Character Development – What is it Really?


First – shameless self promotion! I was informed last night that I am up for a reader’s choice award! Please, please, please go to UrbanFantasyLand and vote for me and your other favorite authors before January 30th!
Rah rah rah! Vote Vote Vote! Whoowhoo!
Ahem….(Carefully restoring decorum…)

 Second, we have Miz Kim Harrison blogging for us tomorrow. Send all friends to us for her great information!

 And now on to the blog.

 Last week and the week before, I blogged about the Don’ts and the Dos of writing. One of my *Dos* was: Your character has one great strength and one great weakness. The weakness makes the conflict worse, the strength and developing strengths saves him and resolves the plot. This is called the marriage of character development and plot conflict.

We writers talk about character development but seldom explain what it is or how to do it – and I am the world’s worst about this. As usual, there are other ways to develop a character, but here MagicalWords is how I teach it, and how I do it.

 Walter S. Campbell was a teacher of writing at the University of Oklahoma for decades. He published some of the most quoted and revered advice on writing ever written, and a lot of my seminar teaching comes from his work Writing Advice and Devices. It is out of print now, but if you ever get a chance to buy a used copy – it is worth its weight in gold.

 Okay – Character development….

 While we are going over this part I’d like you to keep in mind Pretty Woman and the first Stars Wars movie of 20+ years ago. Just keep them in the back of your mind. If you are too young to remember them, rent both (with parental permission for the really young) and watch them. They are great movies for teaching character development.

 There are specific, identifiable parts to strength and weakness Characterization…. These are called TRAITS. Strengths and weaknesses:

1.      Human or Natural Traits: Read here SELFISH! Love of food or liquor, laziness, selfish love of a mother for her child – weaknesses. Spite, envy, cowardice, fear of commitment. All these are anti-society, if you will, the evil part of all of us. Even your main character should have some human traits, even if it’s just having a beer after work or liking to tease another character. NOTE: All the human, natural, selfish traits lead to conflict. Remember the Star Wars movie? Luke Skywalker was willing to use trickery to get his way. And then there was the legacy of his pappy.

2.      Typical Traits: These are representative of a group: boldness in an explorer, daintiness in a lady, organizational skills in a secretary. These are the stereotypical traits that help us quickly identify a character. Not trying to say that every character has to has to fit his stereotype, but some of the traits are there. Think about Greg House MD. Biggest PITA in the world. No compassion, tries to sow discord, puts down everyone. But he can’t put down a medical problem. He is a *doctor*. He does fit the stereotype of the doc with the yucky bedside manner. Luke Skywalker was a farm boy and he had the strengths of a farm boy, knew his terrain, where his friends were, and who to go to for assistance when attacked.

3.      Individual Traits: These traits are peculiar to one character, the non-stereotypical traits such as honor in a thief, murderous jealousy in the heart of the lady. Personal traits fall under this heading, like tics, or things the character personally fears like the zoologist who secretly fears snakes or rats, or the makeup artist who fears clowns, or the cowboy who fears barbwire. Okay, I know I’m getting a bit silly, but still, the point is that the fear or love has to be personal the character and the opposite or different from the stereotypical, expected traits. These can include secret, hidden loves – like love of ice-cream in a model, or love of auto racing in an environmentalist. Luke Skywalker had the gift of the force. Not your typical farm boy.

4.      Moral or Social: Read here UNSELFISH. These are the traits that keep the tribe together, like loyalty, or courage, or self-sacrifice. Luke Skywalker was courageous and loyal and idealistic.

 I want you to think a bit differently about humanity for just a moment. If you think about it, when a baby is born it is the most selfish, dependent, unthinkingly vicious of beings! It has the moral understanding of a shark. It is a complete egotist, selfish, greedy, at the mercy of his own emotions and appetites, and has no self control. AGAIN – He has the social sensitivity of a shark. But if Brought Up Right, and if he isn’t a sociopath or violently psychotic by genetics and birth, he develops into a social being. He begins to put the needs of the social group above his own needs.


1.      Star Trek Character… I think his name was Charlie. He had survived a ship crash and been raised alone with only the ship films and history to teach him to speak and think and feel. He’d had no human interaction. He had to isolated back on a planet by the caring ubber-beings who had kept him alive in the first place.

2.      The Poseidon Adventure: (the old one) movie where the boat turns over and the failed priest gives his life for the others.

3.      Scientists say that babies who are not held, withdraw and often later display violent and/or sociopathic behavior.

4.      Monk. Enough said.

 This is the part of the internal conflict of character development that has to blend with the external conflict. The natural man’s desire for self gratification buts up against the social man’s need to assist the group. But all 4 traits (in differing quantities) are needed for a well rounded positive character… or HERO!


Why do we need all 4 for a well rounded character?1.      Human or Natural Traits: Read here SELFISH! You want lots of this in the antagonist, of course, but you also want some in the protagonist. Why? It wins our goodwill, because it is at the bedrock of our own humanity, as long as it doesn’t injure the social group. Very important – in a good guy character, a protagonist, his selfish needs have to be restrained so that they do not injure the social group. In a bad-guy character, an antagonist, the traits may be kicked into a gallop and allowed free rein.


