How to Develop Your Characters on the Page

A doctor shows a patient a chest x-ray and points approximately to where the heart is located.
“You see, your character’s heart should be right about here.” (Photo by Skintone Studio from Freerange Stock)

My last craft post covered how to develop characters for your understanding as the writer. I’ve split this crash course in character development into two parts because characters develop in two main spaces. Well, three, actually: the writer’s head, the page, and the reader’s head. Your perception of your character is inevitably different than the one that exists on the page and is further invariably different from the one that the reader comes to know. I won’t be going into readers’ heads because that would be presumptive and rude.

In my previous post, I made another critical separation. I split you planners and pantsers into your respective groups, and I gave the former a whole heap of questions to consider in your logic-centric minds. For the latter, I gave you some tips that almost resemble exercises, and they are focused on helping you get the feel of your characters. For both groups, it all was work for you to do for yourself, work intended to pour the foundations for your characters so you could write from a place of intentionality instead of wandering and wondering what the heck you’re writing about (an affliction that plagues us all, I promise).

Now, let’s look at developing your characters on the page for the reader’s understanding. How does character development actually work on the page anyway?

Nuts and Bolts and Gears and Rubber Belt Thingies

First, when we talk about character development, we tend to refer to it in a couple of basic dimensions: 1). establishing a baseline of who they are when we first meet them and 2). how they change throughout the course of their story. In some other words, we might be able to sum this up in two questions: 1). How does the audience come to know the characters in the story? 2). How do the characters in the story come to know themselves?

Beyond that (or nested within it, however you choose to visualize this) there are three important perspectives to consider: 1). how the reader sees the focus character, 2). how other characters see the focus character, and 3). how the focus character sees themself. 

Notably absent here is the narrator. Most stories will feature a total alignment between what the narrator sees and what the reader sees. In most stories, the narrator is the reader’s closest ally. However, in cases of an unreliable or biased narrator, it may be worth considering the reader has a strained relationship with the narrator and will need to detach and view the story independently. These stories can be challenging, indeed.

In other cases, such as in a first person narrative, it may be difficult to make that distinction between what the narrator sees and what the reader sees. The reader and narrator may be inseparable. However, that’s where we find subtext, or what’s really happening in the background or beneath the surface of decisions character’s make. Plus, in first-person narratives, it’s not always the case that the narrator is the focus character (e.g., The Great Gatsby). As a final note, remember this is all about what’s on the page or what you want to put on the page, but it’s also about what the reader infers from what isn’t on the page. That part is important. It’s where the magic happens.

So, with this, we can take a nuts-and-bolts approach and create a kind of matrix where we can fill in how the reader, other characters, and focus character sees the focus character throughout their journey. You could create a document to write this out, if you would find that helpful, or you could nab this one I’ve made for you and customize it to your own liking.

Again, that’s for the planners among you. (Note: I didn’t use this terminology, planners and pantsers, in my previous post, but that’s a pretty conventional way to refer to you all.) A form to map out a character’s development through a story might help you planning-attuned writers, but for you writers who like to write by the seat of your pants, it might feel like a cage. That’s okay. Push forward in whatever way works for you, and just like last time, feel free to use these resources at any stage of your process. Maybe finish a draft or two and then give it a try.

With that in mind, how do we develop characters on the page? What are the actual mechanics by which character development happens?


Perhaps the most apparent way in which we see character development on the page is in each character’s actions. When someone shows you who they are, believe them, right? Aphorisms aside, it’s a fundamental tenet of humanity that actions speak louder than words, and dammit. I said I was going to push aphorisms aside.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? There are so many clichés that address this idea that people show us who they are in the actions (or inactions) they take (or don’t). When a character comes to a fork in the road (see? Aphorisms all over the place) and go this way instead of that way, we’re led to consider why they made that decision, why they took that action. So much of being a good audience member begins with that simple question of “but y tho?” And that’s true of being a good writer, too. 

