My absolute favorite movie of all time is The Goonies. It’s a staple for movie night, and we can’t get through a single family gathering without someone yelling, “hey you guys!” I’ve probably seen the movie a thousand times, and I’m pretty sure I’ll see it at least a thousand more. Why? Because the Goonies are one of my favorite groups of characters ever. They’re memorable, flawed, loyal and pretty darn hilarious.
That being said, it probably doesn’t come as any surprise that one of my favorite things to see in a manuscript is wonderfully quirky, realistic characters. Developed characters are a foundational element of a polished manuscript. So, how do you know if your characters are as developed on the page as they are in your head? Here are five of the things that I look for in developed characters.
1. What does the character want?
Characters, like anyone, have goals. Your protagonist’s goal should be made clear pretty early in your story. Setting this up gives the reader a (dare I say) treasure map. Showing a goal give’s the reader an opportunity to imagine what the ending will be like, and the many possible obstacles between where they are and where they want to be. Anticipating obstacles is one part of what draws readers in and makes them want to continue with your story. If your character has a goal, you can define what motivates him to chase the goal, what’s keeping him from the goal, and what growth is required to reach the goal. All of these are necessary for developing your character.
2. What are the character’s flaws?
Faults abound in the Goonies. Mikey is stubborn and doesn’t always think things through, Chunk is a compulsive liar and a prankster, Data’s inventions tend to cause property damage and/or bodily harm, and Mouth has trouble with saying rude or inappropriate things. These faults all drive the story forward in some way and make the cast of this movie memorable. If your characters don’t have faults, it’s going to be impossible for readers to connect with them.
The presence of internal struggles is what draws people to a story, so ask yourself these questions. How does a past trauma affect the way your character acts now? How she views the world? How does this limit her? How is your story going to force her to confront those struggles in order to attain her goal?
3. Is the character active?
Great protagonists are active in your story. They spend the entirety of the manuscript actively seeking out the story goal, and reacting to the obstacles that stand in their way. If your protagonist spends most of your story being pulled along by the tide of the plot, or if she only ever reacts and never makes any moves herself, you might consider who the true protagonist of your story truly is. Mikey, as the protagonist of the story, is the one who pushes the rest of the cast to go on their adventure. His actions are what end up moving the story forward. On the other hand, Andy is only along for the ride. She is moved along by the actions of others or circumstances of the plot.
4. Is the character dynamic?
Dynamic characters are those who change over the course of your manuscript. At the end of your story, your protagonist shouldn’t be exactly the same person as they were in the beginning. They’ve faced down all of the obstacles you put in their way, faced their problems, and attained their goal. This is where your character arc really comes in handy. If you have a well-developed character, you can trace out how each scene affects the character and either readies them for change or changes them in some way. As your character tries, fails and learns, these small changes add up to a larger character arc that will define your character’s role in your story.
5. Is the character consistent?
Yes, this sounds like it’s in direct contrast to my point above, but a developed character won’t just do whatever you want them to. Their goals and desires fuel their actions. If your characters have their own will, they’re also probably pretty consistent without you having to stop and think about it too much. This really works to your advantage because you can predict exactly what they’ll do in certain situations, which gives you the freedom to put them in situations that aid in their growth or create tension.
Keep in mind, however, that we all have the tendency to act differently around certain groups of people (co workers, family, friends, etc). Back to the Goonies, Mikey is respectful to his parents, rude to the country club owner and his son, and “tough” around his friends. However, he is consistently the moral compass of the group and always looking to help.
Whether you’re writing a literary masterpiece, a middle grade science fiction, or a story about a ragtag group of misfits like the Goonies, having developed characters is a must that will help your story hook readers and make it’s point.