Great novel characters share common features: A distinct, authentic voice, character development, goals and motivations, strengths and flaws. Because we’re running our ‘140 characters’ extra short writing contest, we decided to share 15 of our top tips on creating characters from some of the best writing blogs and websites:
1: Novel characters need clear motivations that fuel the story
Over at Terrible Minds, Chuck Wendig sums this up eloquently:
‘Characters want things. They need things. They are motivated by these desires and requirements and they spend an entire story trying to fulfill them. That’s one of the base level components of a story: a character acts in service to his motivations but obstacles (frequently other characters) stand in his way.’
2: Ask yourself if police could identify your character in a line-up based on your description
This is great advice from Word Painting: The fine art of writing descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan (excerpted by Writer’s Digest here)
“My father is a tall, middle-aged man of average build. He has green eyes and brown hair and usually wears khakis and oxford shirts.”
This description is so mundane […] Can you imagine the police searching for this suspect? No identifying marks, no scars or tattoos, nothing to distinguish him. He appears as a cardboard cutout rather than as a living, breathing character. Yes, the details are accurate, but they don’t call forth vivid images. We can barely make out this character’s form; how can we be expected to remember him?’
3: To create interesting characters make them challenging or worthy of care
How do you get readers interested in your characters and how do you make them unforgettable? Eric Patterson gives this simple and vital advice on animation that applies equally to writing:
‘The viewer should care for or be challenged by the characters.’
To do this give your characters:
- Likable, relatable features: These could be positive traits that attract us to people (kindness, compassion, humility, generosity or other)
- Humanizing flaws: what does your character fear? What mistakes are your characters prone to making repeatedly? What do they need to learn in life most urgently?
- Features that challenge readers: Giving your characters elements that the average person can’t relate to also creates interest. Think of series such as the Dexter series that have serial killers as protagonists. Readers don’t have to like every character, and the protagonist of your book doesn’t necessarily have to embody ‘good’, heroic or noble features. If you want to attract an audience, the first rule is to make your characters interesting above all else
4: Create interesting dynamics between your characters and their environment
Your characters can be at home in or at odds with their environment. These details can contribute compellingly to your story line. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, Frodo and Sam’s love for their native Shire makes venturing forth on a dangerous quest a much more daunting decision. Texas A&M University’s Writing Center describes using place to writing interesting novel characters:
‘Where does your character live, work, and play? Does your character fit in to the setting or stand out? The setting can help move the story along and define the character. A character living in Idaho who’s from the Caribbean creates an interesting dynamic.’
5: Use secondary characters as ‘foils’ to make primary characters’ attributes more vivid
Not every character in your novel needs to occupy center-stage. As the university of Ohio’s fiction writing resources state:
‘[A foil is] someone whose character contrasts to that of the protagonist, thus throwing it into sharp relief. In Connie Willis’s “The Last of the Winnebagos,” Katie Powell serves as a foil to the protagonist David McCombe. Katie chases after David to expiate her guilt over killing one of the last surviving dogs on Earth, while David runs away from Katie and from admitting to himself that he, too, is responsible for the dog’s death.’
6: Create character profiles to make your novel characters real
Your characters should be more than the sum of the lines of dialogue you give them and their immediate actions in the story. The best characters are so vivid you can picture them having a life outside of the start and end of the narrative time of the book. How can you give your character this sense of personal history and future? By keeping character profiles:
‘[A character profile] can help flesh out a cardboard character and even make you think about facets of his or her personality that you had not considered before. Character profiles are especially helpful for novels which involve several main characters and for stories which use multiple points of view.’
Make notes on elements such us:
- Where your character was born and grew up
- What your characters political, philosophical or religious views are
- Your character’s greatest fears and desires
- Something your character is ashamed of and something your character is proud of
- What your character values and dislikes most in others
- Stock phrases or physical mannerisms that your character uses – these should be consistent with your character’s psychology and other details
7: Deepen your character behaviour and background with research
If you are writing about characters from a particular historical epoch, research common beliefs, cultural practices and other factual particulars from that time. A little research can furnish details that will make your characters much more lifelike. As Writing Room says:
‘So you have created the perfect character- a Dragon Slaying Knight; he’s young, handsome, noble and afraid of fire. But if you are a fifty-year old woman living in modern day, do you really know anything about him? You need to research to find out all you can. What were the living conditions like? What was it like for young knights back in medieval times?’
