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Character writing: Complete guide to creating your cast

Creating characters who spring to life on the page is vital for filling your story with people your readers can love, despise, relate to. Read a complete guide to creating characters.

This character writing guide is a one-stop resource for creating characters in fiction. Learn key characterization terms, how to develop characters, how to write stronger character descriptions, and more. Use the links to jump to the character writing subtopic you want to explore now.

Character terms: Key concepts

Read useful character definitions plus a concise explanation of important concepts in character writing.

To develop characters to cast your story, it helps to understand what is:

Character

A figure in a book, play, film or video game or other media. They may be human (e.g. Anna Karenina), animal (e.g. Beatrix Potter), hybrid, alien, or an anthropomorphic object (e.g. Mr Potato Head in Toy Story).

We also use the word to describe the qualities and traits that create personality or persona. For example, we say a very giving or altruistic person has a ‘selfless character’.

Characterization

The way a character is built through narration and other dramatic and narrative devices (such as voice, action, reaction, habits, strengths, flaws and other details).

Character development

Often used synonymously with characterization – the way a character grows and changes (’round’ characters develop whereas ‘flat’ characters like Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote don’t and are more static).

GMC

Short for ‘goal, motivation and conflict’ this term (popularized by Debra Dixon in GMC: Goal, Motivation and Conflict) refers to core elements of character development.

Goals are what characters want, motivations why they want then, and conflict the obstacles (internal or external) that complicate the path to success.

Character arc

The change process a character undergoes in a story due to its events.

Character arcs include the rising and falling action (or peaks and valleys) of setback and disaster (valley) or progress and triumph (peak).

Many arcs are archetypal and common to many stories, such as ‘rags to riches’ (e.g. the character arc of ‘Cinderella’).

Backstory

Character background that informs who your character already is when your story picks up (it may be alluded to, shown in flashbacks, or not shown but used by the author to inform a character’s personality and actions and reactions).

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Nothing shows a man’s character more than what he laughs at.

Goethe

Organize and outline character ideas

Use Now Novel’s story dashboard to brainstorm character ideas and get help from a caring critique community.

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Character types: Roles and parts in stories

7 types of character - infographic


There are many character types, archetypes, and sometimes even stereotypes. Specific kinds of characters go with specific genres (for example, an amateur sleuth belongs in a cozy mystery).

Read a brief overview of character types plus find helpful articles exploring classes of character (and how to write them) in depth:

Overview of common character types

Archetypes

Archetypes are universal types of characters that recur in fiction and mythology.

The Swiss psychoanalytic theorist Carl Jung was instrumental in developing this concept, particularly in The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious.

Key character archetypes and what each values:

  • Caregiver – values service
  • Ruler – values control
  • Artist – values creativity/innovation
  • Innocent – values safety
  • Explorer – values freedom
  • Everyman – values belonging
  • Jester – values pleasure
  • Lover – values intimacy
  • Hero – values mastery
  • Magician – values power
  • Outlaw – values liberation
  • Sage – values knowledge

Learn more about archetypes:

Character archetypes - Now Novel on archetypal characters

Character archetypes: How to enrich your novel’s cast

Learn about archetypal characters and using this concept to finesse goals.

Story archetypes blog post header

Types of stories: 7 archetypes (and ways to use them)

Learn about story archetypes such as ‘Rags to Riches’ and ways to use them.

Stereotypes

Stereotypes are clichés that may be harmful or offensive to people with specific identities or histories in how they tend to ignore, oversimplify or ‘flatten’ human complexity. They are often used for ‘edgy’ or politically incorrect humor.

Often they have complex political or even propagandistic undertones. For example, the trope of the ‘angry black woman’ is often criticized for falsely representing BIPOC women as inherently aggressive in a way that dismisses history or the nuances and responsibilities of representation.

Learn more about avoiding simplistic stock character types:
Character tropes: 5 tips to avoid stock types.

Round vs flat characters

‘Round’ or three-dimensional characters are often compared to ‘flat’ characters who don’t have as much change or development.

‘Pip’, the hero of Dickens’ Great Expectations is an example of the round type. He changes as his fortunes and personal wealth change, from a scared orphan crying in a graveyard at the story’s start to a ‘new money’ young man in fancy clothes thanks to a mysterious benefactor.

This character type is typical of a bildungsroman or coming-of-age story like Dickens’ novel.

A flat character like Sherlock Holmes may go through diverse story scenarios but tends not to change or develop much in persona. They may have catchphrases they always say, such as ‘elementary, my dear Watson’, or stock phrases such as James Bond’s martini order.

Flat characters are often the comforting constant in a sea of change.

Protagonists

Protagonists or main/primary characters are the primary decision-makers in a story who propel its action.