Okay, so your knight in shining armor fights all the way up the castle tower to find the imprisoned princess only to turn around when he discovers the chastity belt, which only she could have removed, is gone. We have character actions inside of character actions here, and setting aside what this archetypal story says about our society’s foundations (because I’ve been so good at setting things aside so far), we’re forced to consider the knight’s decision as well as his motivation. Was he really driven by the princess’ perceived virginity all along? Is he really that shallow? She needs his help, and all he can think about is her usefulness to him, which is probably constructed by a crazily fundamentalist religion? That’s all pretty gross, right? We were led to now to believe he was a good guy. We thought he was the good guy, but he chooses to turn away from the damsel in distress when he learns she doesn’t have what he wants from her. I kind of hate this guy now, don’t you? And we’re forced to consider if he was this guy all along. Were we the ones who were fooled? Or is this a change? Did the knight have some kind of encounter with a crusader priest who convinced him of the wickedness of women? Is he a product of his society? Will he address his flaw, or will he carry it forward?

A side note, I recall Robin Hood: Men in Tights, a Robin Hood parody film, starring Cary Elwes, and at the end, Robin saves Maid Marian only to discover she’s wearing this medieval chastity belt with a comically oversized padlock, and we think he has the key, because he’s the hero, but he doesn’t, and the movie ends with Robin crying out with a measure of desperation, “Call the locksmith!” which wakes all the neighbors who, in turn, repeat the call, and that’s funny, but also kind of gross, isn’t it? It’s the middle of the night, Robin. I get sexual frustration, but you can at least cool your balls until the morning. Sheesh.

Anyway, actions are a significant place where things can go wrong, too. Off the top of my head, and I don’t know why this occurs to me (but this is the action segment of character development, so it’s not totally silly to discuss an action film), John McClane leads an absolute rampage through the city of Moscow in Die Hard 5 (or A Good Day to Die Hard, the film’s actual title), and there’s no telling how many innocent people John McClane brutally murders in his pursuit of his son. On one hand, the idea that a father will do anything for his child is a touching sentiment that I can understand. The trouble is the film doesn’t do anything with that, not really, and this is a character who, when we met him in the first film, went through absolute hell to save every hostage possible (even the ones he didn’t particularly like) and that’s why we liked him to begin with. 

The point here is character deviations are what make character development interesting. If we see a character and get to know them, and then they do everything in a story just as we’d expect, that’s a boring story. However, when a character’s actions deviate so substantially from the character we know them to be and the story doesn’t do anything with that (maybe in John McClane’s old age, he got cruel and bitter toward foreigners and he doesn’t recognize this isn’t America and he’s the foreigner and now John McClane is the villain), we recognize the character takes certain actions for another reason (such as to spend a ton of money to make a spectacular action sequence, which the Moscow rampage admittedly is; it just doesn’t make any sense, and that’s where action movies can go wrong).


The second most apparent way a character can develop is in what they say. Words are a funny business because there’s an inherent unreliability there. Not only are people generally imprecise with what they say (especially if they’re not particularly educated or eloquent), but people generally aren’t always honest. Dialogue as a metric of character development fascinates me because, unlike action, there are so many levels of complexity that we can’t stop at asking, “why did that character say that?” We have to ask, “Did they really mean that? Did they mean to say something else? Did they intentionally mislead the other character? Do they have an ulterior motive here? What are they really saying to the other character? What are they really showing us here?”

Where action is fairly cut-and-dried and accessible, dialogue can be extremely deep and challenging. And, we have to do these calculations not only at a plot point but with every line of character speech. 

[Important note: I’m about to spoil the first game and season of The Last of Us, so if you haven’t played the first game or watched the first season, STOP WITH THIS NONSENSE AND GO DO THAT RIGHT NOW.]

I unapologetically love The Last of Us. To me, the fact that it’s a post-apocalyptic zombie story sort of sucks because too many people won’t take it seriously. And, it demands to be taken seriously.

The genre is aesthetic here, and it’s most concerned with telling interesting stories. The games do something the TV series probably never will be able to replicate in that it not only explores morally grey questions but puts the player behind the wheel of the decisions that are made. I intentionally wrote that in passive voice because, no, The Last of Us isn’t a game franchise that grants the player the power of choice in the storytelling (at least, not in any way that matters). Rather, it’s a game series that forces players to empathize with characters and then, in a visceral way, feel the hurt of the decision-making. The games are a beautiful and haunting and deeply affecting exercise in empathy.

More to this point, The Last of Us uses dialogue to great effect. I can feel the skepticism of the non-gaming among us, but it’s true. There’s amazing writing in video games these days. Let me prove it to you.

