5 Questions to Think About When Developing Characters

What do my characters want?
This is what drives your characters throughout the story. If they don’t have a goal/desire, your story will be boring. Give your characters something to go after, however, and your story will come to life. Some characters’ goals include :
  • Frodo from The Lord of  the Rings wants to destroy the one ring.
  • Marlin from Finding Nemo wants to find his son Nemo (hence the title).
  • Pi from Life of Pi wants to survive.
  • Luke from the Star Wars wants to become a Jedi.

What is preventing my character from reaching his or her goal?
You can’t just hand your characters what they want. They have to shed blood, sweat, and tears to get it. Without this conflict, there is no story. Who wants to read about how Frodo took a nice stroll to the end of the Shire and dropped the ring into some bottomless pit without any struggle? No one. (Look at the examples above and think about what each character went through to get what they wanted.) Without conflict, the audience really doesn’t get to know the characters. Sure, we may know (through exposition) what they look like, what kind of family they come from, and what they proclaim their beliefs to be; but what happens when conflict tests those beliefs? When they have to decide between two good possibilities or between the lesser of two evils? When they have to decide what to keep and what to sacrifice? Who are they then? The answer reveals who they are deep down inside. Conflict, in short, reveals who characters truly are. And the greater the conflict, the greater the revelation.

Do my characters have any goals that conflict with each other?
Internal conflicts between two strong desires makes characters more believable and interesting. Why? Because it’s reality. We as human beings are filled with conflicting goals and desires. Think of these characters for example–although their stories are fantastical, we still find them relateable:
  • Mr. Incredible from The Incredibles wants to be a good father/husband but also a good super hero (to fulfill his vocation).
  • Darth Vader from Star Wars wants to remain faithful to the emperor (the authority which has given meaning to his existence) but also wants to save his son Luke–paternal “instincts” are kicking in here.
How does my protagonist/main character change by the end of the story?
If the story doesn’t change your main character (for better or for worse) by its end, then your audience may walk away thinking, “What was the point of that?” Change happens through conflict. Think of the conflict of the following characters and think of how these characters changed:
  • In The Lion King, Simba starts out as a spoiled brat (someone who would be a horrible king), then he becomes guilt ridden and too afraid to do anything for the good of society, and then he becomes a humble yet confident king (the kind of king the Pridelands needs).
  • In Finding Nemo, Marlin begins as an overprotective parent; but throughout his dangerous journey to find his son, he learns that he needs to let go. This is evidenced by his letting Nemo go into the fishing net so as to save the other fish from being caught.
What makes me care about my characters?
Even villains should make a connection with us as audience members. We should be able to see a bit of ourselves or our own humanity in the characters and therefore understand at least why they have gone down the path they chose. (The answer to this question will overlap with the answers to the questions above.)
A good homework assignment (and a fun one at that) would be to watch one of your favorite movies and ask the above questions along the way. Stop the movie often to write down your answers. What did you find?

8 thoughts on “5 Questions to Think About When Developing Characters

  1. Oh, I am SO printing this out for easy referral! I’ve read a lot of this kind of stuff, Jason, but this puts it together in such a cohesive and easy to follow way. Thanks SO much for sharing this with us. Sorry I’m just now getting to it. I’ve been gone all day, fetching my 10-year-old granddaughter for the week. I’ll be checking in when I can, though. And I’m so glad I saw this! Thanks again. You are going to be a very welcome addition to the group. Heading off to tweet the heck outta this. 🙂

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