Updated: Jul 2, 2020
Creating believable, memorable characters that come to life on the page and engage the reader is key in writing fiction. A physical description of them is never enough, and in fact, the current trend is to minimize the physical descriptions of characters. Instead, layers of personality and history should be added to characters, especially the main characters, to properly develop them, because your job as a writer is to make the reader relate to them in some way, feel empathy for them, want to know more about them, and care about what happens to them.
This is not to say that believable characters need to be “realistic” ones—we all have superheroes we adore, admire, fear, or envy. But even if your story takes place in a magic kingdom (for example), your characters need to be believable given the setting, time period, and other aspects of the story. The most brilliant plot is doomed if the characters fall flat.
Don’t be afraid to draw from your own relationships to inspire your fictional characters. If your character needs to be shy, think of someone you know who is shy and create a scene from what you’ve observed in real life. Similarly, if your character is in a situation that requires mustering up an incredible amount of courage, think about someone you know who has been in that situation. (Just be careful not to infuse too much of the real person into your fictional character, as that can lead to sensitive familial/friendship issues if the real person doesn’t take to the likeness. And speaking of that, do add this important disclaimer at the front of your book: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
I have found it helpful to have the major characters in the story fully imagined before I start writing, as their actions and dialogue will depend on their many individual characteristics, such as physical condition, likes and dislikes, values, obsessions, fears, lifestyle, needs, habits, desires, and flaws. I also find it useful to keep a picture of each main character nearby. For example, the female protagonist in my first two books is of mixed race but can easily pass for white. So I Googled “images of mixed-race women,” found one I could relate to for my character, printed it, and taped it by my computer screen. The photo provided inspiration when I was trying to get into the character’s head.
Browse the Internet or magazines and catalogues for pictures of your characters. For example, does your protagonist like to ski? Pick up an issue of Freeskier. I bet you’ll find a picture of him in there.
Protagonist versus Antagonist
The protagonist, the main character in your book, is at the story’s heart—it is the protagonist’s story. The key to creating a compelling story is having the protagonist chase after a goal—the story being the journey taken to achieve this goal.
The protagonist is typically identified by the character in your story who:
· Has the greatest passion to reach a specific goal.
· Faces the greatest challenges that keep him or her from reaching this goal.
· Makes the hardest choices and decisions within the story.
· Undergoes the most significant transformation.
Protagonists need roadblocks, and the most common ones are created by an antagonist—some person or thing that stands in the way of the protagonist reaching his or her goals. The antagonist may be in the form of the traditional villain working alone, a group of people, a force of nature, or even an intrinsic conflict that the protagonist has to overcome.
Antagonists don’t necessarily need to be evil characters. In order for characters to be antagonists, they need only to meet one criterion—their goals must conflict with those of the protagonist. As with protagonists, antagonists need a reason to do what they do in the scope of the story—they need a motivation that often is created from their backstory.
Here are some things to consider when developing your antagonist:
· Give the antagonist powerful, realistic goals.
· Make the antagonist’s backstory believable.
· Create antagonist misdeeds that require decisive action.
· Make the antagonist smarter, more powerful than the protagonist.
Stating physical characteristics—gender, weight, height, age, body build, hair, eyes, posture, voice, and clothing—is the easiest way to portray a character, but be careful to not overuse it.
Too much description: She was slim and tall, close to six feet, with broad bony shoulders and long legs. Her brightly colored blazer over a sheer, white blouse contrasted nicely with her long blond hair, tanned skin, and blue eyes.
Better: She stood out—close to six feet tall and dressed in a stunning, brightly-colored blazer over a sheer, white blouse.
Best: Based on her physical attributes and attire, she appeared to belong on the cover of Vogue.
Once you have provided enough description for the reader to have a good picture of your character, it is not necessary to repeat any of it unless, of course, one of these features is germane to the plot.
Avoid providing the entire description of a character in one place—break it up by scattering snippets of it throughout multiple scenes. A few well-placed descriptive words throughout the story will usually be enough to help readers form a mental image.
Given his scruffy appearance, she had half a mind to ask him for some identification.
A graceful and subtle way to show physical characteristics is to include them within action.
She’d pulled her thinning, ash-blond hair into a loose ponytail, her bony fingers revealing a telltale symptom of her eating disorder.
Other physical traits may be revealed in any number of ways through dialogue, actions, internal thoughts, likes and dislikes, background, mannerisms, speech patterns, lifestyle, habits.
