Character writing Writing description

Creating characters readers remember: Detailed guide

Creating characters who spring to life on the page is vital for filling your story with people your readers can love, despise, relate to and find intriguing. Learn more.

Knowing how to make a character readers won’t forget is a skill worth building. The best-made characters often feel like old friends. Read this detailed guide to creating characters:

How to create a character for a novel or story

  1. Come up with character ideas via play
  2. Create character profiles using question sheets
  3. Use character archetypes to find contrasts
  4. Subvert stereotypes to avoid clichés
  5. Show character details that reveal persona
  6. Create vivid personality via voice
  7. Use actions to develop desires and fears
  8. Use known figures as a starting point
  9. Develop characters out of your base scenario
  10. Make characters change and react

Let’s explore each of these ideas with examples from books and character creation exercises:

1. Come up with characters via play

How to come up with a character from scratch?

There are many ways to find character inspiration (explore using character profiles and archetypes in the third section of this guide).

Character inspiration is all around. Try:

  • Creating a Pinterest vision board for a character or type from your story, and pinning images such as clothing they’d wear, places they’d frequent, images that capture the tone and mood of their personality, status or times (follow Now Novel on Pinterest while you’re there)
  • Creating a music playlist in Spotify or on YouTube for your character, songs that capture their personality or simply music they’d listen to. Are they a folk connoisseur or pop lover?

Our eBook writing guide, How to Create Real Characters, also includes exercises on how to make up a character and find their distinctive traits.

2. Create character profiles using question sheets

Making character profiles is an excellent way to ask questions about your characters: What motivates them, what they long for, what they fear. Broad, ‘big picture’ human questions, alongside the tiny detail (such as your characters favorite foods, activities, places, memories).

It is important to say this about creating characters using profiles: Not every detail brainstormed needs to go into your novel.

Many writers do find, though, that the more they know about their characters, the more tiny, arbitrary (even) details, the easier they are to inhabit.

Character questions worth asking are questions around goal, motivation and conflict. Think about what your characters want, what drives this want, and the ‘why not’ or conflict that stands in their way.

Character creation tools: The Now Novel dashboard

The ‘Characters’ section in the Now Novel dashboard provides a structured, step-by-step method for profiling each character in your story and giving each an avatar to identify them in your character outline. Create a Now Novel profile to begin.

Example character development sheet from Now Novel's character profile process showing Cinderella
Cinderella example created using Now Novel’s dashboard (walk through character profile questions to create a detailed character outline that saves to a PDF as you go).

3. Use character archetypes to find contrasts

Character creation using archetypes is helpful as it provides a way to give your characters contrasting natures. This also makes it easy for readers to connect with characters, since these types are fairly universal.

The concept of ‘archetypes’ is drawn from the work of Carl Gustav Jung, which is explained in the helpful introduction of this article, ‘Archetypes, Motifs, and Plot in Drama (English II Reading)’.

To put it simply, Now Novel writing coach Romy Sommer said of archetypes in our webinar on creating characters:

What is an archetype? It is a universal symbol, it’s a typical character that represents a universal pattern of human nature. So, for example, the orphan, the bad boy, the mentor, the girl next door, the free spirit, the grand dame, the jester.

Romy Sommer, ‘Creating Characters’, webinar, Now Novel archive.

Character archetype example: The Jester

Choosing an archetype such as ‘The Jester’ for a character (like the Joker – Batman’s nemesis) gives you a starting point.

What does a ‘Jester’ type love? Usually pranks, mischief. It lends itself to Joker’s characterization in DC Comics’ lore as experimental, playful (though in a thoroughly wicked way).

Archetypes also have a shadow side. The clown-like figure may also be deeply sad or troubled behind the mask of pranks or humor.

This fits Joker’s backstory (his wife and unborn child having died in an accident and the Joker becoming disfigured in a robbery gone awry).

Combining archetypes, for example pitting a serious stoic against a frivolous jester, provides a useful way to find core contrasts in personality. This ensures each main character stands out.

Infographic: Creating characters - 7 tips to create deeper characterization
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4. Subvert stereotypes to avoid clichés

When you’re creating characters, it’s easy to fall back on ‘received’ character moulds or templates and repeat stereotypes.

