Story characters are like you and me. They have foibles and flaws, hopes and dreams, and histories full of sweet memories as well unhealed wounds. As a writer, you may base some of your characters partially on yourself or people you know. You may give one character your own childhood (perhaps growing up on a farm), add to that your cousin’s flaws (maybe an excessive thirst for bourbon) and weave in your mother’s hopes (maybe to win the lottery and finally gain the respect of friends and neighbors).
Soon you’re on the way to developing a character you’d like to follow around for a bit, see what happens to them, watch them struggle and change, succeed and fail, be overcome by a tragic fate, or fulfill some unexpected destiny.
Although we like to mythologize how our characters ‘take over’ and lead us hither and yon, ultimately, as the writer, it will be your job to decide where this character will lead you, what will happen to them, which struggles they will face and how they will change because of those struggles, what exactly will they fail or succeed at, and whether or not they meet a happy end or a tragic one.
Yes, you can let the character take the reins, at least for a while (and on rare occasions for an entire manuscript) but at some point it’s likely you will have to rein in your unbridled creativity and shape a story to suit your character and a character to suit your story.
You’ll need to ask yourself questions such as: Is this character believable, interesting, worthy of curiosity and care? Which situations best reveal this character? What type of change or growth is relevant for this character? How might this character impact readers?
You might wait to answer these questions until you’ve already written a full, character-led draft, or you might find yourself stumbling part way through a draft, unsure of which direction to go, and be forced to stop until you have some answers, or you might begin your story making process by asking these questions right at the outset.
How you approach your character’s development is integral to your story’s design. Well-crafted characters can almost (but not quite) write our stories for us when we understand their deepest motivations and their stages of development throughout the narrative arc.
There is no wrong way to develop your character but it can be most satisfying, and efficient, to develop your character in connection with your story’s structure. Or, if you’re not even sure which story your character should take part in, a deeper exploration of your character’s true nature will begin to inspire the shape of a story.