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The 9 Ingredients of Character Development

Categories: Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, Craft and Story Beginnings, Guest Columns, How To Find A Literary Agent, Thriller Agents, What's New.

I remember back when cameras had something inside them called film that you had to get developed. For those of you college-aged or younger, that’s where a technician would treat the film with some chemicals inside a mysterious darkened room, and an image would magically appear on the special paper. But if the process went awry, you could end up with an underdeveloped image that was dark or fuzzy, or one that was over-exposed and therefore too washed out to see clearly. The key to getting a crisp clear photograph largely depended on how the technician developed the film.

If we want readers to have a vibrant mental image of our characters, we have to spend some time in the dark room. And that is what’s called a metaphor.

GIVEAWAY: Tom 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: KarenLange won.)




Guest column by Tom Pawlik, the highly imaginative, Christy
Award-winning author of several novels, including the thriller,
BECKON (2012, Tyndale House), as well as the novella “Recollection”
from the 7 Hours anthology. His thought-provoking, edge-of-your-seat
thrillers are infused with nonstop suspense that grabs you on the first
page and won’t let go until the last. Tom’s fascination with the weird,
the creepy and the unknown began at a very early age when he was
introduced to a bizarre 19th century German story book called
“Der Struwwelpeter.” Tom would not realize his life-long dream of
becoming a published author until the ripe old age of 42. Today, Tom
lives in Ohio and is happily married with 6 children.


I don’t write character-driven novels. Heck, I’m not even sure what the term means. I used to think it was when an author spent hundreds of pages muddling around inside a character’s head just to fill the gaps between a couple paragraphs of action.

I prefer to write plot-driven suspense thrillers. But how does the low-brow thriller writer create good characters? I’m still a novice on the subject so this is by no means a definitive exposition, just 9 ingredients I jotted down to make a clever acrostic: CHARACTER.

(Look here for a list of thriller agents.)

1. Communication style: How does your character talk? Does she favor certain words or phrases that make her distinct and interesting? What about the sound of her voice? Much of our personality comes through our speech, so think about the way your character is going to talk. Her style of communication should be distinctive and unique.

2. History: Where does your character come from? Think out his childhood and adolescence. What events shaped his personality? What did his father do for a living? How about his mother? How many siblings does he have? Was it a loving family or an abusive, dysfunctional one? What events led him to the career choices he made? You may not need to provide all this background to your reader, but it’s good to know as the writer. It helps give him substance in your mind as well.

(How much should an outside edit cost writers?)

3. Appearance: What does she look like? This may be the least important ingredient to make your character a person to the reader, but you should still know it in your own mind. Not every character needs to be drop-dead gorgeous, by the way. Most people aren’t.

4. Relationships: What kind of friends and family does he have? How does he relate to them? Is he very social or reclusive, or somewhere in between? People can be defined by the company they keep, so this can be a good way to define your character.

5. Ambition: Just as this is the central letter of the acrostic, so too this concept is absolutely central to your character and plot. What is her passion in life? What goal is she trying to accomplish through your story? What is her unrecognized, internal need and how will she meet it?

6. Character defect: Everyone has some personality trait that irritates his friends or family. Is he too self-centered? Too competitive? Too lazy? Too compliant? Too demanding of others? Don’t go overboard on this. After all, you want your reader to like the character. But he’ll feel more real if he has some flaw. This is usually connected to his unrecognized need (see Ambition) and often gets resolved through his character arch.

7. Thoughts: What kind of internal dialogue does your character have? How does she think through her problems and dilemmas? Is her internal voice the same as her external? If not, does this create internal conflict for her? In real life we don’t have the benefit of knowing someone’s innermost thoughts, but a novel allows us to do just that, so use it to your advantage.

(Can you query an agent for a short story collection?)

8. Everyman-ness: How relatable is your character? While James Bond is fun to watch on screen, most of us aren’t uber-trained special agent-assassins so it’s a little hard to relate to him on a personal level. On the other hand, Kurt Russell’s character in the movie Breakdown was far more ordinary and relatable, creating a more visceral experience. Be careful not to make your character too elite or he may be too difficult to live vicariously through. And that, after all, is the key to suspense.

