Critics of my screen play tell me that I have done a good job of developing the story, less so in developing the characters. A couple examples follow:

The main character is a woman who is the "fifth" partner in an advertising firm, for which there are only four corner offices, none of which is hers. The woman is incensed with this fact, especially after the managing partner hints that she is better than his other three partners (all four of these are men).

The woman's main subordinate is a "pot-shaped" man who nevertheless makes it to CEO because her guidance set him on an unlikely trajectory. (Even after she leaves the firm, she "guides" him by "proxy.") He never expects to make it to the very top, which would be a daunting task for any advertising executive, never mind a pot shaped one.

Others tell me that it's not enough to assume that the reasons for this woman's discomfort or the man's lack of confidence are self-evident, but go into their backgrounds to explain why they feel this way.

Do most authors and critics feel that this is true? If so, what are ways to develop the characters of these two people over and above the storyline?

3 Answers 3


I disagree with the notion that an Author must delve into the background of each character for character development. But, this is one of the primary ways to develop characters without affecting the main story arc. However, expanding on a character's background in itself, doesn't necessarily provide character development. What is really needed is to provide the "why" behind a character's actions and expanding on a character's background is a good way to do to this. (ie, I'm afraid of snakes due to a bad encounter when I was young)

Some examples of how to build character development without necessarily building in a lot of backstory/background:

  • What has led your protagonist to help her subordinate into getting the role of CEO? Just because she's a helpful person may not be enough. Expand on why she's a helpful person.

  • Why is she incensed with not getting a corner office? What makes her think she deserves one? Some people may not care about having the corner office, but instead would care about how they were treated in everyday conversations. Does a friend/spouse constantly point out that she's not being treated fairly? Does this sense of entitlement come form somewhere else? Explain/expand on this.

  • Why does she leave the firm and continue to help her subordinate? Is this retribution for the perceived wrongs that the company has done her in the past? But if she elevates her subordinate because he's/she's a good worker, then your protagonist is actually helping the company. This is somewhat a conflict of morals. Why does she go through with this? The "why" behind these actions would have to be greatly detailed or characters might appear hollow.

  • Why does the Pot-shaped character remain this way? No exercise? Why would he not change his appearance if he knew it would affect his chances of becoming CEO?

In general, when characters lack depth, it is usually because they don't have the "why's" behind their actions explained.

With regards to how much character development is necessary. That is largely subjective, but if you're getting feedback that you may need more character development, then it might be good to include more.

  • You raised some interesting questions. Here are some answers: 1) The woman is "helpful" for reasons that she doesn't understand, until the end of the story. 2) The receptionist opines that "this is no place for a woman." 3) The future CEO is helped by the (favorable) institutional memory of the woman, after she left. 4) He's "built" that way and compensates by being the sharpest dresser in the firm.
    – Tom Au
    Mar 29, 2017 at 12:55

A short story I wrote recently did not feel quite right so I rewrote it in the first person (yes, I know some magazines won't accept first person). I found I had a much greater insight into that character's motivations and why she acted as she did. Try getting your character to write some diary entries, or, just for yourself, write those parts of the plot troubling you as a short story in the first person. Might help.


In story, character is desire. Character is the things you want and the things you are willing to do, or not willing to do, to get the thing you want. Some stories hang a lot of rich detail on these bones, and some pretty much rely on archetypes to do it all for them, but in essence it is always about desire and what you are willing to do, the price you are willing to pay, to attain that desire.

Often the key moment of revelation in a story is when a character reaches the limit of what they are willing to do. (Will the soldier of fortune abandon the orphanage he has stumbled into to save his own skin, or has he found the limit on his callousness and must stay and try to rescue them.) That is when you know who this person is.

Nothing in what you have described of your story tells us what your protagonist wants, or the limits of what she is willing to do to get it. If those things are not made clear in your story, then your readers will have no sense of who the character is.

As far as what the story line provides, the shoe is really on the other foot, it is the character's desire, and the limits on what they are willing to do to achieve their desire, that create the story line.

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