Posted in character

Character Development

Characters are a mix of different things. Strengths, flaws and quirks can all combine to make a unique and whole character that readers can connect and engage with. Unfortunately for the writer, getting those mixes to work together isn’t easy.

Strengths are easy enough to understand. These are the places your character excels. This isn’t just in skills either, but in personality traits. Your characters will develop their own personality throughout the course of the story. They’ll show loyalty, cleverness, and even bravery.

Characters also show flaws however. Again, these aren’t just skills where they’re weak, but flaws of, well, character. Perhaps they’re gullible, or they lie a little too easily. Their strengths don’t cover all of their personality traits and what strengths don’t cover, their flaws should.

Both flaws and strengths go a pretty long distance when it comes to character development. There are numerous ways to play strengths and flaws off one another to make a character memorable and unique. In my earlier post on flaws I brought up the Mary Sue character. Pretty, popular and lovable. All positive strengths. But to make her flawed and less of a Mary Sue and more into a rounded character, it helps to make give her weak points. She’s pretty because she’s vain. Popular because she’s a social chameleon. Lovable because it’s hard not to love someone who’s pretty and who compliments everyone, even if those compliments mean nothing.

While both strengths and flaws handle personality however, character quirks can help your readers visualize the character and how they should look and act. Quirks are often little habits we don’t think about. These might be bad habits of nail biting, or shuffling our feet. They can also be other habits, like smiling often or carrying a few extra items on them just in case.

When developing quirks, it helps to consider their backstory. Backstory can also help you flesh out their personality traits. Someone who grew up in a neglectful household might tend to act out more to get the attention they’re craving—making them have a tendency to shout, or to dress outrageously. This lends itself to being the frontal leader always up for a bad idea or a good game of chance. It also leads itself to being temperamental and overly critical.

By contrast, someone who grew up in a supportive household might be more of a social butterfly. They might be a little more likely to compliment others, and be suited to hanging back to provide moral support for endeavors. They’re also likely the ones that know how to cut the deepest and might not be above selling their friends out.

Posted in Stories, writing

Short Story: Bloom

Jeremy sat with his knees drawn up to his chest, staring at his grandmother’s garden. He heard the screen door creak open and then a sigh from her. “What’s wrong, muffin?”

He shrugged. He didn’t want to say it, but he knew he couldn’t lie. Something always kept him from uttering even the tiniest lie.

His grandmother settled next to him. Her hair only had a few grays in it, the only sign that she was fifty-five. Otherwise, she looked almost young enough to have just been his mother.

For a moment, they were quiet before she inhaled. “You know, I never could get those daffodils to survive long enough to bloom.”

“They need dryer soil and more sunlight,” he said. He knew that from talking to them.

“Do you want to help me move them then?”

Maybe. It would give him something to do, something to keep his hands busy so he wasn’t brooding.

But he wasn’t sure he wanted to either and shrugged.

“Is this about your parents?”

Annoyance and anger sparked up. “They don’t want me,” he said.

“Jeremy, they—”

“They gave you papers saying that you could make any choice you wanted or needed to. They don’t even know what school I go to. They didn’t know I’d joined the debate club. Most of the time they just send me to go get dinner on my own when they have a date night or some stupid trip and I have more of my things here than I do at home. I didn’t even pack anything this time. They’ve been home less than a week and they already decided they had to go somewhere else. They don’t want me.”

His grandmother paused a moment and inhaled as she looked at the garden before she looked back at him.

“It’s a little harder to explain,” she said.

“I don’t need it explained,” he answered and poked at a knot in the wooden railing next to him. “I figured it out. Why do they even bother taking me home if they’re just going to turn around and drop me off again anyways?”

“Because they do love you,” his grandmother replied and Jeremy snorted. “That’s something you do need to understand. They do love you. They’re just…”

“They like the idea of having a kid but not the work.”

His grandmother sighed and looked down at her hands, where they were callused and scarred from years of work.

“You know, I had your mom when I was barely eighteen,” she said. “And I tried so hard to make sure she had every opportunity.”

“I know,” Jeremy said.

“But, for whatever reason, she had you when she was barely eighteen herself. Some kids aren’t ready to have children, and as much as I don’t want to admit it, your mom is one of those kids.”

“She’s not even here.” Jeremy put his head down. “And she hates the weird stuff I do.”

“That weird stuff is magic,” his grandmother said. “You and I both know that.”

“Yeah, but try telling either of them that. I get told I can’t have magic because that would make me a Caster and I’m not supposed to be a Caster.”

“People are supposed to be a lot of things.”

“Like supportive parents,” he muttered it to himself mostly, but his grandmother chuckled.

“Yes,” she agreed. “But they aren’t always what they’re supposed to be. And that means that even when they’re not expected to be something, sometimes they are.”

Logically, it checked out and Jeremy knew it.

And yet, it still burned him. He knew what the plants were in need of, could feel the power in streams and the occasional windstorm.

Rather than answer, he grunted and put his head down.

His grandmother chuckled. “I’ve got to get those daffodils moved,” she said. “Do you want to help?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“That’s fine. I have cookies cooling inside if you decide you don’t want to help, and I’ll be down in the garden if you do want to.”