Stories may have one or more protagonists, and they are often discussed alongside antagonists. A protagonist may be a hero (in that they pursue the greater good or uphold values that are societal norms) or antihero (for example, a protagonist who commits murder like Rodion Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment).

Learn more about writing strong protagonists:

Protagonist Examples | Now Novel

Protagonist examples: Creating memorable main characters

Learn what makes main characters memorable and how to write protagonists.

Main character writing: 6 ideas for a strong key cast

Learn how to write a main characters with tips to ensure a strong key cast.

Antagonists

Antagonists are primary opponents whose desires compete with or oppose the protagonist’s own.

For example, the stepmother with her jealousy and poison apple in Snow White.

Learn more about writing antagonists:

Antagonist examples from books | Now Novel

Antagonist examples: How to write great adversaries

Learn from antagonists in novels and what they teach us.

Main antagonists: How to write real opponents

How do you write an opponent who seems real? Find out.

Secondary characters

These are peripheral or important characters who may fulfil important roles to main characters such as:

  • Friend/confidant
  • Mentor/guardian
  • Sidekick/henchman (depending on whether allied to the protagonist or antagonist)
  • Love interest (though this may also be a protagonist, especially if they are a primary viewpoint narrator during the story – more on this below)

The above types of secondary characters are involved secondary characters because they take part in the action.

Non-involved secondary characters include extras (for example the crowd in a stadium, maybe briefly described) and walk-ons (characters who pass through the story and fulfil a set purpose, for example the ‘friendly innkeeper’ type).

Learn more about the uses of background characters:
Writing background characters: 5 uses

Genre-specific character types

In addition to the broad types above, there are character types specific to different genres (though not all the types below necessarily appear, for example, a hero might not have a sidekick):

GenreCommon character types
RomanceRomantic leads, friends, rivals
Comedy‘Straight’ counterpart or foil (to a fool)
FantasyHero, villain, sidekick, guardian
Crime thrillerDetective, victim/survivor, law enforcer, witness
MysterySleuth (pro or amateur), suspect
Science fictionScientist, explorer, cyber expert, inventor
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The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always,
‘What does the protagonist want?’

David Mamet

Character ideas: Ways to come up with your cast

Finding character ideas for a story is a lot easier once you have a central idea, your story’s premise or scenario.

Use the ‘Central Idea’ prompt process in Now Novel’s story dashboard to brainstorm and finesse a story idea to start.

Once you have your story idea, to find character ideas and finesse them:

Create character profiles

Think of a character profile like an ID that tells way more than age, gender, birthdate and birthplace.

You could create a PDF for each character and save these to Google Drive and create a spreadsheet with links to each document (our downloadable story PDF grows as your ideas do, with pagination and clear sections for each character).

Organize your character research and brainstorming so that you can refresh your memory on what you’ve already established for your characters easily. This is especially useful if you’re writing a series or epic with a large or revolving cast of characters.

‘Reverse cast’ your story

Look at Pinterest boards or use AI image creation tools like This Person Does Not Exist to find inspiration for the look, feel and style of a character.

Build characters from your scenario

Read through your story idea summary and brainstorm characters whose goals, motivations and conflicts align to your idea (keep reading for more on GMC and how to use it to develop characters).

Recommended reading
Ways to come up with characters - infographic

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When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters.
A character is a caricature.

Ernest Hemingway

Character development:
Creating characters who change

In great stories, who, what, why, where and when change in meaningful ways.

Developing characters ensures your reader will go on a journey with emotional highs and lows.

Learn about core drivers of character development – goal, motivation and conflict – as well as how to create character arcs with structure and satisfying shape in this section.

Character development - 7 elements infographic

Character goals: What the cast of your story wants

Goals in developing characters are crucial. Your characters may have several types of goals as your story progresses. For example:

  • Initial goals: The first steps your characters must take, what they need to achieve in the opening scene of your story
  • Surprise goals: Spur-of-the-moment decisions characters make, new plans that arise out of setbacks, conflicts, and unexpected events
  • End goals: Your characters’ ultimate objectives (such as Frodo destroying the One Ring).

Learn more about characters and desire in storytelling:

Character development - 9 tips for character arcs | Now Novel

Character development: 9 tips for arcs with depth

Learn how to give your character arcs dimension and depth.

How to develop a character: 7 simple steps

Read seven steps to ensure your characters develop in your story.

Motivations: Why characters want what they do

Motivations are crucial to creating a character and their goals. Why people desire things is intrinsically linked to their broader story, beliefs and emotions.

A despotic king, for example, might demand total obedience because he fears rebellion and wants to stay in power.