In real life, no one is perfect. Your fictional characters shouldn’t be either. If you don’t give your main character a flaw or two—a bad habit, an insecurity, or a weakness—readers may not accept them or feel empathy for them. Flaws add depth and make characters more memorable. In the end, a character isn’t defined by his flaws but by what he or she does in spite of them, deepening their characterization.
Character flaws fall into one of three categories:
1. Minor imperfections—ones that serve to distinguish a character from the others.
2. Prominent flaws—flaws that impede the character from reaching his or her goals.
3. Fatal flaws (also called hamartia)—ones that cause an otherwise noble character to bring about their own downfall and, often, their eventual death.
Character flaws don’t necessarily make your character a bad person. Readers will still like a character who is flawed. Of course, you don’t want to go overboard—most story lines call for a main character with more strengths than flaws for readers to like them enough to root for them when their flaws get in the way. The right flaw doesn’t detract from the character’s appeal. Instead, it makes their strengths shine in comparison, their mistakes make sense, and their conflict more gripping.
For the purpose of this discussion, I am going to focus on prominent flaws—ones that impede the character from reaching his or her goals.
Here are a few examples of character flaws that have potential for getting in the way of a character reaching his or her goal.
Let’s say your protagonist is idealistic, and her main goal is to find the love of her life. She’s smart, fun to be with, attractive, and likeable in every way. With each new relationship, there is the possibility that this might be the one…until reality sets in and she realizes he’s not perfect. Her character flaw—her idealism when it comes to relationships—will resonate with many readers.
Or think of a character whose goal it is to earn a living as a musician. He’s good at it but unknown, and his indecisiveness keeps getting in his way—indecisiveness about getting a degree in music, accepting wedding and bar mitzva gigs, playing in a house band, and teaching music on the side. Readers won’t be turned off by this—they’ll root for him.
And then there could be the character who is determined to find his sister’s murderer but has little patience when it comes to getting to the truth. That character flaw could be a problem on many levels—frustration while waiting on information that only others can give him, sticking to mundane surveillance duty, tracking down tedious leads, and taking time to ensure he’s not doing anything illegal—all things that get in the way of reaching his goal.
Flaws can be uncovered through backstory, the character’s internal thoughts, other characters pointing them out, or by the character’s own actions. When you choose a flaw, keep in mind that there has to be a reason behind it—don’t include it unless it has meaning. That’s not to say you have to provide a detailed explanation of the flaw, as sometimes hints are more effective. Provide enough explanation to justify it to the readers and help them understand why the character is the way he is.
Get the most out of the flaws. Put your character in different situations where the flaws become apparent and have consequences for the character. Make the flaws part of the story.
Keep in mind that perfect characters are boring. Giving them flaws will not take anything away from their persona—it will only make them more human.
Whether your character is a fairy princess, a ten-year-old boy coming of age, a hopeless romantic, or an ex-con just released from prison, your characters need to evolve throughout the story. If the main character hasn’t changed in some meaningful way by the end, their story won't be very interesting or compelling. This is especially true in literary fiction where the story line is character driven compared to genre fiction (mystery, suspense, science fiction, romance, or horror), where plot drives the story and is more important and prominent than character change. But in either case, the main character must change in some way in the course of reaching his or her goals. Whether your protagonist is someone who was weak and became strong, was miserable and became happy, was bad and became good, or some other transformation, the difference between the character at the beginning of the story and who the character became at the end is essential to the story.
In order for your characters to evolve, you have to allow them to make mistakes, like putting them in uncomfortable situations that force them to make difficult choices. The crises they face need to change their life or their outlook on life, and the change needs to come from choices they’ve made.
Character change can be prompted by a number of different circumstances. Here are three common ones:
1. The character discovers something about himself or herself that was always there.
2. An outside force changes the character.
3. The character goes through an inner transformation.
One of the best examples of character evolution is the change that occurs in Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Scrooge is described early in the story as a “cold-hearted, tight-fisted, selfish, money-grabbing” man who hates helping poor people and has difficulties with relationships in general. As the story evolves, Scrooge is haunted by three spirits who remind him of his troublesome childhood, the bad choices he’s made, and how that led to his current state of mind and loneliness. Through the spirits, he sees how other people live and what he’s been missing. When he sees his own grave, he recognizes his need to change and wants another chance at life. In the end, Scrooge becomes a completely different man.
The bigger the transformation, the more you must justify it in the story—the character must change for a reason, or it won’t make sense to the reader. You want your readers to say “Ah” at the end of the story, not “Huh?”
Change can’t just happen—it’s not enough to make the character different from one scene to the next. Characters need to evolve—it’s a gradual process.
What a character is thinking—called internal or interior dialogue—is often important in allowing the reader to better know the character. In fact, the ability to experience what life is like inside someone else’s head—even if the someone is merely a fictional character—may be one of the main reasons people read novels.