Why should you avoid (or subvert) character stereotypes in writing fiction?

  1. Stereotypes may seem lazy: Of course the high school footballer is a jock and bullies the nerdy kid, the reader may groan. Avoiding or subverting stereotypes (surprising the reader with characters not always playing to type) allows surprise and greater depth.
  2. Stereotypes are often harmful: Stereotypes such as the ‘angry black woman’ are often used in an undermining way. For example, passing off an activist black character as just another ‘angry’ person who fits a type may undermine the actual urgency of their cause.

According to Psychology Today, stereotypes may be both accurate and harmful. One way to avoid stereotypes is to think ‘yes, and’ or ‘yes, but’.

Yes, a character may react in anger to injustice, but they may also have tender moments with a lover, friend or family member. Avoiding stereotypes means avoiding the one-note and the obvious. Avoiding the reductive.

Romy discusses these ideas further in this extract from our webinar, ‘Creating Characters’:

5. Show character details that reveal persona

Show, don’t tell‘ may be one of the most overused pieces of writing advice.

At the same time, immersive characterization often does require revealing your characters via telling, shown details.

Below, read an example of creating character through scene, interaction, and detail, from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871).

Creating Characters with Personality: George Eliot’s Middlemarch

In the opening pages of Middlemarch, sisters Celia and Dorothea Brooke discuss dividing their late mother’s jewelry.

It shows (and is telling of) Celia’s personality that she brings up the jewelry, as she emerges as the more materialistic of the two sisters. Dorothea is more idealistic.

In the small details of conversation and gesture, Eliot creates a clear sense of Celia’s more emotional and impetuous nature compared to Dorothea’s less worldly one. Celia starts:

“It is the last day of September now, and it was the first of April when uncle gave them to you. You know, he said that he had forgotten them till then. I believe you have never thought of them since you locked them up in the cabinet here.”
“Well, dear, we should never wear them, you know.” Dorothea spoke in a full cordial tone, half caressing, half explanatory. She had her pencil in hand, and was making tiny side-plans on a margin.
Celia coloured, and looked very grave. “I think, dear, we are wanting in respect to mammas memory, to put them by and take no notice of them. And,’ she added after hesitating a little, with a rising sob of mortification, ‘necklaces are quite usual now […]

George Eliot, Middlemarch (Penguin Classics, 1994), p. 11.

The small details shown coupled with the dialogue show the sisters’ personalities. We see Celia is:

  • Aware of fashion and style
  • Not above emotional manipulation to get what she wants

Dorothea, on the other hand, is shown as practical and to some extent ‘above’ material pursuits (pencil in hand, she makes practical notes in the margins on plans).

Dorothea, the elder sister, appears the more rational, less emotion-driven one.

In this scene extract, small details, gestures and reactions work together to create a sense of personality, desire and focus.

Creating characters’ personalities using appearance, gesture and psychology

It’s important to give the reader immersive character description. Try our creative writing exercises here to practice writing character description.

Four aspects of character description include:

  1. Appearance – for example, posture, expression, gesture, dress.
  2. Body language – e.g. turning away, or mirroring another’s body language (a sign of attraction)
  3. Verbal language – describing a character through what they say and how they say it
  4. Psychology – mood, attitude and emotion implied by a combination of the three elements above and character choices/actions

When outlining your character, think about each of these elements. You can find our best articles on character development and description in our character writing hub.

How does a character’s body language reflect their temperament? What do the words characters use in dialogue or narration tell us about them?

Ernest Hemingway quote - creating characters is caricature

Extra reading on how to create characters via physical details

One thing that makes readers groan is obvious cliché. Character description is particularly prone to cliché (such as wringing hands to show distress). Read more on character description:

  1. Describing characters: How to describe faces imaginatively
  2. How to describe hands: 6 ways to make characters real
  3. How to describe eyes in a story: 7 simple tips
  4. Character posture: How to describe characters’ bearing
  5. Talking about your character: Mannerisms

6. Create vivid personality via voice

Creating characters for a novel not only requires thinking about how your characters look, but also how they sound and express themselves.

