Ninja Writers Academy: Character Development

Ninja Writers Academy-Character Development

First: Our Facebook Group project for December will be a work through of How to Develop + Test a Story Idea and the whole Writer’s Journey part of The Plotting Workshop (which I’ll make available to you for free!) If you’d like to be on the list to get more info, put your email address here:

I thought it would be fun to run a little series of Ninja Writer Academy Posts about diving a little deeper into your story’s basic elements. Let’s start with character.

Character Development seems to be one of those scary things that new writers get hung up on.

You can find complicated, intimidating character development worksheets out there. If you Google around the Internet, you’ll find plenty of experts giving you lists of things that you’re supposed to know before you even start to write your story.

I take a different tact. My favorite way to work on character development is with guided free writing. I have a list of questions that I think about while I’m considering a new player. I start with a name and a basic (very basic) description, and then just start writing.

After all, that’s what we do, right? It’s how we process. Doesn’t it make sense to process something this important to your story the same way?

Here are the Character Development questions I use:

  • What is their ordinary world like?
  • What kind of work do they do?
  • Who do they love? Who do they hate?
  • Who loves and hates them?
  • What’s missing in them?
  • What’s important to them?
  • Who has hurt them?
  • Who have they hurt?
  • What do they need?
  • What do they want?
  • Who do they live with?
  • Who is their best friend?
  • Who is their worst enemy?
  • How resistant are they to change?
  • What would it take to get them to embark on big change?
  • This is a biggie: How are they flawed?
  • What makes them heroic?

Don’t list all the questions and answer them. Please. Don’t. Just use the questions to guide you as you write a page or two about this compelling person.

I actually do this exercise with every important character in a story: hero, antagonist, love interest, mentor, sidekick, etc. I also try to do this work in no more than about 20 minutes per character. Set a timer if you have to. It can be easy to get caught up in spending hours or even days in making sure your character development is PERFECT. Don’t do that to yourself!


I’ve had a character on my mind for a while. Here’s how this exercise worked out for him:

Will Sorren. Age, 50. Six feet tall, relatively fit (maybe a little softer than he used to be), over-styled brown hair, highlighted. Blue eyes. Dimpled chin.

Will is an aging rock star. When he was young he was nicknamed “The Face.” He had as much attention for his looks as for his music. He used to play to stadiums full of screaming girls. Now he plays to show-rooms half-filled with the same girls, now middle-aged housewives. He can’t play new music without risking a riot.

Worse of all, he’s not aging well. The public is brutal regarding his looks. What happened to The Face memes hound him. He still has the charisma that set him apart when he was young, but he’s done a little too much to try to hold on to his looks and it shows. Too much surgery. Too much Botox.

Will is still a musician, still playing the same music that he’s been playing for 30 years. He lives in Las Vegas and makes a living doing nostalgia shows with other 80s has beens.

Will married an actress when he was still The Face. She’s aging far better than him and his jealousy of her beauty and his insecurity over the public’s fascination with his loss of beauty is eroding their relationship.

He’s never been able to internalize his success. He had one breakout song when he was twenty-two and it was in a genre outside the pure rock he set out to make. He followed the success and the fame, and wound up a pop star. He still hears his songs in elevators and grocery stores and it always makes him sad.

Will’s mother left him when he was a little boy. He was raised by his grandmother, who was brutal with him. His looks and his music were the things that saved him and when he feels like he’s lost both, he is completely lost.

Will needs to find a way to let go of his youth. He wants to get it back. He’s utterly resistant to change, even when it’s obvious that change is happening whether he’s ready for it or not.

His best friend is the bass player in his band. They’ve been friends since high school. Aaron is far more accepting of their slide from rock gods to pop stars to has beens.

For will to change, he’ll has to have a seismic shift in his perspective of himself. Think George Bailey experiencing Bedford Falls as if he hadn’t been born.

Will’s heroism takes time to come through. He starts the story hurt and stuck in a very shallow mindset.


Here’s your homework this weekend, Ninja!

Develop a Character Use the questions in this post to guide you as you free write about your story’s hero. Or antagonist. Or love interest. Or any character that could use a little development. (Hint: that’s probably all of them!) Set a timer for 20 minutes. Don’t let yourself get bogged down with perfection on this one.

Are you in this week? Leave a comment here and let me know. Ninja Writers are ALL about the big A word: Accountability. Post here that you’re going to be part of the Academy this week, then do it, Ninja.

Come by Facebook and share your commitment. Just come on by and voice your determination to FINISH THAT FIRST DRAFT.

Please share this post on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest, and spread the word about the Ninja Academy.

If you haven’t joined the Academy yet, you can click here to do that. It’s totally free–when you sign up, I’ll send you a link.

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  1. it was so cool to find this in my inbox this morning! I had planned to work on a character for my NaNo, who is integral to the backstory – I really don’t know much about her, so I was a little trepidatious about my work (and my word count)! THIS will make today’s project flow so much better! What a marvelous tool!! t reminds me of doing interviews: I would make up a list of questions to really get to know someone, especially if it was someone whom I had never met before. Although interviewing a friend or acquaintance can prove tricky. In this case, a fictional acquaintance – I don’t want to offend or paint her in a poor light. Very helpful process! Thanks, Shaunta!! You totally ROCK!!!