8: Show both your narrator and individual characters’ views of other characters
Where novels get especially interesting is where different characters observe different aspects of others. One character might find the loud girl at the bar obnoxious and abrasive while another might find her fun and confident. Ask yourself ‘What does this character’s impression of this other character suggest about the observer’?
Angela Ackerman sums it up thus on her writing blog:
‘Show the POV character’s feelings and reactions to the character he/she is observing.
Also, work in the viewer’s emotional reaction to the character. Is the narrator impressed? Intimidated? Fearful? Attracted to them?’
9: Give your characters some interiority
What do we mean by ‘interiority’? Your characters have inner worlds that not everyone they encounter has access to. Think about how your character sees herself versus other people’s impressions and assumptions. WikiHow’s article on describing characters elaborates:
‘You need to know your character in and out to make decisions about what to present. Think about how they see themselves and how others would perceive them. Do these images match or clash?’
10: You should know every detail: Your characters shouldn’t
As writers we need to sometimes consciously construct boundaries and distinctions between ourselves and our characters. You might know every detail about your characters’ motivations, their pasts and futures, but your characters don’t need to (and perhaps shouldn’t) share your own omniscience. Sometimes our own decisions and behaviours surprise or unsettle us. Here’s what author Justine Musk says:
‘There are things we know about ourselves, and that other people know about.
There are things we know about ourselves that other people don’t know about.
There are things other people can see and know about us….that we actually don’t know about. The character might think he’s being clever and manipulative, for example, when actually he’s quite transparent.’
11: Use internal contradictions to make your characters unique
This is great character-writing advice from Becca Puglisi. In a guest post for Write to Done, Puglisi says:
‘Many grandmothers are doting, but what if they’re also manipulative and self-serving?
Ambitious co-workers are usually backstabbing and underhanded. How about creating one who’s loyal with a strong sense of right and wrong?
Create multi-dimensional characters by giving them traits that don’t usually go together, and you’ll have a fresh take on an old cliché.’
12: Use character names to convey subtle implications about your characters
Many names have explicit meanings (Sophia, for example, means ‘wisdom’). When naming your characters, you can add extra layers of meaning by giving them symbolic names that relate to their function or personalities. Glen C. Strathy says:
‘You can follow in the footsteps of Charles Dickens and other writers and create character names that convey something about your characters’ personalities. Again, “baby names” websites will tell you what various first names mean, so you can choose ones that fit your characters’
13: Avoid using lazy stereotypes
Stereotypes are at best untrue and at worst explicitly offensive. In writing novel characters, do your best to avoid characters such as the ‘wise ethnic person’ who gives your protagonist an important, cryptic message. If you must have this scene, think about how you can undercut the cliché of it (for example, the character is fully aware that this is how your protagonist sees him and undercuts your protagonist’s assumptions). Lucy V Hay at Bang 2 Write says:
‘Know the difference between stereotype and ARCHETYPE.’
An archetype is a character who is a universal, mythic character. The warrior, for example, or the faithful, loyal friend. Using characters such as these does not necessarily make assumptions about entire groups of people based on bias or ignorance, unlike stereotyping.
14: Let your characters’ motives emerge through interactions with others
Rather than say ‘She was jealous of her step-daughter because of the close bond between the child and her husband’, show this jealousy in the interactions between step-mother and daughter.
As New York Writers Workshop faculty member Laura Zinn Fromm writes:
‘Take your characters to parties, gas stations, baseball games, yoga classes and other planets, and make them whisper, yell, confess and interact with other characters. Show the characters’ motives through actions with other characters.’
15: Don’t be afraid to change your viewpoint character if necessary
Sometimes creative blocks can be solved by exploring the voice of a different character in your novel. Think of how the introductory paragraph of a chapter or essay is often just filler or preparatory work for the real story that starts at paragraph two. Character can be the same – the character you thought was your main character to begin might not be as interesting as another, more complex cast member.
Here is Creative Writing Now’s advice:
‘Is there a character who’s stealing the show from your main character? A character who intrigues you more? Whenever this character comes on stage, the writing flows, and the scene comes to life.
Maybe it’s your character’s funny best friend. Maybe it’s her boyfriend. Maybe it’s even your character’s enemy.
Consider LETTING this character steal the show. Change your story around so that this character becomes the focus.’
Feeling inspired to create your own compelling characters? Meet other Now Novel members and share and get feedback on the novel characters you imagine and create.