November 6, 2019 Character Development

Class Notes from Creative Writing and Memoir Writing Classes

Writing and Memoir Writing

Part 1 from

Assignment: Continue working on your current project BUT pay attention to how you can show some aspect of your character developing. Consider who the character was in the beginning and what your reader knows about the character. In this section, reveal something that will show is more of the character’s inner self. Think goals or motivations or why he or she is making the choices we see now.

Notes: Read the following 9 tips for character formation and development. You’ll find tips to use goals, motivations, conflicts, emotional types and other character elements to create intriguing arcs:

1: Plan characters’ goals and motivations

Character development starts with motivations and goals. What your characters wants to do, achieve (or avoid) at the start, middle, or end of your story shapes plot. It’s like Ray Bradbury said:

‘Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.’ Ray Bradbury, ‘Zen in the art of writing: Essays on creativity’, p. 152.

Deciding what your characters want, and why, is a crucial step in deciding what will happen next.

2: Develop characters using internal and/or external conflicts

Conflict is a useful agent of change. In character development, conflicts can test your characters’ resolve (their commitment to their goals), or might add interesting battle scars (trauma) that shape future decisions.

A character who has been in an unhappy or abusive relationship, for example, may well avoid future intimacy due to the perceived risk. We carry our pasts around, to greater and lesser degrees.  And we bring the templates or lessons they’ve given to new obstacles or conflicts, too (whether constructively or destructively).

So how can you create character development using internal and external conflict?

A) Internal conflict and character development

Internal conflict is the inner struggle a person experiences. For example, a character who is often rebuked for being oversensitive may develop a complex about not showing their emotion too much. Interesting internal conflicts that can shape your characters’ choices and actions include:

  • Risk avoidance: What does your character most want to avoid occurring? Why?
  • Indecision: A character who loves freedom and wanderlust might be fearful of commitments such as fixed relationships or work contracts (they may be torn between love of freedom and the comforts of security)
  • Self-doubt: A character who has low self-confidence might doubt their intuition and ignore it, making choices that aren’t ultimately in their best interests

These are just some possible sources of internal conflict. Brainstorming characters’ backstories will help you understand where characters’ internal conflicts come from. Show how your characters grow and overcome internal conflict (or fall into the same habits and patterns – a typical feature of ‘tragic hero’ figures). 

B) External conflicts and character development

External conflict is the conflict between a character and external elements such as:

  • Antagonists: Characters whose goals are opposite – such as a tyrant king (if your main character were a rebellious peasant)
  • Environment: For example, the battle between Santiago, an aging fisherman, and a marlin in Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
  • Society: For example, a character who is shunned by their society for non-accepted behaviour, such as Hester Prynne who has a child through an affair and is shunned by puritan society in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850)
  • Supernatural forces: Many horror and supernatural stories involve conflicts between characters and malevolent, inexplicable forces, such as the struggle between the children and the shape=shifting evil that mimics children’s fears in Stephen King’s It

External conflicts develop characters in many ways:

  1. They could inflict trauma which becomes an emotional and/or physical wound your character must overcome.
  2. They create practical obstacles that test characters’ skill, resolve or power. For example, Santiago in Hemingway’s novel is in danger as he grapples with the marlin on the open sea.
  3. They raise exciting uncertainties. Will the old man overcome the marlin? Will the children survive ‘It’? Because external conflicts have force or will of their own, they’re circumstances beyond characters’ control, and this makes them unpredictable and exciting.

Use internal and external conflicts to create circumstances that test, change and grow your characters.

A child who undergoes a harrowing experience, for example, may emerge wizened beyond their years, melancholic, angry – there are many possible ways we can respond to events, and that’s what makes great character development mesmerizing. The fascinating combination of freedom vs choice, the unexpected vs the inevitable.

3: Use characters’ emotions to drive development

Just like real people, our characters have emotional inner worlds. Even if this world consists of a lack of emotion (or rather, of the ability to show emotion), this is still an emotional quality. We can compare it to how other characters feel, handle or display their own emotions.

Examples of emotional states that drive character development. Think about a character you’ve developed or have thought about. What is their dominant emotion? It could be:

  • Anxiety
  • Optimism
  • Melancholy
  • Anger
  • Joy
  • Determination

These are just some examples of emotional states a character might slip into.

How does a determined/driven character act vs a mostly anxious one? What are the pluses and minuses of their emotional makeup when it comes to pursuing their goals? How might these emotions shape their motivations? (An anxious character, for example, will try to avoid situations that trigger their anxiety).

Know your characters emotionally and you’ll have the underlying currents and causes that shape their actions.