He had to smile as she stood, going down the steps. “Thanks,” he said.

“Only for you,” she said and kissed his head. “Don’t eat too many cookies. I’m making chicken casserole tonight.”

 “Spicy chicken casserole?”

“I could be talked into it, but it does take a little bit of work and I really do want daffodils this year.”

He laughed and jogged down the steps. “They just need a little more sunlight,” he said. “I know the perfect spot for them.”


by A.J. Helms

If you enjoyed this short, you can find more on my short stories page, or by checking out my published books. Thanks for reading!

Posted in writing, Exercises

Exercise: Defining Unique Characters

Characters are people, and like people, they should have unique qualities to them that help them stand apart from anyone around them. This might be a bad habit, or a particular turn of phrase, but something should help your characters stand out. A quirk or a habit they have.

Building these quirks and habits doesn’t need to be hard. It also makes characterization easier when you have a bank of features to fall back on for each character.

As an exercise: To help you build a bank of features, make a list of characters you want to flesh out more and answer these questions:

  • What’s one bad habit they have?
  • What’s one item they always have on them?
  • What do they call their grandparents, aunts, uncles and parents? Which set of grandparents gets fun names like Grammy and Gramps, and which ones get Grandad and Grandmom?
  • What is their favorite treat?
  • What do they do when they’re nervous? (Think about this one carefully, some people stammer, others fidget, and some people even flush when they’re nervous. Your characters should reflect this.)
  • How do they react to being shouted at suddenly? (Again, think about this, but don’t forget to reflect on their background. Someone who’s been abused will react very differently to someone who’s grown up in a safe, noisy household).
  • What are they likely to collect? Books, stamps, figurines, coins, stuffed animals, etc.
  • What do they usually say to greet someone?
  • What do they say when they’re saying goodbye to a friend?
  • How do they communicate affection without speaking? this
Posted in writing

Balanced Characters

Characters are at the heart of every story.  Whether it’s high fantasty full-on dragons breathing fire and magic spells or crime fiction with despicable crimes and grieving victims, the one thing readers connect with are characters. A realistic, believable character is easier to connect with than one who only exists as an exaggerated stereotype (the exception here being that satire is rife with well-done examples of how this can be effective to send a message).

One way to create a believable character is to make sure they’re balanced. People have both positive and negative traits, and your characters should too.  There’s a few ways to achieve balance in a character.

Flaws. Everyone has flaws–whether this is our tendency to get impatient with others, poor listening skills, or generally being a little too selfish about some things, everyone has flaws. Characters should have at least a few flaws, but avoid throwing them in as an afterthought.

A common example of poorly developed flaws is the Mary Sue character. She’s pretty, smart, skilled at the one thing that is vital to the story, popular. By all appearances she’s perfect. And the most common ‘flaw’ is that she’s clumsy. Clumsy so of course she trips into the love interest. Clumsy so when it’s important for her to be saved by someone else, she drops something, or stumbles. The afterthought becomes less of a flaw and more of a plot device, making it hard to like and relate to her because inevitably the rest of her perfection saves her somehow.

So, how do you avoid making that flaw an afterthought? Look at her positive traits and turn them against her. She’s pretty, but could it be that she’s pretty because she’s vain and works hard on her appearance? If she’s smart, she could also be arrogant or even entitled because she knows these things. Skill also typically isn’t gained by sudden happenstance, and if it does, there’s going to be a resulting emotional trauma. How does she handle having this newfound power? Is she prone to dramatic overreactions, or to trying to deny it exists? What happens when she discovers she can’t use it on command?

Lack Thereof. If your character excels in certain areas–magic, sports, leadership–then make the areas they lack in things that they need. An inability to clearly communicate can hurt your character when they ask for help. Similarly, someone who’s still learning a necessary skill might feel out of place around others who have already mastered that skill, bringing in self-doubt and opening up places for internal conflict.

This doesn’t just apply to skills either. Characters might also be lacking traits like trustworthiness, loyalty, confidence or a host of other things. Those missing traits can make it harder for other characters to get things done around them. After all, passing information to someone who isn’t trustworthy might mean that information gets into the wrong hands. A character lacking confidence can be deterred by having their qualities attacked, not because the attack is true, but because it plays off the thing they’re missing and feeds into that lack.

Give them problems. Everyone has struggles. It might be a problem with body image, it might be a problem with time management, it might be a problem with mental health. Everyone in the world has problems. Some are personal, and some are clear and public. Perhaps your MC has a problem with a cheating girlfriend and as a result is conflicted over whether or not to confront her. Perhaps your supporting character is struggling with health problems that limit the amount they can, in turn playing into a problem with mental health.

By forcing your characters to struggle with something relatively mundane, you make their imperfections clear. Giving them personal struggles also provides more routes for conflict and subplots. Think, what will make them lose their patience? What would finally turn them against their friends? This gives you opportunities to show where their breaking point is on their ‘positive’ trait and as a result, provides a balance to characters who might otherwise seem ‘too much’ of something.

What are some of your favorite ways to balance your characters?