don’t even care. This warped idea of what makes a strong character–and ultimately a strong human being–is so screwed up, and we as writers have the power to change this. To shape our culture for the better.
So what are we waiting for?
Let me tell you a little story about a character from my upcoming novel.
One of my heroes in The Dark Between is a classic, noble-hearted knight. He’s young, handsome, rich and well-loved by the people. He’s got shiny armor and an even shinier sword. At first glance, he’s the epitome of cliché.
At first glance, he’s also a classic representation of “strong”. He’s killed people with that shiny sword. He’s a warrior, a verifiable action hero. A total Prince Charming, dragon-slayer and all. But you know what? Cian Lahaye also suffers from PTSD and depression. And you know what else? Those things are not his flaws.
Cian's PTSD and depression do not make him weak. They make him real. They take his seemingly indestructible image and spin it on its head. They show how a man can win every battle without receiving so much as a single scratch and still walk away wounded.
Cian Lahaye is a strong character. Not because he’s a knight. Not because he knows how to wield a sword. Not even because he’s a stereotype with a surprising twist.
Cian Lahaye is a strong character because he’s a person. Not a caricature, a person. He has hopes and dreams, fears and regrets. He has flawed personality traits and religious and political beliefs and warped ideas that have been ingrained in him by society.
He has questions and doubts. He gets angry, and he gets excited. He has good days and bad days. He’s real. He’s not a proud and noble-hearted knight, and he’s not just a brooding one either. He’s a person.
And all of that–all of those facets that make him complex and interesting and unique–those are what make him a strong character…or what I prefer to call a well-developed character.
Are you making these common character mistakes?
Forgive me if that last section seemed a bit brag-y. That certainly wasn’t my intention. Haha! I just wanted to show you that your characters can still follow certain trope, cliché, and archetype frameworks without actually being those things.
“But what are those things?” you ask. It’s okay, friend. I didn’t know the definitions and differences for a long time either. Let’s break them down so we can learn what it really means to write a well-developed character.
Tropes. A trope is a device or convention that often occurs in literature and is familiar and easily recognizable to audiences. In other words, tropes are stereotypes. Think: the nerdy Asian, the dumb blonde, the secretly-pretty bookworm.
These tropes aren’t always bad. It’s actually quite hard to avoid any and all tropes in your writing. But there are always tropes that readers are just waaay beyond tired of seeing.
At the moment, one of those tropes is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, where a lively, wacky, and playful female character teaches an emotionally-repressed male character how to look at life through a different lens.
Stereotypes are sometimes true, so it’s not the end of the world if one of your characters falls into a trope. But the key is to A) avoid the tropes that readers are especially exasperated with, and B) make sure to give your trope-y character the well-rounded treatment.
More on that later.
Clichés. You probably know what the word “cliché” means, but let’s clarify what it means in relation to our characters. In this instance, a cliché is a character who falls directly into a trope or archetype without any effort on part of the author to make them in any way unique.
For instance, the Mary Sue. Kaitlin from Ink and Quills has an excellent article on how to avoid writing this trope, but here’s the short version: a Mary Sue is an ideal woman. Too ideal, that is.
She’s perfect and beautiful but doesn’t know it, she can do no wrong in the eyes of others, and she learns to overcome past hurts and fears when the right ~boy~ comes along to help her through. In other words, Bella Swan from Twilight, right? There’s nothing unique about Bella Swan. No twist, no surprises.
She’s a literary everygirl, what so many female readers aspire to be but can never achieve because let’s face it: she isn’t well-rounded enough to qualify as a real person. She’s a caricature–a cliché if you will–and there’s nothing we as readers can do about it.
Archetypes. Archetypes and tropes are pretty similar, but there is a difference. You see, character tropes are steeped in cultural awareness. If you go to a foreign country, the vast majority of their character tropes will be different from your own.
