Tracking Character Development

If your character changes throughout a story, it can be difficult to track their development. This is especially true in longer works, or if multiple characters undergo complex changes.

Solving this issue is deceptively simple. All you need to do is make a list of the changes each character has and link them to events in the story. At a minimum, jot down these five things about a character:

  • Character’s state at the beginning (the lie they believe)
  • Character’s state at the end (the truth they discover)
  • Event(s) that show the beginning state (living the lie)
  • Event(s) that drive the change (discovery of the truth)
  • Event(s) that show the ending state (acceptance of the truth)

By linking the changes to specific events (scenes, actions, even just a bit of dialogue), you will show the why and how of the change to the reader, and you will be able to identify any incomplete or unexplored character arcs.

Spreadsheets can be helpful for laying out the information:

In many cases, you will have a single character go through multiple arcs.  For example, if this was a longer piece of writing, Benjamin could also struggle with his relationship with his mother, which ultimately drove his clingy nature. Just add a new row on the spreadsheet (or another set of bullet points).

For a novel, imagine if this story was told via switching the point of view between the two characters, and each could have a dozen or more changes that they go through in this life-altering encounter. Keeping track of it all would be a hassle, but now you know how!

For more on character arcs, check out K.M. Weiland’s excellent series on the subject.

How to get better at writing

How do you become a better writer, anyway? This is a question we see frequently. It’s fairly straightforward.

  1. STUDY. Read books and articles on how to write. If you only write, without learning how, you’ll waste time generating a large quantity of low quality work. This work may be fixed in editing, but it’s much more efficient to write the best first draft you can. We have a good list of learning resources on our Resources page.
  2. READ. Study the work of good writers, especially in the genre you want to write. Combined with a study of writing techniques, you will see how writers construct stories that entertain their readers. Remember, you are writing for your reader—not for yourself! Pay attention to what the writer is doing, and how it affects you as a reader. Take notes if you want, and review them at the end. Studying high-quality writing is crucial: check out the National Book Awards, or for Sci-Fi and Fantasy, the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, or any other relevant literary awards.
  3. WRITE. Practice your writing skills, especially short stories. You can start a huge novel project, but a better choice is usually a series of short works such as journal entries, short stories, or articles. Short pieces are faster to write and edit, so there is less risk of burnout, and you will be able to see your progress as you improve. Writing prompts can be helpful if you are not sure what to write about. We have thousands of writing prompts available via a chat bot on our Discord server as well as monthly short story themes.
  4. EDIT. Most of the work of writing is really editing. You may edit as you go, or edit at the end, but most first drafts need a lot of editing. Give yourself permission to write bad first drafts, then polish them into decent second drafts, better third drafts, and so on. Most successful authors revise their work dozens of times before it is published. Editing or critiquing the work of others, and having your own work edited or critiqued, can help you see your blind spots. Studying, reading, writing, and editing (as above) will build your skills so that you can give good critique, and understand the critique that people give you. We have active writing and critique discussion on our Discord Server.

That’s it, those are the steps! The rest is up to you: be disciplined and spend the time to build your skills—or don’t, and you won’t.

You don’t have to do those steps separately; you may get better results and find it more interesting to switch between the different tasks as needed. Just make sure not to neglect any of them and you’ll be on your way. Good luck!

How to use diagrams in your outline

Sure, you can outline in a word document using bullet points, or you can keep track of characters and scenes in a spreadsheet, but what else can you do?

One of the most helpful ways to think about characters is called a character map, which shows the interactions between characters.  Here’s a simple one from Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities:

Here is another one, a character map for my favorite book, Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo.

You can also create diagrams for one single character, sometimes called a “mind map” of all the things that describe a character.  Images can be helpful.  Here’s one for Harry Potter.

Another type of helpful diagram is a plot diagram.  Here are a few from around the internet that break up some popular movies into the standard three-act structure.

Your plot may not actually follow this structure, and that’s OK.  As long as it’s a good read, you can do whatever you want.  The point is that diagramming it can lead to insight into how to outline or edit your story.

