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Character Development in Literature: Definition and Examples

character development

When we read stories, it is the characters that guide us through the world and the adventure. Think back to your favorite stories. Whether you are taken back to a favorite on the page or on the screen, chances are you remember the characters. The ones that make us laugh, cry, and just feel. The writer has made a character that lives for us, in our minds and in our hearts.

This is because, at heart, stories are about being human. Even if your character is a talking cat, the reader connects with the humanity of the character. We love to experience the world in a new way. Reading lets us walk around in different shoes, or cat paws, for a while.

So, what is character development? In writing, this is the creation of fictional entities that are presented in the story with the same wonderful complexity and depth as all humans in real life. That’s what we love about those characters; they are as messed up, braze, scared, and unique as us.

We follow them through the maze of the story, facing conflicts and obstacles, coming to the climax having grown and changed. They may win or they may lose, but through the story they have developed and changed in response to their experiences. They have developed depth, and we have developed an understanding of their motivations, desires, strengths, and weaknesses. There has been some strong character development in the stories we love.

What Is Character Development?

Character development is the presentation and the growth of a character throughout a story. Notice the two aspects of that definition. It has to do with the difference between reading for study and writing a story. We’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s look at each aspect individually first.

Part of the development of the character comes from the way the character is presented to the reader or viewer. This can include physical description, personality, and temperament as well as preferences and quirks. 

Whether we are following Sherlock Holmes and Watson solving a mystery or joining Frodo on a quest, we grow in our knowledge of who they are. We discover through their thoughts, words, and deeds through how others perceive and interact with them as well as from an external narrator, if one exists in the story.

The other aspect of character development happens over the course of the story. This is the character’s growth through the experiences and challenges they face. Part of how we get to know the character is through the pursuit of their goals. What do they want, need, or desire? What is stopping them from attaining these goals? Is the obstacle internal, external, or both?

A structurally strong story will have a protagonist with a goal that has high stakes. For example, the protagonist in a romance must overcome the obstacle to love otherwise they won’t achieve their Happily Ever After. The protagonist in a murder mystery must find the killer or more people will die. You get the picture.

OK, that’s the plot, but what about character development? That’s what I came for!

This second aspect of character development comes as we follow the character in pursuit of that goal. How do they react to danger, obstacles, and opposition? In each scene, we get a stronger sense of who the character is and who they are becoming.

Separated out, this aspect is the character arc. In a story, the character arc traces how the character grows and changes throughout the story. But some characters don’t change. Sherlock Holmes and James Bond face their obstacles and achieve their goals but their characters remain the same. 

We know that a character can remain the same and still be well developed and loved, like Bond or Holmes. The key for us in understanding character development is to include the information we gain through their pursuit of the goal and responses to obstacles. This is what will help us with understanding character development.

You may notice that the first aspect helps the writer consider all the ways to make a character real for the reader. With a focus on the presentation of the character, the writer gains tools to create a strong character. 

The second aspect helps a reader see or examine the character development in a story. Whether the changes are dramatic or subtle, the reader or viewer can see how the character changes over the course of the story.

Both aspects of this definition work together to deepen our examination of characters in the stories we read and watch as well as giving us insight into how to create more complex and compelling characters in our own writing.

what is character development

Why Is Character Development Important?

Character development is important because readers relate to the story through their humanity. The experience of different ways of seeing and being in the world draws us into the story. Then, great story arcs make the story as believable as it is relatable.

The description of the character grounds the images and expectations of the reader. As well as direct description, the writer may show the character through their actions or speech and sometimes their thoughts. The character can also be shown through other’s eyes in both action and speech. This is what makes the character relatable. 

The character’s choices in the pursuit of the goal and any change or growth is important because this is where the reader understands whether the character can face the final challenge in the climax. 

The character must endure and prevail in a variety of challenges in order for the reader to believe they can meet the challenge in the climax and gain their story goal. This aspect makes the character and their journey believable. 

Character Development Examples

Let’s take a quick look at a few examples. Whether there is a dramatic or subtle change or even no change at all, these examples help us recognize character development and consider ways we might use challenges to develop characters while writing.

Character Development in Literature

Scrooge from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Initial: Miserly and cruel, Scrooge even makes his clerk, Bob Crachitt, work long after hours on Christmas Eve.

Challenges: Shown the past, present, and future by the ghosts, Scrooge sees the impact of his choices and life.

Result: Scrooge is caring and generous as shown in his interactions with the Cratchit family

Here is a dramatic change that is developed slowly as each ghost brings important information and emotions to Scrooge. What is wonderful about this development is how his character interacts differently with the world after his transformation.

Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

Initial: A depressed unpleasant teenager longing for escape. 

Challenges: Holden is in conflict with everyone around him. He struggles with his desire for connection and his deep sense that people are phonies.

Result: Holden rejects any change but returns to finish school, giving a slightly optimistic sense at the end.

Although there is little or no change to Holden’s personality, his choices reflect the possibility of making connections in the future. Here, the challenges have not been enough to create a transformation. The reader is left with a sense of both futility and hope for Holden.

Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Initial: He is proud, stands aloof, and looks down at others.

Challenges: Rather than having us see his challenges through Elizabeth’s eyes, we instead are shown his feelings through his letters. The first proposal letter shows his disregard for Elizabeth’s feelings and family. She quickly rejects him to his surprise. His second letter shows that he cares about her feelings and allows her to take the initiative in the development of their relationship.

Result: A romantic hero still beloved for his ability to change through listening to Elizabeth and putting her feelings and heart first.

