Effective Character Development: 4 Elements

Great character development is always a key component of great stories.

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a bit about how important character development is in storytelling. Show me any story where the writer is successful in character development, and if the plot is even remotely interesting, then you’ll most likely have a great story. Although a good story may entertain us, it’s the great stories that move us. It’s fascinating to me, not because I aspire to write per se, but because I enjoy understanding why great stories are great.

Although a good story may entertain us, it’s the great stories that move us.

WFMF pink sheets
Robin works on the pink sheet rewrites for WFMF Episode 8 on location (August 2016)

Since 2008 or so, Robin has written, rewritten, and overhauled scores of original screenplays and manuscripts. She aspires to be a great storyteller, and I can vouch for her diligence toward that end. Early on, she would submit a work to her “script doctor” and the input back would always prove helpful in strengthening the story. It might have been extraneous scenes, a plot that drifts, or pacing issues that needed a remedy. She would address each one and improve the work technically. However, the character development feedback she received always helped her improve the work dramatically. Why? Because it’s character development that moves the audience to connect with the story. Entertainment becomes engagement. The viewer (reader) buys-in, and identifies with the plot’s risk, reward, quest or challenge in someway because they identify with the characters. Sufficient character development cements our emotional bond in love-to-love or love-to-hate relationships with key characters. Great stories take us to that place of connection. Why?

4 Elements of Effective Character Development

Being a front-row student of Robin’s growth as a storyteller, I have derived four distinct elements of effective character development from her work:

  1. Dialogue: what is said – she has always been strong in writing compelling, dialogue-driven stories. What the character says is the fundamental connection we have with who they are. With outside guidance and critique, she has become even stronger in helping us buy-in and connect emotionally with her characters.
  2. Continuity: attitudes and actions throughout – this is where her script doctor helped her character development most profoundly. Now she self-identifies those phrases, quirks, and attitudes that make each character “who they are” – consistently throughout the course of the story.
  3. Subtext: what is not said – when writing for film/tv, the opportunity to leverage subtext in character development is most available. Facial expression, body language, and inuindo are all useful in directing a scene for maximum impact and, subsequently, character development.
  4. Backstory: a character’s path to the present – the backstory gives the audience opportunity to emotionally connect to why a character is the way they are. Carefully applied, character development by sufficient backstory makes the dialogue and subtext queues more believable. It extends the leverage of continuity to a time before the present moment in the character’s life.

Without great characters a great story is nearly impossible.

Mark-ups for dialogue and subtext aboundOn each rewrite, Robin looks to the elements of backstory, dialogue, continuity, and subtext to ensure great characters emerge. She knows that with great characters a great story is not out of reach. However, without great characters a great story is nearly impossible.

I am sure there are other elements of character development than the four I’ve identified, but these are certainly four that help in making good characters great and great stories possible.

Thanks for reading.