Here’s the structure for The Matrix (above) and Thelma and Louise (below) for some examples.

Hopefully these examples will give you some ideas about how you can think about outlining and editing your story visually, as well as with the more standard spreadsheets and bullet-point outlines.  Now back to writing!

How to edit your story

For short pieces, less than a thousand words, reading the whole story over and over again for editing usually works fine—it’s short enough that this isn’t a waste of time.  For longer works, however, re-reading the entire piece over and over is inefficient, so you may find this approach helpful for editing your first draft.

As you do each of these steps, keep notes!  You will need them later.  One great way to keep notes is to use spreadsheets that keep track of your scenes,  characters, and character relationships.  You may also have your outline as bullet points in a regular text document, or even as a character map, plot structure diagram, or other illustration.  Using an outline can help you keep your notes organized as you go through this process, which is “re-outlining”.

1. Examine the characters

Character problems should be examined first.   Stories hinge on good characters, and the plot may need to change significantly if you make changes to characters.

  • Are your main characters rich and complex, like real people, or are the superficial stereotypes?  Do they have layers?
  • What makes them complex?  Do your characters change through the story?  If not, why?  What makes them change?  Is the change believable?  (People do not often make huge changes to themselves).
  • Are you characters likable in some way?  Can the reader identify with at least one of them, even if they’re not likeable?
  • Who is your protagonist and/or main character?  Are they believable?  Do they seem to exist once the story is over?  Do they follow you around in your head?  Are their actions and words consistent with their personalities and backgrounds?
  • Who is your antagonist and/or foil to the protagonist?  Are they believable?  Do they have real motivations and reasons for opposing the protagonist, or are they just superficially “evil” for no reason?  Is the villain complex, or redeemable in some way, or otherwise well-rounded?  If not, why?
  • What about your minor characters?  Are they believable and memorable?  Are they interesting in their own right, without overshadowing the main characters?  Do they make sense given their place in the story?  If they aren’t developed, and are simple, flat characters or archetypes, are they cliches?  Can they be improved?
  • Do you have a character sheet?  Have you filled out all of your major and minor characters as thoroughly as you need to for the story?

Once you have figured out the characters, set your notes aside (and save the editing for Step 6), or if you want, drop into the story and make the changes you need to make now.  Resist the urge to do a full edit front to back!  Only edit what needs to be edited.

2. Examine the conflict

Once you have your characters fleshed out, you need to look at the conflict between them and any other forces in the story.

  • Does the overall story have a strong conflict that is resolved by the end?  Does the protagonist have to struggle and suffer to overcome the conflict?  Or does the protagonist succumb to the conflict and fail?  Why?
  • Do the character’s goals and motivations make sense in light of the conflict?
  • Do the main characters have internal conflicts, where they must face their own demons?  (Perfect ‘superman’ characters tend to be less believable and relatable.)
  • Do characters have multi-faceted conflicts, such as conflicts between characters, or with the environment?  If not, are there ways to build rich, multi-layered conflicts into your story? Do these conflicts all get resolved at the end? If not, why?

Here again, set your conflict notes aside, or step into the conflicts and make the fixes now.

3. Examine the scenes

The scenes are the meat of your story, where things happen.  You should have a list of scenes, ideally in a spreadsheet for easy organization.

  • Does each scene have:
    • goal (with meaningful stakes for the character(s))
    • A conflict (where the characters attempt the goal but meet resistance)
    • result of the conflict (where usually the character fails, or has a hollow victory, resulting in more challenges and conflict)?
    • A reaction (to the result of the conflict)
    • dilemma (what to do now?)
    • decision (which leads to the new goal for the next scene with these characters)?
  • If your scenes don’t have most of these basic elements (they may not necessarily be written, but implied instead), why don’t they?  Could the scenes be improved by including these elements?
  • Do the scenes make sense in the order that they are presented?  Is there a better order?  If the story is being told out of chronological order, why, and how is it improving the reader’s experience by doing so?
  • If you have multiple point-of-view characters, and are not using an omniscient point-of-view, is the right person narrating each scene? (Usually, it should be the character with the most to gain or lose in that scene.)
  • What is your most memorable scene?  What is the least memorable?  Why?  How can the weakest scenes be improved?
  • Are there weak scenes that aren’t important to the story and should be cut?  If so, cut them and keep them in a separate document, or figure out how to improve them (usually by making sure they have all the components listed above).