Voice helps to imply personality. For example, a teacher who starts to yell barely seconds into every lesson is clearly the bellicose, belligerent kind.

Choices you make in character creation that build a character’s voice:

Pitch: Is their voice high and squeaky, a deep baritone, or somewhere between? Does it fit your character’s appearance or is it surprising given how they look?

Tone: This is more indicative of personality. Does your character tend to speak to people in a friendly, engaging way? Are they sullen and unresponsive? Do they use sarcasm or smart-ass comebacks to mask their insecurity or vulnerability?

Diction: The way a character speaks is revealing about their background and status. Arguably, one of the factors that has made the British singer Adele adored by millions (aside from her beautiful voice) is how she speaks with the unaffected, relatable ‘working class’ accent and slang of where she hails from.

Vocabulary: In creating characters, think about the words they know and tend to use. A character who has a vast vocabulary might be a reader, academic, or have another vocation to do with language.

Character creation exercises: The voice

Exercise one:

Sit in a public place and casually eavesdrop. Single out a voice. Try to write a paragraph describing the voice, as though you were describing a character (obviously, don’t get caught eavesdropping!).

Exercise two:

Open a random YouTube interview where someone is speaking and mute your audio before it starts.

Watching the person talking, try to describe their voice. Imagine phrases they might say.

This is a useful exercise for finding a voice to match someone’s appearance and body language.

Extra reading on creating characters’ voices

  1. Talking about your character: Speech
  2. Talking about your character: Voice

7. Use actions to develop desires and fears

When you create characters, individual actions can tell your reader a lot.

A character, for example, who meticulously washes and polishes their car from top to bottom every weekend might be:

  • Fastidious – someone who is very concerned with accuracy and attention to detail
  • Conscientious – disciplined in their behavior and keeping things in their life orderly
  • Image-focused – they might care a lot about what others think (and be mortified at the idea of being seen in a dirty car, for example)

See how a single action, a general action, can begin to fill in the blanks about your character? Actions such as these may supply general truths about your characters and their personalities.

Think, too, about specific actions that illuminate what your characters want or fear.

For example, a jealous boyfriend or girlfriend going through their lover’s emails or texts (because they fear the other is cheating on them).

Actions that illustrate desires or fears tend to propel a story forward, because these actions usually have outcomes and consequences that drive further action and reaction.

8. Use known figures as a starting point

When you want to make up a character, starting from scratch isn’t always necessary. Known figures (whether historical or current) provide a great starting point.

Think of the Roman Emperor Caligula (who reigned 37 to 41 AD) who allegedly wanting to make his horse a senator.

Politicians have been committing absurd and unsettling deeds since time immemorial.

If you’re creating a tyrant ruler or antagonist for your own story, look no further than the lives of actual emperors for inspiration.

9. Develop characters out of your base scenario

Having a strong central idea for your story helps when creating characters. If you have a paragraph or page summary to start, it gives you a situation or circumstances to flesh out further.

Take, for example, a logline from a recent bestselling novel, Rosie Walsh’s The Love of My Life (Pamela Dorman, 2022):

When a marine biologist suffers a serious illness, she must tell her husband about the other love of her life.

Hawes, ‘Adult New York Times Best Seller Lists for 2022’, updated March 28 2022.

Building a clear premise for your own story like this will help you create characters who emerge from this scenario, both at the outset of your draft and as you write.

It also helps you set parameters for what to research, e.g.

  • What marine biologists’ jobs entail
  • What serious illness a marine biologist might contract in the field (if your character’s illness is contracted here)

Find a clear story scenario by working through the free ‘Central Idea’ brainstorming tool in Now Novel’s story dashboard.

10. Make characters change and react

Stories, generally speaking, are characters, situations, plus change.

In creating characters, think of where they might end up in light of their goals, motivations, and the ‘why not’ or obstacle (or many obstacles) in their way.

Planning story ‘beats’ in duos of action and reaction is one way to ensure that you create characters whose actions have impactful consequences.

Read more about how to create character arcs or get a Now Novel membership plan for access to writing webinars on developing characters and tools to develop a book.

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 “Creating characters readers remember: Detailed guide”

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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