Archetypes, on the other hand, transcend culture. These are broader stereotypical characters that you will find in stories around the world and throughout time. Think: the hero, the lover, the rebel, the magician, the explorer, the wise man, the caregiver or healer, etc.
These stereotypes follow the patterns of life. They also often serve as a precursor to tropes (i.e. the noble-hearted hero, the rebel with a cause, the wise old man, etc.).
Archetypes become tropes, and if you choose to use one of these tropes without adding a little of your own characterization magic, tropes become clichés. And nobody likes clichés.
“But Kristen, millions of people loved Twilight and Bella Swan.”
Okay, let me rephrase. People only like clichés if they represent an idealistic and unattainable version of themselves...and that still doesn’t make those clichés good characters. Cool?
So, how do you write good characters? Truly strong, well-developed, and well-rounded characters? By making them multi-faceted, complex, and unique!
This doesn’t mean you need to go out and turn every last cliché on its head. It also doesn’t mean that you should go pick the least represented person in all of literature and write twelve different novels about them unless, you know, it’s actually something you’re passionate about.
It's true, friends. Literature desperately needs to represent more people of color, more queer characters, more characters that aren’t able-bodied, more interracial relationships, more religious and political perspectives, more of everything. We truly do need diverse books.
But writing an underrepresented character doesn’t automatically make your character more well-rounded or strong. You can still write crap characters even if they represent an underrepresented people group. My point? Don’t treat diverse characters as your writing charity case, okay?
But I digress. Diversity in literature is a whole ‘nother heavy topic that we should talk about sometime, but for now, let’s talk about representing real human beings in literature, not the hollow shells and poor caricatures we all too often see.
The key to writing truly strong characters is to write well-developed characters, and the key to writing well-developed characters is to know your characters inside and out.
Fortunately for you, my friend, that post I mentioned at the top of this article–33 Ways to Write Stronger Characters–is the perfect resource to help achieve this end. It comes with a free workbook and all that jazz, too, so allow me to present you with this shiny link. TADA!
Can "weak" characters be well-developed, too?
One last thing to talk about, guys.
If we’re truly going to write real human beings in our stories, that also means we need to write weak human beings. Why? Because just as we have dads rocking their parenting skills, we also have drunk dads who abuse their families and deadbeat dads who walk away from them.
Just like we have women who use their brains to transform countries, we also have women who use immoral practices to fight their way to the top. And just like we have people who talk suicide jumpers off of bridges, we also have people who drive right on by and tell themselves they didn’t see a thing.
People aren’t always great. In fact, more often than not, people suck.
There are so many heroes in life, but they’re often lost in the messiness that is human nature. For some, it takes a certain circumstance to transform them into heroes. Others never become heroes at all. And some were heroes all along.
People are as diverse in their mindsets and morals as they are in their bodies and beliefs. We need to represent these people, too. And that means we need to craft well-developed characters who are weak rather than strong.
I mean, get this:
We can create the worst scum-of-the-earth villain that’s so well-developed and complex that he truly represents a terrifying look at humanity. We can also create selfish and bitter everyday characters who are so believable in their actions and emotions that your readers can truly identify with them.
Strong characters are complex characters. They are real characters. They are characters who don’t seem like characters at all, but rather actual manifestations of real human beings.
I don’t know about you, but as a writer, the idea of having to write such a character is terrifying. It seems impossibly hard and ridiculously time-consuming. And you know what? Sometimes it is.
But I can also tell you this: taking the time to craft well-developed characters is one of the most rewarding things you can do as a writer, and that all comes to light the moment your readers get a hand on your book and discover just how magical it is–all thanks to your characters.
So what do you say, writer? Are you brave enough to craft some of the best characters literature has ever seen? Whew! Talk about pressure, right? How about just working to craft characters that will knock your readers’ socks off?
That’s a pretty nice happy medium, right?
So if you’re up for the challenge, make sure to pop on over to our blog post on creating strong characters and get started. I can’t wait to see the amazing characters you create!