Internal dialogue can be effective before a scene, after a scene, or even in the middle, if it’s kept short. The trick is to find the right balance between writing the character’s internal dialogue and writing the action that will enable readers to deduce on their own what the character is thinking.
Two different technical styles may be considered when writing internal dialogue. You should choose the style that is least distracting from the flow of the story and then keep it consistent throughout.
1. Multiple POVs, tags—Margaret felt uneasy and inched closer to Kevin as the disheveled man approached their table. He’s not someone we want to talk to, he thought.
2. Single POV, no tag—I kept my eye on the disheveled man approaching my table. He’s not someone I want to talk to.
In the first example, assuming the story has been written in both Margaret and Kevin’s POV, there could be some question as to whose thought it is, and the dialogue tag will help to clarify this. In the second example, there is no reason to add a dialogue tag—it’s written in first person, and the dialogue is in italics, so readers automatically know whose thought it is.
Some points to keep in mind when writing internal dialogue are:
Start with action—and then follow it with the character’s reflection on it rather than opening a scene with internal dialogue followed by the action.
Example—He’s not someone I want to talk to, Margaret thought as she kept her eye on the disheveled man approaching her table.
Better—She kept her eye on the disheveled man approaching her table. He’s not someone I want to talk to.
Break up action—use internal dialogue to give readers a break from long periods of action and to let them know what is going through the character’s mind.
Don’t overdo it—a little bit of internal dialogue can be effective, especially if you are able to create intrigue for the reader. Resist the urge to tell everything—allow readers to figure some things out for themselves.
In order to create reader interest, each character needs to be distinct from the others —if too many characters have similar characteristics, the reader may become bored or confused. Here are some tips for keeping your characters unique.
· Use physical “tags” to help to initially set characters apart from each other and provide a visual image of them—wide-set eyes, a crooked smile, messy hair, ruddy complexion, petite body structure, buxom, beefy fingers, missing digits, tattoos, no neck, facial hair, to name a few. Unless the story line calls for it, be careful not to describe them in a distasteful way or create characters that are stereotypical.
· Make a character exceptionally good at something.
· Create unique voices and mannerisms for your characters. If five different characters try to make the same point, the reader should know which character it is without a dialogue tag.
· Give a character an obsession.
· Use your character’s past to establish something unique about them.
· Consider dressing a character in unique outfits—ones that depict his/her personality.
· Intrigue readers with strange, unpredictable, irrational, peculiar, or curious behavior—make them stand out from the crowd.
· Give your characters conflicting traits—ones that pit them against each other.
· Have a character do something better than anyone else.
· Avoid characters having closely similar names.
In order for readers to become completely engrossed in your story, to be moved by it, they need to know what emotions are being triggered as characters go through major events. Even a story with a brilliant plot won't work if readers can’t connect on an emotional level with the characters, the protagonist in particular. Their emotions are what make characters believable and compelling.
Emotions may be shown in many different ways. Here are the main ones.
· Describe a character’s physical reactions to an event—crying, yelling, becoming withdrawn, trembling, etc.
· Use dialogue (including internal dialogue) to let the reader know what emotions the character is experiencing.
· Force your character to make difficult decisions that bring about strong emotions.
· Use setting to influence readers and deepen their emotional responses—sounds, smells, location, time of day, atmosphere, geography.
If you want to make your story believable, it is crucial that readers fully understand a character’s motivation for his or her actions. Knowing this makes it easier for readers to put themselves into the head of a character, making the character more compelling. If they don’t understand the motivations, readers will find the actions by the characters less meaningful. For example, let’s say your protagonist volunteers at a local soup kitchen every Wednesday afternoon. Does he or she do it out of guilt because other family members do it? Are they “paying it forward” because of something someone did for them in the past? Or do they want to spend time with someone they want to get to know better?
Your character's reasons for doing what they do says a lot about who they are. They give insight into your character’s values, morals, beliefs, hopes, dreams, fears, strengths and weaknesses. Whether the character is the hero or the villain, they need to have motivation for their actions. Readers don’t have to like, approve of, or share a character’s motivation—they just have to believe it.
Here are some common motivations that drive characters to do what they do:
· Escape from something or someone
· Conflict avoidance
· Purpose in life
Incorporating backstory—the aspects of the character’s history that underlie the story’s plot—is almost always needed in character development, as a character’s past usually influences his or her current behavior and motivation. A complex and engrossing backstory can make a character more engaging and believable.
