Character Development: Finding a Friend for Life

Like all writers, my methods for building characters are a mix of mishmash and melting pot, drawn from both personal experience and academic study. Below is a short list of the ideas I’d like to cover.

  1. A Character Who Refuses to Die
  2. Know Your Archetype
  3. The Great Man/Woman Theory
  4. What MUST the Character Do (and What Does the Character Think He/She Must Do?

GIVEAWAY: Richard is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Clae won.)


richard-preston-author-writer                  Screen Shot 2013-11-06 at 12.38.07 PM

Richard Ellis Preston, Jr. is a science fiction writer who loves the zeitgeist of steampunk.
Although he grew up in both the United States and Canada he prefers to think of himself
as British. He attended the University of Waterloo in Ontario, and has lived on Prince
Edward Island, excavated a 400 year old Huron Indian skeleton and attended a sperm
Nov 2013) is the second installment in his new steampunk series, The Chronicles of
the Pneumatic Zeppelin. Booklist said of the debut, “”What a glorious, steam-filled,
larger-than-life, action-packed adventure!” Richard has also written for film and
television. He currently resides in California. Find Richard on Twitter.



1. A Character Who Refuses to Die

“We care about what happens to people
only in proportion as we know what
people are.” (Henry James)

With any book I write, I usually start with a character who has lived with me for years, even decades. The character is a shadow, perhaps invited, perhaps not, inhabiting a mysterious vault in the mind, but he/she sticks. Somehow, I already know that person in an intimate yet blind and undefined way.

(Headed to a conference? Learn how to approach an agent.)

That ‘sticking-power’ is a kind of litmus test for me; my subconscious is fascinated by the character and I can assume that this proto-person will prove a bountiful subject to explore, love and allow his flaws to tear him to pieces. Be wary of the infatuation with newly invented characters offering fiery but brief affairs. Seek a long term relationship with your character; make them your friend for life and offer that relationship to your reader.

“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent
your leading characters, make awful things happen
to them—in order that the reader may see what they
are made of.” (Kurt Vonnegut)

2. Know Your Archetype indiana_jones_03

“Summoned or not, the god will come.”
(Motto over the door of Carl Jung’s house)

No matter how original you think your character might be, warrior queen or tree frog, he or she will fall into one of a limited category of character archetypes. Seek out the archetype in literature and film and study how other artists have tackled it. Your character shall be original in the sense that he/she will be someone we’ve all never met before, but don’t deny yourself the rich brain-fodder you can feed on studying how the masters of your craft explored similar territory. If you are creating a fantasy king, read E.B. White’s The Once and Future King about King Arthur; if you are creating a French-Canadian Second World War nurse, read The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.

“The concept of Archetypes is an indispensable
tool for understanding the purpose or function of
the characters in a story.” (Christopher Vogler)

3. The Great Man/Woman Theory

“…some are born great, some achieve greatness
and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
(William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night) achilles

Which one of Shakespeare’s descriptions in the quote above best fits your character? I find that using this mirror to study my character helps illuminate my entire story. Who am I building and how does she react to the obstacles in the way? Remember that ‘greatness’ is a relative term. The courage of a door mouse defending her litter from a rat is a form of greatness, is it not? Greatness can be either good or evil. Achilles was born great. Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood achieves greatness (albeit a twisted version of it). Harry Potter has greatness thrust upon him (or does he? You could argue that he is born great, and you can argue he achieves greatness as well, but I personally think ‘thrust upon’ is the most fitting formula in his case). Some characters don’t seem to fit into any ‘greatness’ category at first glance; look at Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. But wait; I would suggest that you look again.

“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but
the form of every virtue at the testing point…” (C.S. Lewis)

4. What MUST your character do (and what does your character think he/she must do?)

“Every man has three characters: the one he shows,
the one he has, and the one he thinks he has.” (Alphonse Karr) Casablanca

This one is huge. Characters can of course be multi-layered and complicated in their motivations—often consciously misrepresenting their true selves and intentions, but, generally speaking, they have to be driven by something specific and singular at their core. You can break this driving force down into two categories: one, what the character must do; and two, what the character thinks he/she must do. Human beings often do not understand the real issues which compel them to act and neither should many fictional characters. For example, in the beginning of the film Casablanca, Rick Blaine is a disillusioned Spanish Civil War veteran who rejects heroism and thinks that he must regain the love of Ilsa above all things; but by the end of the film, Rick realizes that he must return to the fight, and rejecting Ilsa’s love is a part of the sacrifice he must make to help win the war. Knowing the difference between what your character must do and what he/she thinks they must do is a brilliant way to discover and exploit their desires and contradictions.

(If an agent rejects you, are they open to reviewing your revised submission?)

In conclusion, I’d like to thank you for your attention if you managed to hang on all of the way through this guest post. Just keep on spilling the ink, which often seems to be the same color as blood. Writing is difficult but writing is life—and life is difficult.

GIVEAWAY: Richard is excited to give away a free copy of his novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: Clae won.)


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23 thoughts on “Character Development: Finding a Friend for Life

  1. bossman4

    This was very interesting. I am in middle school and found this helpful. Thank you for that. I will have to get that series and read them. They look very interesting to me. I enjoy books like that.

    Have a good day!


    bossman4 (Brazen Ellis)

  2. Sletourneau2007

    I also agree that the quotes are inspiring, and great choices for each section of the article! As for the rest of the article, all four ideas really are important. Idea #3 especially got the gears turning in my head for my protagonist. Thanks for sharing, Richard!

  3. smitchell

    I especially like your last point – what your character must do vs what he thinks he must do. That puts a whole new spin on the protagonist in a novel I’m working on now. Thanks.

    1. REPJR

      Dear SM,

      That last one has really helped me flesh out characters and add depth to their motivations and interactions with others. I’m glad that it helped you too!


  4. valeriem

    Thanks for the ideas! I have two characters who refuse to die. They keep showing up and they are like old friends. Or maybe they are me.

    Having my characters do what they must do is hard for me. Sometimes I know what they should do, but I don’t want them to. I need to learn to give up control, and that often means things will get ugly before they get better.

    1. REPJR

      Dear Valerie,

      Sounds like great groundwork for fascinating characters. Don’t protect them – let them get hurt. Let ’em go and mess up and they’ll come back to you with amazing tales.


    1. REPJR

      Dear kaavs,

      I could not agree more. (Plus, we’ve all got a classic Greek tragedy already built into us – and the archetype is as much a reflection of us as anything else).


  5. vrundell

    Thanks Richard for the great post!
    Character is what makes or breaks a story, and the ways you outline above will definitely help any writer to craft more textured characters. And the quotes are outstanding! I need to write those on my inspiraboard!
    All the best,

    1. REPJR

      Dear VRundell,

      Thanks! I’m glad the ideas are helpful. I am a nut for quotes and I try hard to employ ones that fit my subject matter well. I have several tacked up on the walls of my writing space.



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