Creating character: How to make characters come alive

Creating character - An old man holding a board saying 'how to make characters come alive.'

If there’s one thing every writer has to become good at it’s creating character interest. 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 an extremely helpful way to climb inside your character’s skin. There are also a number of other tips and tricks for writing believable characters we want to share with you:

Make your characters as complex as real people are

Often we get bored with a book and give up not because the description is bad or the plot is confusing but because we simply don’t feel any connection to the characters. Think of the hero Achilles from Greek legend – he 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 that 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 possibile for a strong, courageous character to encounter grave danger like anyone else. It also shows that great characters have histories, even if they are only briefly mentioned. These histories can wield critical influence at key moments in your story, deciding the outcome of a pivotal plot point.

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

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 just what is needed in a story.  If a character’s actions or choices feel too (unreasonably) unexpected or frustrating, think carefully about cause and effect. Our wants and needs shape our behaviour. Conflict is key to good pace and reader interest. Having characters hold compatible or conflicting desires and motivations creates a stronger sense of a living, breathing imaginary world. 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?

Whether or not your character attains her goals depends on the type of story you are writing. In a typical tragedy, the character’s motivations are often a cause of their not reaching their goals and rather meeting a sad, unfortunate end. Whatever your genre is, draw up a list of your characters’ primary desires and think about the competing or collaborative drives the inhabitants of your fictional world contribute to the story.

Want to explore character motivations further? See ‘How to understand your characters’ motivations‘.

How to describe your characters: Creating believable individuals

Great characters have histories - quoteYou 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 character a challenge. It’s important to give the reader immersive character 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 any one aspect of your character, think about how the other elements might be used to reinforce the type of your character. For example, if your character is nervous and fearful, what kind of language do they tend towards? They might be inclined to the conditional (‘I might come…’ or ‘If I could [do x], I would…’) rather than direct assertions of intent (‘I will…). How will their body language reflect their temperament? Interlinking these individual elements of a character makes her more real, as it shows that like us she is a complex combination of past and present; feeling, thought and action. You might be asking, ‘but how do I write about characters’ appearance/body language/verbal language/psychology better?’ Here are some tips:

Describing your characters’ appearance

One thing that makes readers everywhere groan is obvious cliché. Character description is an aspect of fiction writing particularly prone to cliché (such as the wringing of hands to express distress). Read more about describing aspects of your character’s appearance in the posts below:

  1. Talking about your character: Face
  2. Talking about your character: Hands
  3. Talking about your character: Eyes
  4. Talking about your character: How to describe posture

Describing 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 quickly. For example, a character shifting from foot to foot with crossed arms might be feeling unconfident and defensive. Read this post that examines body language and how to use well in creating characters:

  1. Talking about your character: Mannerisms

Writing memorable characters’ voices

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

  • The aural 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 the impression of an individual personality.

When outlining or sketching your character, think about how her voice can strengthen the reader’s impression of strengths and weaknesses. A soft-spoken character might show surprising courage and ferocity, while a loud character might be stunned to silence in a grave incident. Your character’s voice can change, thus a relatively silent character might grow more talkative or a voluble one less so.

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 the reader should hear when a character speaks. In a second column, write any key sayings, exclamations, curse words or other verbal tics your character might have. Having a unique list for each character (or characters from a particular region or social group) will help to remind you to switch between multiple characters’ voices clearly.

See our guides to writing characters’ voices and speech:

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

Creating believable character psychology

Character psychology - writing believable characters - quoteCharacter psychology is closely linked to character goals and motivations as well as character flaws, the first two topics of this post. In addition to external obstacles to your character meeting her goals, there should be internal ones that give readers insights into her psychology. If your character must defeat a powerful adversary, depicting a fearful mental state helps to notch up suspense and will make readers wonder whether your character will prevail. Psychology, like motivations and goals, can explain why characters make the choices they make.

See our best posts on character psychology for a more detailed discussion of creating believable inner worlds:

  1. How to write believable characters
  2. Talking about your character: Backstory

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.

Want to talk about character ideas with other motivated writers? Join the Now Novel ‘Characters’ group. 

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