Your characters’ motivations might arise from one or more of the following:

  • Beliefs, whether true or false (for example, an archetypal caregiver such as a nurse in WWII may believe in the good of caring for the injured)
  • Backstory and formative experiences (a person may work doubly hard for success or self-sabotage due to what they’ve been through)
  • Basic necessity such as the need for sustenance, freedom, shelter, love, etc – Maslow’s hierarchy of needs
  • Personality and values For example the ‘Explorer’ archetype might seek out wild adventure for the thrill of the unknown

Learn more about creating characters with compelling motivations:

Understanding character motivations | Now Novel

Character motivations: 6 questions

Read questions on what drives characters.

Character motivation examples | Now Novel

Character motivation examples: 7 tips for clear motives

Learn more about character motivations with examples.

Conflicts between characters (and within)

Conflict is equally crucial to developing characters in stories. In Greek mythology, Hercules becomes the hero precisely through completing tough tasks that test his ingenuity and resolve.

In this part of this guide, we’ll explore types of conflict that drive character development.

Two conflict types in fiction: Internal and external

There are two broad categories of conflict in stories: Internal conflict, and external conflict.

Internal conflict

Internal conflict is your character’s inner struggle. It may arise from:

  • Contradictory desires (such as ‘being the hero’ versus ‘staying safe’)
  • Flaws or wounds (for example, a dancer who had a bad experience with a teacher may be hesitant to keep pursuing their passion)
  • Beliefs or doubts that impede action (for example, someone who is given a quest or task who does not yet believe in their own ability)
External conflict

External conflict refers to conflict between characters (or between a character and their environment, society, or other external sources). It arises from many sources including:

  • Conflicting desires between characters (for example, a relationship where one spouse wants to emigrate but the other does not)
  • Conflicting goals (for example, a hero must destroy an object that is the antagonist’s only hope of returning to power)
  • Hostility of environment or society (for example, a woman in a patriarchy struggles against the narrow or oppressive gender roles prescribed, like in The Handmaid’s Tale)

How does conflict develop characters?

Conflict develops characters because it:

  • Supplies stakes or ‘worst case scenarios’ should your character fail (for example, an out-of-work character being evicted if they can’t find a job)
  • Makes characters’ path toward victory more uncertain (and thus often requires personal change or mastery)
  • Makes action necessary for resolution: Conflict is unsustainable, forcing characters to act if they are to find peace, shelter, safety or harmony

Learn more about internal and external conflict and character development:

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Characters and conflict: Driving change and stakes

We examined the two main types of conflict between characters above. In this section learn about types of conflict that could drive your story’s action.

Key types of conflict between characters include:

  1. A struggle with self (often called ‘man vs self’). Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a classic example of this kind (a legal practitioner investigates a man with a dangerous, urge-compelled alter ego).
  2. Person vs person conflict (also known as ‘man vs man’). This is a very common type of conflict in epic fantasy in which a hero faces off against a powerful magician or tyrant (e.g. Frodo vs Sauron in Tolkien’s famous fantasy cycle).
  3. Person vs nature is a classic type of conflict common in survival and adventure stories (such as, for example, The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss, or the survival drama 127 Hours).
  4. Person vs society Some characters face not just a single foe but a society in opposition to fundamental desires or needs. A classic example of this is the ostracized Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

Learn more about types of conflict, external and internal, and how to use them to create interesting adversity in stories:

Using conflicts in a story: 6 helpful conflict examples

Read about 6 core types of conflict in fiction.

Making external conflict compelling: 6 ideas

Learn ways to make external conflicts in stories engaging.

Learn more about types of conflict your characters may encounter:

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This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

Toni Morrison

Describing characters: Bringing fictive people to life

Character description is intertwined with character development. The stories of our lives and experiences are written on our bodies and in our speech. In this section of this guide, learn how to create vivid, varied character descriptions.

Ways to describe characters

There are almost infinitely varied ways to describe your characters, including:

  • Physical features such as faces, bodies, the clothing your characters wear, the personal ways different characters might style the same outfit
  • Movement and gesture such as posture, gait, habitual poses and expressions
  • Voice including your characters’ vocal timbre and pitch, diction (how formally or informally they speak), accent and dialect. Written characters differ from film because narration provides voice too, not only spoken dialogue (or the occasional voiceover)
  • Actions your characters’ actions describe their personality because they reveal personality traits (such as loving drama or being loyal, valuing others’ trust or deceiving whoever they can to get ahead)

See how to describe characters in varied ways with the help of these resources:

header showing diverse, multicultural characters

Character description examples: Creating people

Read 8 ways to describe characters with examples by top authors.

How to describe a person vividly: 8 ways

Learn how to write descriptions that build personality and more.

Recommended reading
Physical description
How to describe voice and speech
How to create characters’ personalities
General characterization

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Narration and POV: Who tells your story?

