How to Develop Your Characters off the Page

A black cat reaches out to touch a human finger in a reference to the Creation of Adam painting
Photo by Humberto Arellano on Unsplash

Last time I wrote about craft, I directed you to the starting line. In that post, I wrote superficially about getting to know your characters, kicking off the plot, building your world, and the search for information. Someone asked me about developing that stuff, and I realized I’d glossed over it. I’d told you it was important work but took for granted you’d already done it.

Oops!

So let’s talk about character development. When we talk about character development in a story, we typically refer to the ways in which that story develops its characters on the page. How do the characters develop for the reader? What does the reader come to learn and understand about the characters, and how do the characters change through their arc? What story does that arc tell, and what significance can the reader derive from it? Those are questions I won’t be addressing in this post but will in a later one. This time, I focus on developing your characters off the page for your understanding. How do you create a character so that you understand and know them well enough to then insert them into a story for the reader to meet and follow?

Character Vs. Plot

If we’re going to start creating the elements of a story, we first need to set down a good foundation, and a vital aspect of that is distinguishing between character and plot. Or, rather, how they are distinguishable but inseparable. 

If we tune into a plot-driven story to see what’s going to happen, we tune into a character-driven story to see what a character is going to do. Certainly, there are all kinds of caveats, exceptions, and nuances to this, but one way or another, this loose and generalized perspective has helped me sort through a lot of storytelling. External factors and events influence characters as their decisions and ability to act within their means and constraints affect the world they inhabit.

That’s a wordy way of saying character and plot go hand-in-hand. Generally, every story has both a depth of character and an active plot no matter how much one or the other is in the driver’s seat or tucked away under the spare tire in the trunk (again, there are exceptions here, but probably fewer than you think; I’ve dug out plots from stories otherwise considered character studies, so there). I’ve known many writers who have a keen sense of one and struggle with the other, and I think it’s important foundation building for any writer to master both regardless of which they plan to drive their narratives with. 

I’m focusing on character today, but in a later post, I’ll get to plot because it’s every bit as important to storytelling.

The character development worksheet

First, a disclaimer: I don’t write this way. For me, characters are less like Lego people assembled with different color blocks and a more ethereal and intuitive thing. Once I hear their voice and can see them in my mind, I know them, but I recognize I’m weird and many writers might want something a bit more tactile and logical. I’m speaking to those writers here because A). you all exist and B). I think it’s a good place to start for beginners, too. 

If you’re a writer who’s more like me, I encourage you first to not allow a worksheet to paralyze you, and skip it if you suspect it will. However, I encourage everyone to at least read through the worksheet, and if you spot one or two or a handful of questions or thoughts to consider, take them with you. There’s no harm in getting some scaffolding for your amorphous imagination blob. 

This goes for everyone, though: No, you don’t need to be able to answer these questions about your characters before you write their stories, and if you can’t answer them, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. In fact, full disclosure, I don’t know that I could fill out this worksheet for characters I’ve spent years writing about and then published.

One final note: This is a very long worksheet, cobbled together from prompts that have helped me over the years and ones I’ve devised on my own. My intention was not to make you fill it out in full but to take it and make it your own. Feel free to ignore or delete prompts, and certainly add others as you like.

Okay, disclaimer over. Here is my big worksheet for character development. Take a look. Do any of these prompts or questions trigger thoughts or inspiration? Can you think of any of your existing characters here? Or does any of this generate new characters for you? Again, feel free to take this and make it your own. Cut, add, or adapt to suit your own process. As is, I’ve made it long and broad to suit as many writers as possible, so you may wish to narrow and focus it.

This is a way, but it isn’t the way

Remember, knowing your characters intimately isn’t the point of developing your characters off the page. Informing your story is the point. Many writers believe good storytelling begins with cerebral character study, and while that is a legitimate approach, it isn’t the only approach to storytelling. As writers, we need to understand our characters insofar as they serve the story. No one will quiz you on your characters’ likes and dislikes. The only metric you need to satisfy with your characters is how well they suit your story.

You may wish to fill this thing out in detail before you even start on your first page, but you also can get started if all you have is a hazy idea. Your process is your own, so find what works for you.

If you find the worksheet overwhelming, I suggest trying to reach a baseline understanding of your characters’ identity, personality, physicality, backstory, motivations and goals, and narrative purpose, even if only in the abstract. If you want to dig into your story, don’t let anything stop you, but keep coming back to these off-the-page character development ideas. Feel free to fill them out as you work. Get more specific as details occur to you. Allow yourself to arrive at depth naturally versus pushing your imagination to conjure and contrive your characters. That way lies stale and manufactured storytelling.

Ultimately, there is no worksheet, activity, or aid that can develop your characters for you. You’re the keystone in every one of your characters’ constructions, and fitting in there and building them around you is just something that has to happen over time. You have to live in your story with your characters, and the more you do, the more they will develop (I promise), and the more your understanding of them will fuel their journeys and generate conflict when their goals meet obstacles. 