9. Restrictions: More than a personality flaw, what physical or mental weakness must your character overcome through her arch? After all, even Superman had Kryptonite. This helps humanize your character, making her more sympathetic and relatable.

The goal is to make your readers feel something for your character. The more they care about them, the more emotion they’ll invest in your story. And maybe that’s the secret.

Maybe every novel is character-driven after all.

GIVEAWAY: Tom 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: KarenLange won.)


If you’re interested in a variety of my resources on your
journey to securing an agent, don’t forget to check
out my personal Instructor of the Month Kit, created by
Writer’s Digest Books. It’s got books & webinars packaged
together at a 73% discount. Available while supplies last.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:


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and more.
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51 Responses to The 9 Ingredients of Character Development

  1. Mcv1986 says:

    Everymaness. Perhaps thats why people dislike my characters, I go out of my way not to create”everyman” charectors. I’ve never personally liked the concept, but if that’s what I need to sell stories, so be it.

  2. Good list. I think it’ll come handy when trying to make sure characters are not juste different versions of yourself.

  3. ragdolltb says:

    Great list! Thanks so much! I’ve been really trying to work more on my character development and to try character driven plot. This will be sooo helpful!

  4. BamaCat1996 says:

    Great list! For the sequel to my first novel I want to dig deeper into the background, and expand on the flaws they need to overcome. Flaws are my favorite part of a character, we all have them and we all work on overcoming them on a daily basis.

  5. Luisah Teish says:

    Thank you so much for this information. On several occasions I have read pieces of my work at bookstores and in small writer’s groups and I’ve been told “your characters are wonderfully interesting but your plot falls flat.”, or something similar to that.
    I submitted four pages of writing to someone known as a very good critic, and she informed me that I had enough strong characters in those four pages to actually sustain four pieces (from prequel to sequels). She also recommended that my antagonist was a much more interesting character than my protagonist.
    It made me wonder if i was way out in left field in my thinking.
    After reading your article I feel that I now have a better understanding of how to let the plot flow from the characters, protagonist,antagonist,supporting, and background. You helped me to understand that none of them should be two dimensional, and all of them can be transformed in varying degrees.
    Again than you for this information. it will help me to re-think and re-arrange the characters in settings that will unfold as plot.

    I intend to produce something noteworthy in the nesr future.


  6. jdmstudios says:

    Great advice! Character development is something i certainly struggle with. These are great tips to bring characters to life and make them real people. I am reading Harry Potter to my son, #1 above makes me think of Hagrid…he’s such a great character and his personality comes through so well by the way he talks. Thank you for sharing these!

  7. Redhead says:

    Tom, thanks for a great post. I especially appreciated your comments about #6 and #9. Creating a plausible main character is essential for a story readers can relate to. I also love your books your books! Best wishes!

  8. Betsy says:

    Loved your darkroom analogy. I found your “9 Character Development” very helpful. I already use some of the same, but you have expanded on the 9, which has helped me considerably: (1) “the sound of her voice” that is new to me, and a great idea. (5) Ambition. I already had my heroine’s passion, but when you used the word “ambition” it took on a whole different level and dimension and put a new edge on her career that I hadn’t thought of before. (6) I know about character defects, but when you added the phrase “trait that irritates his friends or family . . . and gets resolved through his character arch” it took my thought process in a new direction and helped me to explore a new area. Thanks a bunch for your help. Great list!

  9. odomj@live.com says:

    Thanks for the great guide to create my characters. It’s easy to forget some on these, and if I keep this list inside a little text box at the top of my outline, (one for each character), I can remember who the people are. Thank you.
    I can’t wait to get my hands on Beckon and your other books. You sound like my kind of author, Tom.

  10. WesT says:

    I would tend to agree with Anna (Apr 3 Wed 11:26) about plot driven stories. My adventure stories are much like the old Saturday serialised tele shows in that they have lots of action but not much in the way of character development. (Yes, I know about film, too!) I’ve been told to flesh out my characters a bit more, so this list will certainly help in that aspect. Thanks for the guidelines.

  11. scifidave says:

    Nice, concise breakdown that will come in handy as I work on my next project. Thank you.