Here again, set your scene notes aside, or step into the scenes and make the fixes now.

4. Examine the motivations of characters

Characters need to have strong, believable motivations.  If they don’t, readers will struggle to identify with them.

  • Now that you’ve gone through the scenes and characters, were there any actions the characters took in the scenes that didn’t make sense?
  • What are the biggest, most important actions in the story?  Do they make sense?  Do the characters have the right motivation that those actions are believable?
  • What are the least predictable actions?  What are the most predictable actions?  Are these actions in-character?
  • Look at your list of scenes.  For the conflicts and the decisions, do these make sense given your characters?
  • Would you believe this story and these characters if someone told it to you over lunch?  Or would you find yourself scoffing?  Are there actions that happen just because it’s convenient to the story, or because the author needs them to happen for the story to move forward (or for the story to make sense)?  If so, why?

Here again, set your motivations notes aside, or step into the motivations and make the fixes now.

5. Examine your first and last page

The first page is important because it should hook the reader and draw them in, making them want to know more and read on.

  • Do the first few sentences raise a question that the reader wants to know the answer to (even if it’s a small one)?  Does the first page build out that question?
  • By the end of the first page, do you know roughly who the main character is, what the setting is, and what the character’s current goal probably is?  If not, why?
  • If you had picked up a book at a bookstore, and this was the first page, would you buy the book (or sit down and keep reading)?
  • Does the first page start at the beginning of the story?  Or does it start too early, such as in a prologue, or an info-dump exposition (common)?  Does it start too late, skipping important scenes and leaving the reader confused (rare)?

The last page is important because the ending should leave the reader feeling satisfied—if it doesn’t, they’re not going to recommend your story.  “Satisfied” is not necessarily a happy ending, or a perfect wrap-up ending—it depends on what kind of story you are writing.

  • For the last page, have all the plot threads been tied off?  Or are there unanswered questions?  If there are unanswered questions, how important is it if they are left unanswered (you don’t have to answer everything)?
    • If you’re unsure, try deleting sentences, starting with the last and working backwards, until you find the earliest possible place the story could end and still make sense.  This will give you an idea of your options for endings.
  • Is the last paragraph, and last sentence meaningful and moving like the first sentence?
  • Is there strong framing between the first and last page (or first and last chapter) where there are some similarities that help bookend the story?  If not, why?
  • If you wrote an epilogue, why?  If you didn’t, why not?  (Epilogues are helpful for setting up sequels, or jumping forward in time to show what happens to characters, but it needs to be something worth reading about.)

Now that you’ve looked at everything, you should be ready to make your tweaks to the first and last pages.  Don’t do too much, and resist the urge to continue editing past these pages.  You will re-edit the full story later.

6. Look at your notes

You likely made a lot of notes while you were writing your first draft.  You likely have a basic outline of the scenes and a character sheet as well.  You also may have notes from steps 1-5 above that you haven’t put into the story yet.

Read over your notes, and make an necessary tweaks to either the story, or the notes, given what you’ve discovered and edited so far in the above steps.  This will help you solidify your plot and characters before you embark on a full reading of your story.

Step 6 is the shortest to describe, but depending on how much editing you have to do, it may be a lot of work, weeks or months of it even.  Hang in there!  The world needs your novel!

7. Begin reading the manuscript

Your goal here, assuming you are confident that you have addressed and resolved any issues in the previous steps, is to read your story like an editor, with a cold, logical, critical eye.