2.      Typical Traits, representative of a group: These are the stereotypical traits that help us quickly identify a character. They make the reader feel at home, at ease, and he identifies with the character traits.

3.      Individual Traits, or peculiar to one character: These add variety and your characters become real people by these traits. Look at the work of Janet Evanovich. Her Stephanie Plum is a nut, but loveable, whose cars keep getting blown up, whose family life is wacky, who is love with three men, who is the worst bonds recovery person ever, but everyone loves her. She has very individual traits. And Monk. Again, enough said. The readers (TV watchers) love these characters!

4.      Moral or Social: Read here UNSELFISH. These traits win our respect, they are the social traits which overcome our mundane, selfish humanity. Hence you need all of these traits to create a well rounded character. If you are developing a well rounded antagonist, and you give him some unselfish traits, this is very chilling to the reader – because bad guys aren’t suppose to be good in any part of their lives. Remember the bad guy in the cell (I don’t even have to say H. Lector, you already know it) who is erudite, well educated, gentle-seeming, mesmeric, even helpful. And he eats people.

 But not every character is or needs to be well-rounded. A writer also needs flat and relief characters. A flat or cardboard character is 2 dimensional. He has only one trait. EX: The cigar-chomping mailman who is needed to further the plot because every time he delivers the mail, it reeks of cigar smoke and stinks up the house. But one day an odd looking package appears on the counter, it doesn’t stink. The rest of the mail, on the other side of the counter, does. And the husband has been acting kinda odd, and has been reading books on bomb making…. The wife gets suspicious. A relief character has 2 or more traits. Like Evanovich’s gramma. She carries a big gun in her pocketbook. She climbs into coffins with her dead friends. She gets lucky from time to time. She makes me laugh out loud. She doesn’t change much, doesn’t develop much, but she’s always there, an dis better rounded than, say, the character’s mother.

 Villains in the past were always flat characters, like Boris and Natasha, or the bad guy in the Perils of Pauline movies. But today we have Silence of the Lambs, where both the antagonist and protagonist characters are fully fleshed out.

 Every character – flat, relief or full, has to have a function. A need to be, a raison de etre.

If it’s a mystery, he can be nothing more than a red herring, and his function is to have either motive and opportunity, but not means. Or some other version, but his function is to mystify and confuse the reader. He will be at best a relief character.

 But if your main characters are to blossom, then they have to have a function and the weapons to accomplish the goal you set for them. Monk is brilliant, has the capacity to make friends and admirers, and solves crimes, despite his social and psychological problems.

 So, how do I use the traits to develop a character? (Develop = change, growth, evolution.)

If you look at the traits carefully, and if you’ve had a philosophy, or psychology, or spiritual realization course at anytime in your life, you will spot some methods of characterization and character development right off! The best fall between two of the above, 1 & 4, natural and social traits. They come between the two conflicting parts of being human.

 In the course of a book, the plot conflict has to challenge the character’s weaknesses and allow him to grow. To change. To develop! It is this change that creates a hero.

 Barbara Taylor (NC writing teacher) once said – Every hero character has to have at least one great strength and one great weakness. That weakness has to drive the plot, and therefore the character himself, and the entire story almost to destruction. And the strength (or a growth in a previously weak trait) has to save the day. This change has to resolve the conflict. The conflict has to change the character. Only this change creates a memorable hero.

 Next week, I’ll break down one of two characters into the four traits and show how he or she developed. I’ll try to use both a well know known character from movies, and one of my own character’s traits. You can get an early look by going to FaithHunter and taking a look at excerpts of the Rogue Mage books.

Faith Hunter
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9 comments to Character Development – What is it Really?

  • Edmund Schubert

    Good stuff, Faith. Thanks for the refined look into character development, especially the reasoning behind it all.

  • Lots of great stuff here, Faith. I find the distilling of internal conflict down to natural vs. social to be particularly helpful. My first thought was of Bogie in “Casablanca.” The classic embodiment of that internal struggle. I also appreciate your point that every character MUST have a function. Just as every scene has to further the reader’s understanding of plot and/or character and/or background. The shark analogy works here, too: To live, the story must keep moving forward….

  • David, I try to practice what I preach, but I just got off the phone with my editor, who pointed out in my proposal of book two in Skinwalker series, I introduced a character who did nothing…
    So, I now have to decide what to do with him, or cut him, and I reeeeeally like him.

  • Faith, if you like him so much, maybe he’s there for a reason you somehow didn’t make clear in the narrative. Is it too late to rewrite his actions, and make them more important to the story?

  • There are times when I feel guilty for spending so much time reading authors blogs, then I read posts like this one and it is all worth it. Sleep? I don’t need not sleep!

    Thanks for sharing.

  • Thanks Edmund! (I just noticed your comment.)

    Misty, I am rewriting the proposal now and he became a she (not a surgical alternative, just a character change) and became integral to the entire series.
    I *knew* he…um…she was important to be there!

  • Great post, Faith. Looking forward to exploring it more in your next installment!

  • Thanks Magaly and Haley!
    Nice comments like that make it all worth while!
    (happy dancing)

  • Just another thought – sometimes I think the weakness ends up being a strength that saves the hero. To use your Star Wars example, Luke’s compassion, which creates tension especially in Empire, is ultimately what saves him and his father.

    Thanks for the great post!