Use Famous Authors’ Tips to Develop Your Characters

Kurt Vonnegut once said that “every character should want something.” If your character has no desires, no motivations, your readers won’t either—they won’t be motivated to finish your book or to recommend it to others. A healthy human character is driven by desires. This is what makes a life, gives it purpose. Sometimes those desires come in the form of challenges. That’s what drives the main character, Vin, in my middle-grade adventure story Vin and the Dorky Duet. Vin is faced with a challenge that he meets, albeit reluctantly, by devising what he thinks is a brilliant game plan. Of course, his plan goes awry, but when did life flow continuously smoothly?

That’s where Vonnegut’s next tip comes in: “Be a sadist.” Give your characters the opportunity to strut their stuff by making ghastly things happen to them. Now, a magnetic compost heap may not seem so awful to you, but Vin doesn’t agree because he was catapulted headfirst into one. The only good thing about that experience was that his mouth was shut.

Ray Bradbury once said, “First find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!” I’m not at all sure how to do that, especially if my character is an Olympic runner and I run as if I’m tied to a sloth in a three-legged race at a community picnic. What helps me is to ask what-if questions: What if he did that, or that, or that? What if she said that to him, what would he say then? The answers, of course, depend on how you’ve visualized your character. So characterization has to be developed early on because it will affect the direction the plot takes.

Now we have a chicken and egg situation. Which comes first: a fully developed character and then the plot, or the plot and then characterization? It’s a moot point, really, because they are as inseparable as a cell phone from the ear of a teenage girl. Stephen King puts the emphasis on developing characters in situations, letting the story unfold rather than outlining a plot from the beginning. He advises allowing the characters to take control of what they do, what they reveal about themselves, and when they reveal it. When I started to write Vin and the Dorky Duet, I had in mind only the general idea of the path my main character was setting out on. He surprised me with the twists and turns his actions took and he surprised himself as well as me when circumstances changed his attitude and expectations.

Guest post by Maggie Lyons, a writer and editor who was born in Wales and crossed the pond to Virginia. With no regard for the well-being of her family and neighbors, she trained as a classical pianist. Then came a career of putting rear ends on seats—that is, orchestral management, marked by reams of marketing and fundraising writing and program note scribbling for audiences, many of whose first priority was to find their names in the donors’ lists. Editing for academic publishers also brought plenty of satisfaction—she admits she has a fondness for nerds—but nothing like the magic she discovered in writing fiction and nonfiction for children. Several of her articles, poetry, and a chapter book miraculously appeared in Stories for Children Magazineand knowonder! magazine. She hopes her stories encourage reluctant young readers to turn a page or two.

Her middle-grade adventure story Vin and the Dorky Duet is available as an e-book at MuseItUp Publishing’s bookstore (MuseItYoung section), on Amazon at, and as a paperback at Halo Publishing International at and the Seeds of Doom, a middle-grade adventure story, will be released as an e-book by MuseItUp Publishing in October. Halo Publishing International will release the paperback.


  1. Great post. I remember doing this in drama classes too, finding out what it is your character wants, then you know where to go with them. Amazing how many books I've read where they character didn't seem to want much at all - don't think I bothered finishing those books! Lots of food for thought, Maggie. Good luck with your book!

    Jane x

  2. Some very good advice. Several times I've written backstory on a character, only to delete it because it dragged the story down. It irritated me that I wasted time writing something I wasn't going to use. Only later did I realize writing it was necessary for me to develop my character. So it seems my time wasn't wasted at all.

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