The first game and the first season of the TV series end exactly the same, because showrunner Craig Mazin understood fidelity in adaptation and that he shouldn’t change something that was already perfect to begin with. So, in the end, our hero, Joel, has shepherded our heroine, Ellie (a young woman who is immune to the fungus that causes zombiism), across a post-apocalyptic U.S., and it’s been fraught with peril, tragedy, and heartache. But they got through it all, and they grew closer together (Joel has come to see Ellie as a surrogate daughter, and he lost his biological daughter in the outbreak 20 years prior, so he’s starting to finally feel whole again), and when they arrive at their destination, Joel learns the procedure that will turn her immunity into a vaccine will kill her. Joel does what any father would do. He kills everyone and saves Ellie (as opposed to John McClane, this rampage makes sense because this is who Joel is when we first meet him and the story capitalizes on this action).

That isn’t the interesting part, though. This story ends later, when Joel and Ellie reach safety, and Ellie finally asks the question that’s been plaguing her since she woke from anesthesia. She asks Joel if what he’d told her was true, that the organization that needed her for a vaccine had others who are immune like her but haven’t been able to make a vaccine and have given up. She asks him to swear what he said was the truth, and without hesitation, he does.

This is about choice. Joel makes a choice and, in so doing, robs Ellie of her agency. But it’s also about dialogue. The story ends with a lie, and we understand on many levels why Joel lies to Ellie. We perhaps think, in that moment, all things considered, we might say the same thing, or we at least understand it. We also understand the moral greyness that is this lie, and we understand the consequences of it.

All of it is produced by two lines of dialogue that show us who these characters are and how they’ve changed, and the dialogue is supported by a complex narrative riding the back of good character development. And yes, there also are zombies in this story.


The bottom line is, through a character’s words, we can get a snapshot of who they are and the decisions they’ve made to define their character. Dialogue is inherently action and decision-making, but it operates on a complex level with layers that can be very deep, depending on the rest of the story’s depth. When writing or reading dialogue, you should always ask why a character is saying what they’re saying and what they’re really doing beneath the words because the words, themselves, can be a shroud, whether the character knows it or not.


One of fiction writing’s advantages over other storytelling mediums is that we can go inside characters’ heads. (Yes, I understand there are films that go into character minds, even literally, but those are generally considered departures from the norm; let’s stay on task here.) Conventional wisdom warns novice and intermediate writers against writing about thoughts, but there’s not only nothing wrong with writing about thoughts; it can be extremely effective. It’s important, however, to get out of a character’s head once you’ve gone in. Leave that door open and come and go as you please. Just don’t hide in there.

The conventional craft wisdom that tells writers, “anytime you write, ‘John or Jane thought…’ delete it and contextualize it with storytelling” means well. The idea is that, instead of writing, “John thought it tragic that his son wouldn’t see the Yankees play today because of the rain,” write something like, “When John was his son’s age, his father had taken him to Yankee stadium for a double-header against the Red Sox. Under the oppressive summer sun, Max Scherzer had thrown ninety-seven and ninety-eight for almost nine innings before flagging for the closer to step in and shut the Orioles out. John had not only witnessed true greatness that day. He’d been in its presence, and it had buried its hooks into his guts. That game, Scherzer’s ferocity, the Red Sox hitters’ graciousness and good sportsmanship despite a generations-old rivalry, the professionalism and integrity of it all, was why he’d become a sports writer. And now, John’s son was going home to play video games.”

This is a good distinction to make. Through this mini story, we understand not only the idea that the game’s rainout is sort of tragic, but we understand the depths of that tragedy for John’s character. We intuit the hopes he had for his son to experience what he had experienced. And on the other side of it, we see John’s inability to consider, you know what, maybe his son would rather go home and play video games. 

In this way, fiction has a way of getting deeper into a character’s thoughts through narrative and storytelling, but there are other dynamics at work here: clarity, accessibility, margin of error, the reader’s cognitive load, and more.

How certain do you want to be that your reader gets it? Or, where do you want to direct their attention? What is most important for your reader to focus on?

In some ways, I think writers grow through a popular conventional wisdom, which is, “show, don’t tell.” We begin writing too much in the abstract, and then we adopt the concept of putting everything in physical form. On the other side of that is the question: if you show the reader everything, when do you overwhelm them? At what point does your showing create static for the reader? In your attempt to empower your reader to be a viewer to events as they unfold, where do you neglect this powerful tool of fiction writing? By showing everything, what are you hiding?