  • Be prepared to keep notes.  If you have a list of scenes, make notes on each scene, or use a comment tool in your word processor to comment on pieces of text.
  • Be on the lookout for plot holes, or things that don’t pass a critical thinking test.  Watch out for actions with no motivation behind them, and things that happen conveniently for the story but aren’t otherwise believable.  Watch out for oddities or errors introduced by the editing process, such as characters discussing events that haven’t happened yet.
  • Look for any place you can tighten up the writing:
    • Fix grammar and punctuation problems as you find them
    • Remove filler words and rewrite awkward phrasing.  Be on the lookout for all the common writing mistakes that pop into first drafts.
    • Be aware of telling versus showing.  Are you telling when you should be showing?  Are you using adverbs and adjectives to tell, when you could show?  Are you using specifically descriptive words or more general and vague ones?  Be specific!  It’s not just a tree, it’s an aspen.  It’s not a beautiful day, it’s sunny and cloudless.  It’s not an uncomfortable situation, it’s a grotesque mockery of justice — and so forth!
    • Clean up repetition.  Your reader is smart, and only needs to be told something once.
    • Cut down flowery description and “purple prose” to the essentials.  Don’t use a long, complex word unless it is exactly what you need (and what you mean) and no simpler word will do.
    • Remove exposition (info-dumps) and sprinkle the information into the story instead.  Resist the urge to explain!
    • Watch out for POV shifts and filter words that keep you from being deep in the POV of the character (assuming you are writing deep POV) or keep you from remaining distant (if you are writing omniscient).
  • Evaluate the pacing.  Are you getting bored reading your own story?  Then your reader will be bored too.  Look for any way to tighten the screws on your characters and keep the plot moving forward.  Move events forward in time, make things harder, ask “what’s a list of terrible things that could happen here?”
  • Watch out for lengthy conversations that don’t go anywhere.  Could these conversations happen at a different time, during action?  Or do they need to happen at all?  Are these conversations just exposition (info-dumps) in disguise?
  • Watch out for when you, the author, are talking through your characters.  Make the dialogue believable and relevant to the story.  Resist the urge to stand on a soap box.
  • Resist the urge to explain!  Readers like mystery (even if you’re not writing a mystery) and you can keep them in suspense by doling out information bit by bit.  At the beginning, the reader should know nothing, and at the end, they should know (nearly) everything.

8. Once you’re done…

Go back to step one and do it again.  With each pass, you’ll improve the story, and have less work to do (the first is usually the hardest) and eventually get to a point when you don’t know what else to do.  At this point, you’re ready to get feedback on your story from others.

Easy fixes: Point of view

Types of Point of View (POV)

Personage – Impacts the pronouns

First person: tells the story directly through the character:

Example: I parachuted off the Empire State Building, and I loved it.

Second person: tells the story to the reader (rare in fiction).

Example: You could have parachuted off the building too, but you chickened out.

Third person: tells the story from outside the character:

Example: Bob parachuted off the building, but his chute didn’t open and he splatted.

Scope – impacts how much you know

It’s a spectrum in terms of how close you get into the head of a character (primarily for third person, since in first person, you’re in the character’s head automatically).

On one end of the spectrum, the reader has intimate knowledge of all the character’s thoughts, and can’t know anything the character doesn’t know. On the other end, the reader remains distant, watching events like a fly on the wall.

Intimate (close): the reader has access to the thoughts and feelings of the character who is telling the story. Intimate third person is a popular choice for fiction writing today.

Example (intimate third person):
Ralph sailed down and landed on the bloodied street. Poor old Bob. He should have double-checked his parachute. Now he just looked like a pile of spaghetti. Which might be an improvement really. Ralph chuckled softly to himself.

Omniscient: the reader has access to all the thoughts and feelings of ALL the characters, even if the author/narrator may not write about all of them. In an omniscient point of view, the author/narrator may include the thoughts of any character, or stay detached and simply narrate a story as an outsider, or zoom in/out as needed.