This shift from arrogant snob to thoughtful suitor through the act of listening to his love interest has made this transformation an enjoyable read across many years.

Character Development in TV

Rachel from Friends

Initial: She begins the series as an entitled, clueless waitress determined to make it on her own without falling back on her comfortable lifestyle.

Challenges: Through the series, Rachel pursues a career path, navigates relationships, and becomes a single mother.

Result: By the end of the series, Rachel has become the strong, independent woman she was determined to become at the beginning of the series.

Here we see the advantages of a long television series. The writers are able to create a range of experiences and challenges for the character that allow a slow shift in her character. This makes it believable for the audience as they watch her changing relationship to her work, her friends, and with herself.

Walter White from Breaking Bad

Initial: He’s a mild-mannered chemistry teacher.

Challenges: He receives a cancer diagnosis and ends up supporting his family by making meth.

Result: The results are less than ideal. 

Again, the length of the series offers the time needed for this compelling change. One uncharacteristic decision, to support his family by making meth, leads to a drastic change in Walter’s character.

how to develop a character

How to Develop a Character

There are several elements mentioned above that are used for character development. Let’s look at them and then consider some ideas  to help deepen your understanding of characters you are developing within your story.

Elements of Character Development

Let’s jump into some Fictionary Elements that you can use for Character Development


Everything that has happened to your character before the story is part of their backstory. You will know a lot more about the backstory than you will put in the story.


It’s related to backstory in that it shows what has happened to the character in the past. Flashbacks happen in real time and make the information vivid for the reader.

As you develop your understanding of these two elements, remember to include the information that helps the reader empathize with the character and understand the motivation for actions. 

Our action hero is motivated to bring evil doers to justice because his family was murdered and the killers were never found. This could be shared in dialogue with another character or experienced as a flashback.


What the character wants and desires provides the goal of the story. It also shows what is important to the character. If the character has experienced isolation, they may want to find community. 

In each scene in your story, there will be a clear scene goal. What does the character want to achieve? Through this, the reader will gain insight into what is important for the character and what they will do to achieve that goal.

Tension and Conflict

Within each scene, your character will be faced with obstacles. Tension is anticipation of what might happen; conflict is the fight.

The tension and conflict in a scene arise from the character’s pursuit of their goal. Just as we learn about the character through the goals they pursue, we get a deeper understanding of them through the obstacles they face.

We may also see how their personal weaknesses can create internal obstacles along the way. How must they change to achieve the goal?

POV Goal Internal

Often called the character flaw, this element focuses on the weakness the character must address to reach the story goal.

A character may have one or more flaws in a story. The character may recognize this weakness early or not be aware of it until late in the book. The flaw helps make the character even more real.

Sometimes, these flaws are born out of the character’s strength. For example, bravery can become recklessness, or confident intelligence can become arrogance.

Character Development Facets

There are different sides to a character that you might develop for your readers.


The way a character thinks, feels and behaves creates their personality. With this definition, writers can develop the responses of each character to be unique and real.

Physical Traits

Physical traits can also include mannerisms and any observable features. Physical traits can be used by the writer to hint at emotion and attitude as well as background or preferences.


Beyond being optimistic or pessimistic, outlook can encompass the worldview of your character. How do they see the world and their place in it? This can be a large philosophical viewpoint or the character’s awareness of their place in the world and how it works.


Linked to the character’s outlook, what particular beliefs, morals, or values are essential to them? As you build your understanding of your characters, you may find ways to use their beliefs and morals or values to add to the conflict and tension in the story.

Those choices will help develop a believable character whose actions match their thoughts.

Knowing these facets of your character will allow you to know they are consistent through the story, at least until something happens that makes them behave in a new or unexpected way. 

After all, Walter White would not have had the development he did in Breaking Bad if he had not made that very “out of character” decision. Well, out of character at the time. But that’s another article.

Getting to Know Your Characters: Actions and Ideas

As a writer, you are excited to get to know your characters. There are lots of sheets you can fill out with traits and likes and dislikes. You could sit at your desk and try to fill out personality guides and think about the worldview for each of your characters. But, you won’t find any fill-in-the-blanks below. Just a few fun ideas that will, hopefully spark your creativity.

After all, you are going to spend a lot of time with these people. I mean characters. Let’s get learning!

Take out the garbage

Spend the day, or part of it, with your character. As you go about your day, imagine how your character would do each thing. Take out the garbage. Would your character even have garbage? What’s in that garbage? OK, you get the idea.

Just Like Jerry

Think of someone you love or enjoy being with. How is your character similar to that person? How are they different? Why? Let your imagination run free.

Remember When

Explore your character’s backstory by doing some fun research or getting out into the world. Make it easy or elaborate. Go check out the local park if the backstory took place outdoors or travel if you can. Why not mix backstory with pleasure?

If you have an idea of that big scene where the character’s world shifts, use that as your incentive to go to a place or gather something that makes the moment even more real for you. Enjoy any new insights into the character or the scene.

Secret Spaces

Imagine your character’s home or work space. Do some research and have some fun. Look at images of places that are similar to what you imagine for the character. What is similar? What is different?

What does your character have in their top desk drawer? What about on the fridge? Do they have a vehicle? What’s the color? Look into their purse or their bedside table. What will you find?

Getting to know your characters can make their development believable for your readers.

Benefits of Understanding Character Writing

Characters connect us to stories. Character development is a key to writing stories readers love.

Whether reading or writing, take a moment to notice the person on the page. Enjoy the novelty of experiencing the world through different shoes, or cat paws.

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