The showy revision I made above leaves some room for the reader’s interpretation, and that is, generally, good and desirable. But it implies that John isn’t really a good father. He has good intentions, but he’s not thinking about what his son wants. It’s interesting, but maybe that isn’t what we want or what this story wants for itself. We could address this through action (maybe John goes home and plays a baseball video game with his son) or dialogue (maybe John tells his son to have a good time playing video games and periodically peeks in to see if he’s winning). But maybe that’s not really what this story is about either. Maybe it’s about something else entirely, and going inside John’s mind gets us there efficiently without losing any power.

What if we instead wrote it this way?

“As John ushered his son from Yankee Stadium, he thought about the hope his own father had had for him witnessing the greats play and how that had shaped him into the man he was today, but John considered there were many ways to be a man and many ways to become the man destiny intended. Maybe this wasn’t a tragedy. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise.”

Suddenly, this story is an optimistic and hopeful view of what might have otherwise been a tale of a missed opportunity and troubling parenting, and it’s because we went inside John’s head and left no question about his perspective. Certainly, there are showy ways of communicating that, and those ways can be interesting, but sometimes, we can just go to the source of matters. That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with it. Just be deliberate with it, and don’t spend all of your time in a character’s head. Get out once in a while. 


Thus far, everything I’ve written about character development is about decisions, ones your characters make or the ones you make. For that reason, consider this part less of another item on a list and more of a summary.

In my previous post, I distinguished between driving a story with character and plot. Neither is superior, and every story includes both to varying measures. This means a good storyteller should consider both.

One of the most impactful ways to analyze a character is through their decisions. Are they responding to an event or another character’s actions (plot), or are they proactively influencing the story through their decisions (character). Either reveals their character at that moment in the story.

In the novel I’m currently shopping, one of my teachers left a comment on page 140 or so that one of my characters was not the person they thought she was. That was one of the best comments I’ve ever received on any of my writing because it meant my character’s evolution was apparent, and my reader was re-evaluating that character.

Cut your character’s life into pieces. When you look at each piece, are you seeing a different person? Are you seeing an evolution that makes sense? If so, congratulations! You have a dynamic character! If not, you may have a static character, and while conventional craft wisdom would tell you that is a bad thing, I don’t think it is. Characters don’t have to change. You can make a profound statement if a character resists change through the events of a story, especially if the expectation is that they do change. Just be deliberate about that and be sure you’re making that choice because it’s interesting, not because you haven’t thought a character through and neglected to develop them as an organic being.


Many writers start developing characters through their looks, how they dress, etc. Too many master storytellers dispense superficialities as trivialities. I made space for it in my character development worksheet for a reason. A character’s appearance can absolutely tell the reader about them and how they change.

For instance, consider Cady in Mean Girls. We come to know her as a young woman who dresses comfortably but without consideration of her appearance, and then she starts infiltrating the plastics dressed as one of them. In the middle of her story, we understand her appearance defies her personality, but the story is about how her appearance begins to define her character.

It’s an interesting view. Here’s another aphorism: don’t judge a book by its cover, but in this case, I’m telling you to consider it. How a character chooses to present themself (or maybe they have reasons their appearance isn’t a choice) can tell the reader a lot about them. Just be sure you’re being deliberate here. If Justine wears a choker with metal spikes, consider she does that for a reason and what that reason might be. If it’s just because she and you think it’s cool, all right, but is that really worth using the reader’s limited attention? What if it’s because she’s been hurt before and she never wants anyone to touch her because of that pain? The wonderful thing is you get to decide.


Or the ones characters choose to keep (homes, offices, etc.) can reveal a lot about a character’s personality as well as their present state. What artifacts do they choose to put on display? A nice family photo or the head of a deer they shot and mounted on a wall? Similar to physical appearance, consider their environment maybe isn’t a choice at all. Maybe they’re stuck in a poor town with no skills, no training opportunities, and no job prospects, or maybe they’re literally a prisoner. Maybe the environment is the point. How the character interacts with it will inform us about them. 