And on that note, to the writers like me who work more abstractly and intuitively, I saw you sitting quietly and respectfully in the back. Now, I’m turning to you, but you more logical and cerebral writers shouldn’t tune out! You might just find something below that you could use to augment your process. 

Other tips and tricks for character development

There are many ways to get to know characters just as there are many ways to get to know people in your lives. Outside of those targeted by law enforcement, intelligence agencies, or spy networks, people don’t have fact sheets or dossiers. We generally get to know others through good old-fashioned experience with them. 

So, here are some more intuitive ways I’ve used to develop my characters.

Cast your characters

Thanks to evolution and instincts, we all have some capacity of evaluating another person based on their physical appearance, facial expressions, tone of voice, the way they move, the way they stand there or are at rest, and a myriad of other factors. By simply looking at, watching, and listening to another person, you can get a sense of them. You can anticipate what their skin might feel like and how they might react if you touched them. You can guess whether they smell like sandalwood and denim, the spray of the ocean, coffee and fertile soil, or motor oil and sweat. I’m not going to go into the sense of taste because A). I’m not a romance or erotica writer and B). I just don’t think I’ll ever be on board with cannibalism. Suffice to say, much of a person’s presence transmits simply by viewing them, whether you pass them on the street or watch them in a movie.

So if you’re a more intuitive and visceral writer, do the latter. Pretend your story or novel is a film. Who would you cast as your characters? Think about why. Is it a particular performance that informs your choice, or is it their overall aesthetic and mystique? You don’t need to limit your casting to well-known actors, either. Choose lesser-known actors, public figures from other disciplines (such as a politician, tech corporation executive, or other as it makes sense for your character), or people from your own lives. 

The last one is a very natural thing most of us do, especially when we first start writing. Some characters may be based partially or wholly on people we know (don’t tell your family or friends!). As we advance, we tend to synthesize characters from specific traits of various people we know (including ourselves) and blend them together in ways that are interesting, but there’s absolutely zero shame in using people who exist to inform and develop a character off of the page. 

Remember two things: 1) The point here is not to use these people as characters on your page but to allow them to inform your creativity off the page so that you naturally synthesize characteristics into the character that lives on your page and, ultimately, translates to the reader as someone unique, and 2). Like a magician, never reveal how you do this trick (or who a character may be based on).

Feel free to print out pictures of these people and pin them to a corkboard. You might even consider using multiple people for one character. Go nuts. Also, allow your casting to change as you live with your characters. If you get to a point in which an actor you’ve chosen doesn’t quite fit as well as another actor, replace them. It’s not like anyone’s losing a job or anything.

Build a playlist of your character’s favorite songs

If you’re more audibly inclined, like me, music has the capability to color your world. It can make your environment feel sharp and dangerous, as if all the windows in your house have blown inward, or it can make your environment feel safe and comforting, like a bath of warm chocolate pudding. Why chocolate? Because any other flavor of pudding is an abomination. Get out of here with your vanilla and butterscotch (but okay, homemade banana pudding is pretty good).

With a character playlist, you can either shape your writing environment or turn your music-listening time into a productive activity that works for your writing. What kind of music would your character like? What kind of music were they exposed to growing up, and what does that say about where they came from? What kind of music did they choose in their teenage years and adult years beyond? Why does this music speak to them? Do they use music to busy their ears as they work, add excitement to the day, cope with grief or a trauma? Fill a playlist with this character’s music, and when you want to spend your day with them—when you want to get to know them better or just get a feel for them—hit play.

Alternatively, use music as a source of inspiration for creating a character from the ground up. We writers often see reflections of ourselves in our characters. Maybe you’re someone who grew up on classic rock and slow ballads and now are inclined to listen to folk and country music, but hey, you also get in the mood for some hip hop and pop. Why? Isolate that part of yourself that the music speaks to. What if you only had that in your life? What if you start a character there?

Of course, if you like to listen to music as you write, creating different playlists for different characters can help color your environment as you write about those characters. If you find music with lyrics distracting (like me), there is a ton of good instrumental music out there. You just gotta look.

One final note for you music-loving writers: In addition to casting your story or novel as if it were a movie, consider creating a playlist to serve as its soundtrack. You don’t need to listen to it as you write, but it can be useful for keeping you in that story’s headspace when you’re away from your computer. Most of my advice boils down to “you have to spend time and energy in your world and with your characters,” so a soundtrack can help you think about your story even when you’re away from it.

Make a mood board

If visual stimuli hits you harder than music, I’ve got you, too. Decorate your writing space.

No, you don’t need to reorganize when you switch perspectives or move on to another project, silly. Simply find images that represent your character, and organize them in a physical or digital location. Maybe they’re a teacher, so include a picture of a classroom under their name. Maybe they like baseball, so put up some images from their favorite team or baseball park. Maybe they’re passionate about where they grew up, so stick a landscape of their home region or country up there. You may choose to print them out and put them on a corkboard, but you also may want to save paper, in which case organize them as a digital collage and set it as your computer desktop.