Example (omniscient third person):
Jim stepped off the elevator and walked out of the Empire State Building. He saw Bob’s splattered remains and smiled. This was the easiest hit he had ever done, and Ralph was none the wiser, he thought. Now all Jim had to do was meet his contact and collect his twenty thousand. He sauntered off, dodging Ralph’s landing.

Ralph unbuckled the straps from his parachute, trying to avoid breathing in deeply. Bob’s mess had already begun to stink, and the sooner he changed out of his jumper, the sooner he could join his best friend Jim at the pub for a post-parachuting beer.

More on POV in writing.


Note that the example above shifts from Jim’s point of view to Ralph’s. This is often called “head-hopping” and is supposedly to be avoided.  However, it can be used to great effect in an omniscient point of view.

Headhopping is all about how frequently you do it and how well you do it. Few readers would balk at a book that switches back and forth between two primary characters with each chapter.

On the other end of the spectrum, a story that jumps from one character to another after each sentence is usually tiresome to read. In general, there’s no reason to head-hop frequently unless it’s crucial to telling your story.

Don’t (painful head-hopping):
Sarah glared at Betty. That bitch had taken the last blueberry scone, she just knew it. A scone for a crone. Betty glared back. Sarah was such a skank. Never mind that it was her ninetieth birthday. And then there was Jezebel, who claimed to have a PhD but everyone knew it was fake. Jezebel knew Betty was thinking about her as she watched Betty glance at her fake diploma on the wall. Of course, no one could ever prove that she hadn’t finished her dissertation, except Sparky of course. Sparky wants biscuits, thought Sparky the dachshund. He really wants them. Maybe if he barks enough Sarah will give him some.

In the above paragraph we shift POV from Sarah to Betty to Jezebel and finally to Sparky the dog. It’s a bit nauseating to read, isn’t it? There are authors who have pulled off this type of narrative shifting, but those that do tend to do so smoothly and give the reader time to rest in each character’s POV.

Even with just the addition of line breaks, it’s easier to read.

Don’t (but it’s better with line breaks):
Sarah glared at Betty. That bitch had taken the last blueberry scone, she just knew it. A scone for a crone.
Betty glared back. Sarah was such a skank. Never mind that it was her ninetieth birthday. And then there was Jezebel, who claimed to have a PhD but everyone knew it was fake.
Jezebel knew Betty was thinking about her as she watched Betty glance at her fake diploma on the wall. Of course, no one could ever prove that she hadn’t finished her dissertation, except Sparky of course.
Sparky wants biscuits, thought Sparky the dachshund. He really wants them.  Maybe if he barks enough Sarah will give him some.

Imagine how this story would change if we spent a paragraph, a page, a scene, or a chapter in each character’s point of view.

Another way to improve it would be to step back and be a fly-on-the-wall narrator, with access to all information.

Do (an omniscient narrator describes the same scene, telling us the character’s thoughts):

     Sarah glared at Betty, eyeing the crumbs on her lips, the crumbs of the last blueberry scone Betty had carefully purloined. It was a game of scones and crones, and the parlour was filled with the scents of both. Betty glared back at her. Even now, on Sarah’s ninetieth birthday, the sting of Sarah’s adultery with her first husband had hardly faded in seventy years.
Jezebel, Sarah’s daughter, caught Betty’s eye with a knowing smile. Of course, Jezebel knew all about the affair, and of her feelings towards Sarah, but Betty still had the upper hand: Jezebel had never finished her dissertation, and the PhD that her mother were so proud of was fake. She was no more a doctor than Sparky the dachshund, but that didn’t stop Jezebel’s smug smile as she watched Betty glance from her to the diploma.
Tonight, Betty would spring her trap, finally realizing a revenge seventy years in the making, humiliating Sarah and Jezebel together at the birthday gala like she had been humiliated so many years before.
Sparky the dog yapped, jarring Betty out of her reverie. He wanted biscuits of course, but a scone would do, or perhaps, even better, she would give him a bone to gnaw by the night’s end.

