How to Develop a Character in a Short Story or Novel

Bringing the main character of your novel or short story to life is one of the most crucial parts of the creative writing process. Even though you've conjured your protagonist purely from your imagination, you still need to make readers see him as a real, believable person. Developing your character's personality and journey throughout the story can add depth and dimension to how readers perceive him.

Getting Temperamental

Discovering the core traits of your protagonist's personality can put you on the road to making flesh-and-blood characters instead of cardboard cutouts. Jeff Gerke, author of "Plot versus Character" and "The First 50 Pages," suggests using the Myers-Briggs personality test to unearth his emotional roots -- how he responds to conflict, whether he's introverted or extroverted and his levels of perception and intuition. Then, use this personality type to develop the facets that make your character unique. For example, a character who doesn't respond well to conflict may have come from a chaotic home environment or relationship.

Setting the Stage

How you introduce your story's protagonist will tell readers a great deal about his values. Pay special attention to the actions and settings your character engages with in his first scene, as this introduction should point to the traits that will figure prominently in the story. For example, Tessie's main entrance into Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery" occurs when she shows up late for the town's annual lottery ritual chattering about nearly forgetting about it. These attention-drawing actions set her apart from the rest of the townspeople, who arrived on time and are solemnly waiting for the lottery to begin.

The Likeability Factor

Your character shouldn't be a stereotypical, flawless goody-two-shoes, nor should he drip with pure evil. In real life, people are somewhere on the continuum between the two. Script Magazine columnist Drew Yanno states that audiences should be able to find some aspect of the protagonist that inspires respect or empathy. While Daisy Buchanan of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" values her reputation more than relationships, readers can empathize with her desire to rekindle her affair with Gatsby because of her adulterous, lackluster marriage to Tom. In the end, your character should be someone readers are willing to stick with for the story's duration.

The Moment of Truth

Ultimately, your character's journey should peak with him making a choice that will significantly alter life as he knows it. Lee Masterson, editor of the online magazine Fiction Factor, writes that there should be a sacrifice at the heart of this decision that reflects the character's change over the course of the story. For example, at the end of Kathryn Stockett's "The Help," Skeeter must choose between accepting a writing job offer in New York and remaining in Jackson, Mississippi, out of loyalty to the maids who made her book a success. Her decision to leave reflects how her views of her hometown have changed throughout the book.