The narrator is the person or voice telling the story.

If your narrator is an involved character (and not a neutral narrating fly-on-the-wall voice), we say the story has an involved narrator. When you have an involved narrator, how your narrator tells the story (their language, voice, tone) builds characterization, too.

Point of view and types of narrator

Point of view (abbreviated to POV) refers to both whose point of view the story is told from, and the person used (for example, first-person narration using ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’ versus third person using ‘he’, ‘she’, plural ‘they’ or gender neutral).

The point of view you choose for your story has specific character effects.

For example, if you use a first-person narrator, you can only tell the reader what that character knows, assumes, or makes up, while they are the viewpoint narrator (the person currently telling the story). Unlike an omniscient narrator, the first-person narrator cannot share other people’s private thoughts (unless they are a mind-reader).

How to create characterization via narration:

  • Think about worldview or outlook: What is your narrator’s personality, politics, value system? How does this affect what they share?
  • Bring in backstory or vocation: A visual artist may be more specific than others when describing colors, for example, or may use more metaphors borrowed from visual art
  • Think about demographics: Where is your character from, and what is their age, class position, gender identity? Are any other demographic details significant? These may inflect their narrative voice (or their narrative voice might not immediately give away one or more of these details)

Learn more about ways to build characterization via narration:

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In a portrait, you have room to have a point of view and to be conceptual with a picture. The image may not be literally what’s going on, but it’s representative.

Annie Leibovitz

Character questions: Prompts to populate your story

Character questions and questionnaires provide a useful way to delve deeper into your characters.

In our writing webinars, Now Novel writing coach Romy Sommer compares what you include about your character in your story to the tip of an iceberg. What the reader sees might not be everything you’ve dreamed and invented. Yet beneath the surface, there’s that depth, that anchoring.

Character questionnaire example

The first version of Now Novel’s story dashboard (revised 2018) included 15 categories of character questions to flesh out ideas for your cast:

  1. Demographics: E.g. ‘How old is this character?’
  2. Appearance: E.g. ‘In what style do they wear their hair?’
  3. Character specific: E.g. ‘Why is this character dissatisfied?’
  4. Work: E.g. ‘What do they do for a living?’
  5. Relaxation: E.g. ‘What are this character’s hobbies?’
  6. Food: E.g. ‘What kind of food do they like eating?
  7. Stuff: E.g. ‘What would they grab if their home were on fire?’
  8. Home: E.g. ‘Describe their living space’
  9. Family: E.g. ‘Are their parents still alive?’
  10. Childhood: E.g. ‘Did they have a happy or unhappy childhood? Explain.’
  11. Friends: E.g. ‘Who is their best friend?’
  12. Relationships: E.g. ‘What is the thing they argue about most in relationships?’
  13. Money: E.g. ‘What is their relationship to money like?’
  14. Fears: E.g. ‘What is their greatest fear?’
  15. Demeanor/personality: E.g. ‘On a scale of 1 to 10, how annoying do others find them?’

Not all of the above questions will be relevant for your character. Yet filling in questionnaires such as the above is a great way to get to know your characters as though they are real (and avoid the caricatures Hemingway warns about).

Read more questions to develop your characters:

What is a character writing question you’ve been thinking about? Share it in the comments. Start brainstorming characters now and outline and draft scenes with your character outlines in a helpful sidebar in the Now Novel Writing Pad or in Google Docs with our Docs add-on.

Now Novel is a great platform for all writers to check out – especially for plotting, brainstorming, characterisation and even world building. Their customer service is top notch and I highly recommend NN! – MJ

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By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

11 replies on “Character writing: Complete guide to creating your cast”

Many thanks. Had I read this post before writing my competition entry, i would have known better how to write a vivid description of a person.

It’s a pleasure, Ohita. Sorry for the delayed response – Disqus’ notification system is a little erratic. Glad you enjoyed it.

Hi Katie, thank you for your question. It’s quite a broad one but I would say:

  1. Do your research: What can you find out about the person that may surprise readers?
  2. Be careful with living people – if the person is still living, you could run into issues around privacy/defamation (if the character does anything unsavory, for example). If necessary, change enough details (particularly the name) to make the identity of the person more ambiguous.
  3. Make a list of features or a character profile as though they were a fictional character. Think about their greatest strengths and flaws, their backstory and what their core goals, motivations and conflicts may be leading into your story.
  4. Good luck!

Hi Stephanie, thank you for your question. Is there a specific aspect of character creation you’re finding challenging? One way to find character ideas Now Novel writing coach Romy suggested in a webinar was to create a Pinterest board and pin images of interesting faces and people as character inspirations, and to use these images as starting points for brainstorming personality details, goals, motivations, etc.

You can find all of our character-writing articles here.

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