4: Give your main characters foils who contrast

Chris Baldick, in the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms, defines a character foil thus: ‘A character whose qualities or actions serve to emphasize those of the protagonist (or of some other character) by providing a strong contrast with them. Thus in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, the passive obedience of Jane’s school-friend Helen Bums makes her a foil to the rebellious heroine.’ Chris Baldick, ‘Foil’, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (2001), p. 98

A foil might not be necessary. But a character like Jane Eyre’s school friend Helen is useful for developing a main character because:

  1. The contrasts between a character and their foil throw each characters strengths and weaknesses into relief, emphasizing their key attributes.
  2. Foil characters can supplement other characters’ strengths and weaknesses, providing contradiction, argument, or help when most needed. This element work in, for example, the figure of the ‘straight man’ in comedy – the straight-laced, level-headed character who brings a flighty, kooky character back down to earth.

Reversals – changes of fate or fortune – help to develop characters, too:

5: Include reversals that shift character development

If you look at real people in your life, how many have developed in a simple, continuous line? In career, relationships and more, many people change, some more often than others.

Character reversals are larger changes of fortune that suddenly shift conditions, for better or worse.

Two examples of character reversals:

  • In J.K. Rowling’s successful Harry Potter series, there’s an early reversal in book one when the orphan title character, who lives with his unkind aunt and uncle, finds out he has been chosen to attend a magic school. This reversal takes Harry out of their malignant guardianship every school season, allowing him to grow and discover his worth and power.
  • In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005), characters raised in a home for children discover first that they are raised to donate organs (but there is a deferral system), then that deferrals aren’t allowed (in a horrifying twist)

The first reversal is a positive reversal – a character’s life develops for the better. The second is a negative reversal, in that the sudden change in circumstances portends tragedy.

Sea changes such as these are useful for suddenly taking characters in new directions that give them space to confront new challenges, discoveries and struggles.

6: Develop characters using action and dialogue

How do we know a character has changed? Often it’s because the character makes choices we wouldn’t have expected them to make. The coward defends the bullied kid. The bully shows vulnerability that reveals the underlying causes of his behaviour.

As Rick Meyer for Nieman Storyboard says, ‘Sometimes you’ll be tempted to develop characters by saying who they are. Show them instead.’

Beginning writers are often tempted to explicitly tell the reader how the main character has changed. Revealing actions are subtler and can add up over time to convey a sense of development.

Dialogue is also useful for this element of gradual change:

To make your character development complex and believable, consider how changes in behaviour, speech and circumstances all intersect and can be used to paint a more convincing character portrait.

7: Let your character surprise you and your readers

Although character development depends on showing a chain of cause and effect – how your character responds to specific situations – surprise is a useful element of character change.

A character acting out of type unexpectedly can drive home that they are reaching a new point in their narrative arc.

If a character who is normally greedy and miserly suddenly acts charitably and selflessly, this new development can spark a change of course in the story.

Surprises and twists throw the reader into a state of curiosity and suspense. They make us want explanations, so they’re useful for adding contrast and intrigue. However, moderation (as in many things), is key.

Having your characters change mood, motivation or habit every other chapter could make them seem too inconsistent. If you do this, make sure there is an explanation that upholds your story’s internal logic.

8: Decide how your character will respond to changing circumstances

Your character’s circumstances might change in many ways in the course of your story. They might travel to a new location, they might form or lose relationships with others. Perhaps they form new beliefs and opinions or re-evaluate old ones.

Make your character development ring true by making each of these elements of change shift your character’s inner world, too. 

A change in city might change your character’s way of life and emotional life-world just as much as a change of romantic partner could. If you change a character’s circumstances, brainstorm the possible ways it can affect their motivations,  goals, hopes and dreams moving forwards in your story.

9: Compensate for static characters in other characters’ arcs

Sometimes your primary character might step into your story more or less fully formed. This is typical of action thrillers, for example, where the hardened tough guy must simply navigate and solve a new set of dangers.

As K.M. Weiland advises, when you have a flat character arc (or static character), create interest by giving your secondary characters their development of their own. Round characters who have depth and complexity can add surrounding dimension to an otherwise ‘typical tough guy’ protagonist. Contrast between characters is key to creating an ensemble of well-developed characters who feel real.

For more information on this topic, go to the complete article at

Part 2: About Social Media

P.S. One of the students in class this week had attended a seminar on using social media and self-publishing and brought her notes to class. She was willing to share them with the class, and I had said I would repost her personal notes here. However, as I examined her notes, I felt that it would be better and safer if I did not reprint them here. The content belongs to the presenter.

However you might want to look at related content at  


In this article, you will learn:

  • The best social media platforms to give your writing the best chance
  • How to effectively use social media for your writing career, so you’re not wasting time
  • The #1 reason why most writers fail at social media and how to fix this

So check it out. I am sure you will find it useful!

PSS. I did suggest that the library subscribe to Poets and Writers and Writer’s Digest so be on the look out for these two very helpful magazines.   

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