Since stories are driven by the characters they’re about, when characters are poorly developed, a story can quickly become boring, confusing, meandering and pointless. Stories like this are not just difficult for readers to finish, but can be difficult for writers to finish too. If you struggle with writing a compelling story from beginning to end, maybe you need to get to know your characters a little better.
There’s a lot of character development resources out there that give you 101 questions to think about, from a character’s age to their favourite food, to the relationship they had with their maternal grandmother. But I find that most of these answers aren’t the least bit relevant to the story, and that by the end of it, nothing has been learned that will drive the story forward.
While these details can help round out a character and make them feel more realistic, they aren’t the crux of character development. To write a character’s story, you need to know their role in the story. And for that, this is what you need to know.
Stories are about characters trying to achieve things. If you don’t know what your characters are trying to achieve, how can you write their story?
Goals give character actions meaning. Stories often fall apart when it isn’t clear to the reader what that the characters are trying to achieve. Without goals driving the characters’ actions, the story will meander or feel like it’s not progressing, and very quickly lose the interest of the reader because frankly it’ll be pointless and boring. You need to create a sense that the story is moving toward something if you want readers to come along for the ride.
Goals don’t matter if, well, they don’t matter. For character goals to be engaging, and therefore the story to be engaging, there needs to be a compelling set of stakes to support them. What’s going to happen if a character doesn’t achieve their goal? What’s going to happen if a character does achieve their goal? If there’s nothing to lose or gain, there’s no point to the goal. If there’s no point to the goal, then there’s no point to the story.
Stakes also don’t matter if they don’t matter.
Motivation is the reason the stakes matter. It’s what drives characters to set goals and stick to them. It’s what locks characters into the story. It’s how you know that even if they need to change course, even if they have setbacks, they’ll always push forward to achieve their goals. If characters don’t have a solid, compelling motivation for caring about the stakes, the stakes don’t matter. There’s no point to them. And if there’s no point to the stakes, there’s not point to the goal, and–well, you know the rest.
The above character development tools don’t need to just apply to the main characters. As a writer, it’s your job to convince the reader that the world and the people they’re reading about are real. Minor characters might not have much impact on the plot, but giving them their own goals and reasons will make them feel more real. And if you’re having trouble coming up with obstacles for your main characters? Well, minor characters can have an impact on the plot. They might not have anything to do with what your main characters are trying to achieve, but they can certainly have goals and take action that gets in your protagonist’s way!
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