  12. Katherine says:

    The internal change has always been the hardest for me. It’s probably simple for some people but while my character has flaws, I can’t seem to think of a way for him to have to change in a way that affects the outcome of the story and his goal.

  13. JudithR says:

    This old English teacher loved your opening metaphor. My grandmother was a photographer and had her own darkroom in the windowless store room/ linen closet upstairs beside the bathroom. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    But mostly thank you for the concise listing/description of character elements. A printed copy is going in my notebook for easy reference. My historical novel will be stronger as I work through this checklist.

  14. Katy says:

    Thanks so much for the great article!

  15. Sampatron says:

    Thanks for a great post. I’ve been doing character development for some time without realizing that’s what it was. Now I can do it in more depth and more consciously.

  16. hauoli says:

    S’funny. The more I hear from others, the more conflicted I become. When I write stories using words I make up, even though I give explanatory tags that help people figure out the context, I’m told it is too difficult. By some. Ohers say ‘great’. Now I just go with my gut.

  17. Kevin says:

    These are 9 great ingredients. I particularly embraced 7,8,9 and I agree with your note in 6 – don’t go over-board, although it is easy to do. Thank you.

  18. Anna says:

    Just what I needed. My biggest problem is that my stories are plot driven and I hate slowing down the action for the purpose of character details that do not unfold naturally. However some characteristics must be detailed. Thank you for the advice!

  19. IzzieRoo02 says:

    This was SO great. I’d love to hear more!

  20. Brynalese says:

    This article is fantastic! What a clever way to describe character. The novel I am writing now is very character based. I thought these characters up when I was little and now I am finally trying to give them life. It makes me feel good that I already thought of many of these for my characters. I even have an excel spreadsheet for all of them covering everything from where they were born to pictures that inspired me to what they have in their pockets. I really feel like I am on the right track…even more so now that I’ve learned even more. Thank you. :0)

  21. Beduwen says:

    Great piece! I am obsessed with “characters” and have a long line of them waiting to come to life in book form. Your tips will most definitely help me breathe an air of authenticity into them. Thanks for sharing.

  22. Kath says:

    Tom!! I love you!! :) You’ve helped me realise that I’m doing something right! Spot on! This excites me even more than I already was for my beloved hero. He’s been a part of me for so long, he’s as real to me as anyone. He’s flawed but loveable and brave. I’m so thrilled to have read through your article, because it describes him perfectly. Thank you for a great piece of advice!! xoxo

  23. Di says:

    Thanks for the great advice. Communication style gives me trouble. I made one of my characters speak formally by not using any contractions and it became a distraction for all of my beta readers. So, it’s back to the drawing board.

  24. Cursillo86 says:

    Great article, Tom! I am about to publish an e-book, a novel, and liked an idea of putting supplementary, “bonus” material on the website for it. Although I hope I developed character in the novel, I wrote a short story about the childhood of one of the main characters in the novel to serve as a supplement. The short story can be downloaded from the site. Your advice to describe a character through childhood, friends they associate with, defects etc. could be so much more interesting for a reader than a direct description.

    Thanks for the article, I hope I win a copy of your novel! Best of luck to you!

  25. Arkham says:

    Great advice! Just for fun, I used the check list to map my own personality flaws and oddities.

  26. hopemat says:

    I love character-driven stories more than plot-driven ones, so your tips are very helpful to me as a writer. Thank you, Tom.

  27. hopemat says:

    Thank you, Tom, for the great tips. Will be very helpful in my new novel that I’m working on.
    Nadya :)

  28. workinprogress says:

    Lot’s of great advice – thank you! One question, though, what is a character arch that you mention? I’m new to writing and am not quite sure what this is or how to create one. Thx.

    • Tom Pawlik says:

      Sorry for the delay… I just saw my posting today. A character “arch” is the internal journey your main character makes during the plot arch, and how he changes from beginning to end. Basically what does he learn? Even if you have a great climactic moment, the whole story will fall flat if the protagonist hasn’t learned anything from his journey. Think Ebenezer Scrooge. His change is one of the most dramatic. Hope that makes sense.

