Character writing Writing description

Creating character: How to make characters come alive

Creating character interest is vital when trying to reel in devoted readers. After all, your characters are the building blocks of your novel. They’re what will make your readers really care about the outcome and keep turning pages. Creating in-depth character sketches or outlines is a great way to climb inside your characters’ skin. Here are more tips for writing believable characters:

Creating character interest is vital when trying to reel in devoted readers. After all, your characters are the building blocks of your novel. They’re what will make your readers really care about the outcome and keep turning pages. Creating in-depth character sketches or outlines is a great way to climb inside your characters’ skin. Here are more tips for writing believable characters:

1. Make your characters as complex as real people are

Sometimes we get bored with a book and give up. Not because the description is bad or the plot is confusing. More because we simply don’t feel any connection to the characters.

Think of the hero Achilles from Greek legend. Achilles was immune to physical harm, thanks to his mother dipping him in the mythical river Styx when he was born. This gives him an almost ludicrous advantage in combat. Yet the point where his mother held him during the ritual – his heel – is a weak spot. This vulnerability eventually is the cause of his death on the battlefield.

It would be boring if Achilles could have defeated anyone unchallenged, but his flaw makes him recognizably human.

Achilles’ heel shows that it’s possible for a strong, courageous character to encounter grave danger like anyone else. It also shows that great characters have histories. Even if they only get brief mentions. These histories can wield critical influence on your story, deciding the outcome of a pivotal plot point.

Flaws remind us of crucial vulnerabilities (in Achilles’ case, mortality) that humans share. If you want to write more complex characters read this post: Creating loveable flaws in your characters.

2. Give your characters unique goals and motivations

Ever read a book and found yourself thinking ‘I can’t believe [Character X] did that?’ Sometimes the unexpected is what a story needs.  Yet if a character’s actions or choices feel too (unreasonably) unexpected or frustrating, it decreases how believable the story is.

Our wants and needs shape our behaviour. Conflict is also key to good pace and reader interest. When planning character goals, ask yourself:

  • Why does my character have this goal?
  • What does she/he need to do to reach it?
  • What opposition/obstacles will there be?
  • How might she/he overcome them?

Get our workbook How to Write Real Characters for practical tips and exercises that will help you develop believable, interesting characters.

3. Describe characters fully to create believable individuals

You have your characters’ motivations and goals clarified in your mind. You’ve given them realistic flaws or weaknesses. Yet somehow you’re still finding creating a character a challenge.

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

There are 4 elements of character description:

  1. Appearance
  2. Body language
  3. Verbal language
  4. Psychology (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?

Creating character and reader investment - Lawrence Wright quote | Now Novel

Describing your characters’ appearances

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

4. Describe your characters’ body language

Body language can speak volumes about your character. It can say a lot about her psychological or emotional state. It also provides the means to convey atmosphere and mood. For example, a character shifting from foot to foot might be nervous or impatient. Read this post on using body language to detail characters:

  1. Talking about your character: Mannerisms

5. Write memorable characters’ voices

Talking about a character’s ‘voice’ can mean:

  • The sound quality of a character’s voice: High and brassy/gruff/vivacious/loud/soft
  • The way a character expresses herself; how her typical phrases and words create personality

Think about how each character’s voice can strengthen the reader’s impression of strengths and weaknesses. A soft-spoken character might show surprising courage and ferocity. A loud character might turn silent because they’re in a grave situation. Your character’s voice can change, and this makes a character dynamic.

As an exercise, draw up a list of features of your character’s voice. In one column place the auditory elements of their voice. What should readers hear when a character speaks?

In a second column, write any key sayings, exclamations, curse words or other verbal tics your character might have.

See our guides to writing characters’ voices and speech:

  1. Talking about your character: Speech
  2. Talking about your character: Voice
Neil Gaiman quote - writing and using your unique voice | Now Novel

6. Creating believable character psychology

Character psychology is closely linked to character goals and motivations. Internal and external conflicts, and how your characters handle them, show the reader your character’s psychology. See our best posts on character psychology for a more detailed discussion of creating believable inner worlds:

  1. How to write believable characters
  2. How to create a character backstory that feels real

Writing characters that readers can relate to, that drive your story and hold readers’ interest, isn’t easy. Yet with the help of the advice above, you can start asking yourself the right questions about your characters . This will help you create a more vivid, rounded cast for your novel.

Brainstorm character profiles and summaries using the ‘Character’ section in the Now Novel dashboard.

By Bridget McNulty

Bridget McNulty is a published author, content strategist, writer, editor and speaker. She is the co-founder of two non-profits: Sweet Life Diabetes Community, South Africa's largest online diabetes community, and the Diabetes Alliance, a coalition of all the organisations working in diabetes in South Africa. She is also the co-founder of Now Novel: an online novel-writing course where she coaches aspiring writers to start - and finish! - their novels. Bridget believes in the power of storytelling to create meaningful change.

9 replies on “Creating character: How to make characters come alive”

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!

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