As you can see, an omniscient POV gives access to everyone’s thoughts and feelings, and allows for more to be described, as the narrator knows everything and doesn’t have to wait for thoughts, dialogue, or action to reveal important plot details (through “showing”) and can simply “tell” the information to the reader.  This is closely related to some considerations on “show versus tell“.

In general, you’re better off sticking a single point of view in each scene or chapter and developing the character for your reader to enjoy, then switching at a natural break in the story.

Even in omniscient point of view, where knowledge of multiple characters thoughts may be expected (but is not mandatory), authors that use it well follow a single character at least long enough to make a point, if not for a whole scene or chapter.  In some cases, narrators stay out of heads entirely, merely reporting the scene as it happens, with the backstory and musings, but without access to any thoughts at all (other than the narrator’s own).  In this case, the writer is still sticking to a single POV — that of the narrator.

More on head-hopping POV.

Establishing a Character’s Voice

Is your language right for the viewpoint character? Can you tell how he/she feels? Or does the character not match the point of view?

If your character is a college professor, they’ll use big words. If they’re a high-school drop out, they’ll speak differently. Likewise, they’ll have different thoughts, reactions and dialogue if they are introverted or extroverted, optimistic or pessimistic, religious or agnostic, angry or calm, mature or childish, neat or sloppy, creative or analytical etc. etc. etc. It all comes down to knowing your characters and living inside of their heads.

On “The Simpsons”, the character Dr. Hibbert is an educated physician who went to Johns Hopkins Medical School.  He’s no dummy, and tends to be solemn when making diagnoses.

Don’t: Dr. Hibbert put his feet up on the desk. “Well shucks Homer, you’re in a dilly of a pickle. We’ve gotta pre-form some surgery on your old noggin.”

Do: Dr. Hibbert tented his fingers. “It’s a serious matter Mr. Simpson.  If we don’t remove that crayon from your brain, it could damage your cerebral cortex.”

Likewise, the character Reverend Lovejoy is kind and a bit depressive. He’s typically not the type to start a fight, take the lord’s name in vain, or swear at people.

Don’t: Reverend Lovejoy glared at the atheist protestors, then flipped them the bird. “Hey! Jesus says to kiss my ass you bastards! I’ll kill you! I’ll kill all of you!”

Do: Reverend Lovejoy sighed when he saw the atheist protestors, but then tentatively smiled when he didn’t see any members of his flock among the group. He shook his head and headed home to play with his model trains.

More on character voice.

Filtering Words

When you write, you want the reader to experience what the characters experience. Unless you are writing in a distant third person (fly on the wall or narratorial voice with no access to thoughts) you’re going to have to write thoughts and feelings. But how to write about them?

The first instinct is usually to write thoughts like dialogue, like so:

Don’t: I stepped into the mausoleum. That mummy’s got to be here somewhere, I thought. I lit a torch.

While there’s nothing wrong with that approach, it becomes tiresome to read if we see the character’s thoughts frequently. Many authors instead write the thoughts “straight” with no filtering words like “thought”.

Do: I stepped into the mausoleum. That mummy had to be here somewhere. I lit a torch.

Filtering words can take many forms, because they can include emotions.

Don’t: Sarah saw her bees out the window. She loved them so much. She expected a good harvest this year. She heard her husband snoring in the bedroom. She wanted to drown him in the honey vat and make it look like an accident.

The verbs are a mix of senses and emotions: saw, loved, expected, heard, wanted. Here is it without the filtering, and with more showing rather than telling.

Do: Sarah glanced out the window at her beehives and smiled. The bees were busy, and there would be a good harvest this year. Her husband snored in the bedroom. Her smile twisted into a sneer. After the harvest, she could finally drown him in the honey vat. It would be so easy to make it look like an accident.

In general, just remember to “stay in your character’s head”.

That said, in an omniscient point of view, filtering words may become more appropriate, because the world and the characters are in fact being filtered—usually through a narratorial voice.  The crones-and-scones example above gives an example of how to do this.  This approach may seem somewhat old-fashioned today, but when executed well, is just as enjoyable as anything else.

More on filtering words.