The intention here is to collect images that your character sees when they close their eyes. What is their happy place? What is their favorite food? Feel free to consult the character development worksheet here, but don’t worry about writing any answers. Simply find images that, in some way, capture the essence of parts of your character, and you’ll be intuitively building them anytime you look at the images that represent them.

Immerse yourself in your character’s environment

This one assumes you can visit the places in which your character lives (either because those places exist in your world or you have the means to get there), but actually experiencing the places, people, cultures, societies, etc. of the people you’re writing about can be so incredibly inspiring and generative that I think even the most logical of us should try it. You can’t just read about the world, and I’ve said many times that, to improve as a writer, you not only have to read and write a lot; you also have to live, and part of living is simply gaining that visceral experience of what a place smells like or how a person’s accent hits your ear.

Assuming you can travel, do. Get in your car, board a train, or hop on a bus (fly only if you have to because commercial air travel is bananas) and set off for a weekend, a week, a month, whatever you can do. The goal is immersion, experiencing life as closely to your character as you can.

Your character lives on a planet in another galaxy or is a being from the underworld or [insert place we can’t visit here]. No problem! Find some place here on Earth that at least somewhat resembles your character’s culture, society, or environment. Perhaps that extra-Milky-Way planet has a culture and society that is much like Cleveland. I hear it rocks, so hop in your car. Maybe your futuristic Blade Runner-esque Earth resembles Tokyo, so head over there. Or, maybe your horrific underworld is like Berlin and Amsterdam. Get your backpack ready for the trains in Europe.

Admittedly, this one involves a lot of investment that most of us probably can’t undertake on our own. That’s why I encourage you to check out available fellowships or residencies. Think you can’t afford to take the time off work? The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, for example, has no minimum length for residencies. 

If this one sounds appealing, don’t immediately assume you don’t do it. See what your options are, and then get out, explore, and immerse yourself.

Go shopping as your character

Anyone with a grocery store or an Internet connection (which you very likely have considering how you’re reading this) can do this one. 

The fundamental question we’re trying to answer when we develop our characters is: how do they see the world? When you go shopping, you’re thinking about two things: what you need and what you want (which is why you should never shop hungry because then you want EVERYTHING). Pretend you are the character you’re developing. What do theyneed? What do they want?

Presuming their wants and needs can be purchased, character development can be an excuse for a shopping spree! Granted, you need not actually buy the things you pick off the shelf, but you can feel free to (my lawyer tells me to specify this is not a suggestion to walk out of the store without paying for your items; if you’re not buying that stuff, put it back before you break it). If your character eats pickled herring, for instance, it might behoove you to actually try one. If your character can’t even afford new socks, go find the most luxurious, expensive socks ever and just feel them and know you can’t buy them. 

The purpose here is to experience the needs and wants of your character and to feel what it feels like to be them and to have the conflict of needing and wanting something and having to overcome an obstacle to get it. In this way, you can start to empathize with some of your character’s needs and wants, no matter how trivial they may seem to be.

Talk (and listen) to your friends and family

Everyone is interesting because everyone has a story to tell. A good writer should be able to find the intrigue in any story they write, but they also should be able to find it in any story they hear or read. You can have your tastes and preferences, of course, but you should be able to appreciate stories outside of those tastes and preferences.

If you listen to people—really listen—they’ll give you all the inspiration for believable and relatable characters you’ll ever need. Look back at the character development worksheet. There are some superficial questions in there, but there also are some pretty personal ones. People will generally open up to you if you let them, and they generally are willing to go pretty deep when they feel comfortable enough to do so. You can learn a lot about someone’s identity, personality, history, motivations, goals, purpose, hopes, dreams, fears, anxieties, and so on and on, just by having a conversation in which you talk less and listen more.

After all, isn’t that what storytelling is all about? Hearing your characters’ voices, understanding them, and presenting them to your reader in a way that communicates their story?

On this note, I’ve often considered going to a coffee shop with a sign that reads, “I’m a fiction writer. Please sit with me and share your stories,” but I’ve never had the guts. Maybe you do. That idea’s a freebie.

Well, they’re all freebies. 

Get it on the page

Regardless of how you develop your characters, you have to develop them off the page before you can develop them on the page, and that is the hard part. It doesn’t matter how you get there. All that matters is, using whatever process works for you, you do. You can know all the facts about your characters as is humanly possible, or you can have such an intuitive sense of them that you can imagine what their farts smell like, but if your readers don’t grasp those characters from the page, they never will become real. Moreover (and perhaps terrifyingly), a lot of that is going to be beyond your control…

…and developing characters on the page will be the topic for my next craft essay, which I’ll send out in the next Substack or the following one. Like what you read here? Please consider subscribing. It’s free, and you’ll get monthly emails with updates, book recommendations, essays, bonus content, and more.

What do you think about character development? Are there questions I’ve omitted from the character development worksheet that really should be there? Are there other options for character development for the more pantser-inclined among us? Are you more of a cerebral or logical writer, or do you write by intuition and feeling? Let me know below or on ThreadsBlueskyFacebook, or Instagram.

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