Sometimes the backstory becomes the premise of the story, in Citizen Kane for example when the “present” is used to frame the real story, and the majority of the action is told in flashbacks.
When backstory isn’t the main story, sufficient background information on the characters will need to be included while not impeding the story to move forward. Then the question becomes how much to include. Mixing in the right amount of backstory is tricky—you want to include only what has a bearing on the present story or just a pinch of detail to add flavor. Balancing backstory with the other narrative elements is often a trial-and-error exercise as you add certain details and then remove them to see what works best. Here are some questions to ask yourself when deciding whether to include backstory.
· Do readers have to know what a character has done or experienced in the past to understand the current action?
· If readers do need to know something about a character’s past, will one episode from the past or one piece of information be sufficient, or is more needed?
· Can you adequately show a character’s personality without having to refer to his or her past?
· How much of a character’s past is necessary as a setup to a future book in the series?
Relevant backstory may be created from the character’s family background, nationality, schooling, or past experiences. When done properly, adding backstory will add layers to the character’s personality.
A hint at the character’s backstory in the beginning can go a long way—you may want the reader dying to know what in the character’s past is now causing this behavior.
Backstory may be revealed through the character’s dialogue with another character, others talking about the character, the character’s internal thoughts, or flashbacks.
“When I was growing up, it was acceptable to beat up on one another to show who was boss,” he said to his son. “My father beat the crap out of me on a daily basis.”
“Richard’s brother took his own life when he was Richard’s age,” he said. “That explains a lot.”
As I headed to the hospital room, I couldn’t shake the image—buried in my memory for over twenty years—of my father lying in a similar bed, in a similar room, dying from a similar disease.
Here are some reasons for not including backstory.
· If there is too much backstory, readers might skip over it. You don’t want them thinking Get on with the story already.
· The backstory slows the story’s momentum.
· More than one instance of backstory butts up against another.
Incorporating backstory is a balancing act—too much will bog down the narrative flow, and too little may leave readers confused.
Relationships Relationships are an excellent way to develop characters, whether it’s one-on-one or in a group scenario. As characters develop, character relationships change, and that’s one of the things that can make your plot engaging.
The relationships that exist between your characters are just as important as the characters themselves. Well-developed character relationships can reveal all sorts of things about your characters and their stories and can be a catalyst for action and story events.
Creating meaningful, believable character relationships may seem like a simple thing to do. It is simple in that you, the writer, know the characters well—what they want, their fears, their strengths, and all the rest—so all you have to do is put them in a situation and let them respond accordingly. But effective relationships are not easy to depict because (as in real life) they are complex and often difficult. Readers need to feel the authenticity of each relationship.
Some questions to consider as you’re developing character relationships are:
· What type of relationship do you want to develop? Romantic? Familial? Business? Friendly? Adversarial?
· Is the relationship positive or negative? Supportive or neglectful? Comforting or abusive? Healthy or unhealthy? Or more likely, somewhere in between?
· How did they meet?
· What do they like and dislike about each other?
· Is one dominant over the other?
· What do they have in common? What are their differences?
· How do their feelings toward each other change over time? What caused them to change?
· How do they treat each other as they work out their differences?
· How does each character think they are perceived by the other character?
When you’re creating a scene that involves two or more characters, think about how it affects or contributes to their relationship(s) and how that fits into the story line. If it doesn’t contribute to the relationship, it’s best to leave the scene out.
Character Development Tools
Of the tools available for developing characters, I find the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicators most helpful. Developed back in the 1950s, when they still called them personality tests, it was used mostly in business for classifying temperament and behavior patterns in employees. Myers and Briggs identified four continuums of temperament, which resulted in sixteen unique combinations, each describing a person’s typical behavior.
The four continuums are:
Introverted-Extraverted Intuition-Sensation Thinking-Feeling Judging-Perceiving
The way I use this tool is by creating a spreadsheet that lists all of the personality traits for each of the sixteen types (listed on http://www.myersbriggs.org). Then I pigeon-hole each of my characters into one of the types. As I am developing a character, I refer to the typical traits of their personality type and weave these traits into the character’s personality.
For example, a character in one of my books is an ESTP (extrovert, sensing, thinking, perceiving). Myers-Briggs describes this type of person as (among other things) someone who loves people, gossip, social activities, and entertainment. My character was all that, but what I didn’t know was that this type of person is often impulsive and a thought jumper, so I weaved that into the story line as well to develop a more fleshed out and believable character.
Other tools include Character Builder https://onestopforwriters.com/about_cbt, Persona: Character Development Software https://www.writersstore.com/persona-character-development-software/, and Character Writer http://www.characterpro.com/characterwriter/index.html.