  29. CatdaBrat says:

    I think that characters are just as important as story line/plot, because if readers don’t have an emotional investment in a character, they aren’t likely to care what happens. Thank you for the article. It was very informative and entertaining.

  30. xcntrk says:

    Had to use the Evernote clipper on this one, thanks for the advice

  31. moonshine44 says:

    Great advice. Thanks!

  32. rampmg says:

    I love to write character driven stories. I think that is because as a coach and a communications trainer, I am always studying people. This list is very helpful. Thank you!

  33. CarolBaldwin says:

    Great blog. Please enter me in the giveaway contest.

  34. lynnshoemate says:

    This is great information. Even for a non-fiction writer. Even though I don’t choose my characters personality or appearance or any other aspects, it reminds me to let my readers know as much as I can about the people they are reading about.

  35. Jim Crissman says:

    Good advice, if a little tortured for the sake of the mnenomic. Am currently working on a short story, so went through a mental checklist for each character. Hit them all for my main, but a little spotty for supporting actors. I suspect that’s how it needs to be given the constraints of the form. Your thoughts?

  36. Jackie says:

    Wow, this is a really informative article, I love it.
    There’s so much here I wouldn’t even have thought of considering.
    I’m in the process of trying to define a set of characters for something I’d been brainstorming for a while and this is really going to come in handy.

  37. Melissa says:

    This list is going straight into my writer’s toolbox! Number 7 is one ingredient I hadn’t put much thought into… no pun intended. Thanks so much!

  38. Roseanne58 says:

    I have a tendency to make my lead characters too goody-two-shoes. It takes me a while writing before I can find their flaws and ickiness. Thanks for the great post, look forward to more.

  39. mellissabear says:

    Thanks very much for the great advice. Character is the thing I have the hardest time with!! Ideas, dialogue, etc. all good. But character is my weak spot – not good for a budding novelist. Thanks again!!!! Will use all of the ideas

  40. mellissabear says:

    Thanks very much for the great advice. Character is the thing I have the hardest time with!! Ideas, dialogue, etc. all good. But character is my weak spot – not good for a budding novelist. Thanks again!!!!

  41. tsubasa_rose says:

    I love that it makes an acrostic!

  42. ChiTrader says:

    Thanks for the good post, Tom. I’d never considered point 7, how the character thinks. You should do a separate post just on that.

    I always assume a character thinks the way he speaks, but then I examine my own thoughts and realize I only speak a small fraction of what I think, and most of those thoughts are best left unsaid. :-)


  43. SironaDanu says:

    Great article. I teach a character development course online. You’d be surprised (or maybe not!) how many students come in not knowing the least bit about character creation. I’ll probably be referring them all (and esp. the most novice) to your article as a handy, quick-info reference. Well done!

  44. Wayne Groner says:

    Excellent points. Formula writing works. Too many members of my local writing club try to write fiction from the seat of their pants, having only what they consider to be a great idea but with no attention to structure.

  45. KarenLange says:

    Thanks so much for the insight and tips! I never really understood the character driven thing either. Always figured it was just me and I missed something. :)

  46. DanielJayBerg says:

    I appreciate the remarks about character-driven versus plot-driven. This dichotomy has always confused me, as most stories need both to be meaningful.

    I’ve seen plenty of stories all about plot, but nothing much made me care about the characters. While such page-turners may have been a quick read, I also had little desire to revisit the story ever again.

    These points are useful reminders on how to avoid cardboard characters. Thanks and good luck!

  47. vrundell says:

    Thanks for the great guidelines! Concise, man. Best of luck!

  48. Carole Caprice says:

    It’s really helpful to have all the personality facets outlined to make sure you hit all of them when attempting to fully develop a character…Thanks!

  49. jnl says:

    This is great advice. No matter how many tomes you may attempt to develop a character you always need guidelines. These are great guidelines. They help us to not only develop but let us show our true technique within the writing art. With your advice, we are able to display vividly on the page who are character is, not only in their speech, but in their attitude which leads to the development of a true character. An image begins to form and you can see your character. Thank you, I am working on a story this very moment and your guidelines have helped me immensley. Merci Beaucoup :) -Julie

  50. curlyboots says:

    Thanks for the great advice!

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