Again, though, consider the reader’s limited attention and energy and how you’re using it. Sure, writing ten paragraphs of beautiful prose about a landscape might be fun, but ultimately, what does it tell us about the characters or the story we’re in? In Justin Cronin’s latest, The Ferryman, the characters inhabit a dystopian paradise (yes, you read that right, and no, it’s not a contradiction), and he occasionally submerses the reader in the environment in ways that are entirely intentional because the story is all about the characters feeling at odds with their surroundings and resisting it even though they’ve, frankly, got it made.

Irony and Audience Suspicion

Much of storytelling’s intrigue comes from a sense of mystery, and that sense of mystery derives from a perception that not all is what it seems, that we can’t see the whole picture right now but, if we read to the end, we will. Character does the heavy lifting here since it’s through our characters that we perceive the world they inhabit.

It’s a common mistake to assume character development is information and knowledge that grows a character into something resembling real. “Gunther liked to wear cargo pants on his weekend hikes through the evergreens, where he chased the pure mountain air to cleanse himself of the taint of civilization, and he always made his own trail mix to sustain his energy while on those hikes, even as he wished for pizza and beer.” On the surface, those details help us get to know Gunther, but the magic happens when Gunther surprises us. In this hastily composed bologna that I pulled out of my bum (reminder, this newsletter is freeeeeeeee), I’m not focused on Gunther’s fashion, exercise, or dietary choices but in how they conflict with each other. Here, we don’t only learn those things about Gunther, but we also learn about a conflict within him, specifically that he yearns for nature but is tied to civilization in ways that he would miss if it were gone.

These seeming contradictions create depth of character development. We don’t only learn about their preferences and desires. We get a peek under the hood of who they really are. It doesn’t matter if Gunther’s favorite color is red or his dad never threw a baseball with him in the yard when he was a boy. Those details don’t matter if they don’t suggest anything about Gunther beyond the information given.

When thinking about a character or considering them as a real person, where do they depart from stereotype or what you’d otherwise expect in a person?

Character development on the page is about what we can infer off the page, too. It’s about the subtext, the spark in the reader’s imagination that draws a conclusion about the characters they’re reading about. It’s about writing words about someone that enables a reader to infer much more about that person. If you put two seemingly contradictory qualities together, suddenly the reader is asking questions about how such a person came to be.

And then it’s about the dynamics of that person, or how they change through the story. Where are they going from here?

You know this. A massive Goliath of a man intimidates a David, but as soon as he takes a rock to his eyeball, he runs off crying. A filthy rich playboy is in the public eye with supermodels and booze and is never seen out of bed before noon, and then we learn he dons a cape and cowl to fight crime in his city at night.

So much of character development on the page is about that extra dimension granted to the reader as they learn about a character and find complication driven by irony and conflict. In other words, characters we are confident we understand immediately don’t interest us. We have them figured out. It’s only once we start asking, “what would make someone do/say/think that?” that we begin to dig into them. As a writer, it’s your job to tell us about your characters, and then it’s your job to get us wondering about them, asking questions. We keep reading because we want to understand your characters. We keep reading because we want to know the answers and trust that they will come in time.

Your Turn

Pull up a story you recently read online and particularly enjoyed, or crack open the last novel you loved. Or heck, what streaming series  are you binge watching right now? Put a character under your microscope. What actions are they taking that define them? Do any of these actions surprise you or demonstrate an evolution through the story’s events? What are they saying to other characters? Do their words characterize them as mean or kind? Something else? What mental states do they go through? What mental state seems to be their disposition or norm? How does the story’s events affect their mental state, and what might that suggest about this character? Are they nervous during a one-on-one conversation with a friend, or are they distracted when something really demands their focus? 

As a member of the audience, what questions are you asking about the characters, and how does the story answer those questions?

I’m sure I’ll have more to say on character in the future, but for now, that’s all I’ve got. Through characters, we relate, identify, and empathize. To do that, we have to be interested in the people we’re reading about. We have to care as if they are real, and once you’ve pulled that magic trick of turning two-dimensional symbols on a page into a living, breathing, three-dimensional person in someone else’s mind, well, then you have the reader right where you want them: wondering what this person is going to do and how they’re going to overcome the challenges they face.

Next time I write about craft, I’ll tackle those challenges in writing about plot. Until then, happy reading, writing, and generally enjoying all storytelling!

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