character cartoonA good plot is not enough. Readers stay with a story because of the characters. They care about what happens to them.

  • Good characters make a story memorable.
  • Conflict reveals character. How a character reacts to a situation shows the type of person they are.

Using character charts

Some authors create an entire family history and backstory for each character. Do as much as you need to write confidently about your character, but leave a little room for flexibility. Even if you outline your plot, you’ll think of new ideas and may want to change things as the story develops.

What you need to know before you start writing

The most important thing to know about your character is not the color of their hair or the name of their grandmother, but rather their personality and what motivates them. The rest is just information and arbitrary facts that will probably never come up in the story. But if you know the type of person your character is, then you will know how they will react and the decisions they will make when presented with conflict.

What makes a good character?

  • Create a character that will work the best in your plot. One that will be affected by the action of the story and will give you the most opportunities to create conflict and growth.
  • Understand your character and what motivates him/her before you start writing your story. Understanding your character will allow you to write convincingly in their voice and experience. You must put yourself into the character’s shoes in order to know how they will act and react.
  • Names are important.
    • “Hank” sounds like he’s at home on the range, but plop him down in the middle of Harvard, and he’s out of place. You’ve immediately created a character that is going to struggle to fit in, which creates reader empathy. If you name the character “Stephen” and put him in the same situation, he sounds like he belongs and won’t create reader empathy right away.
  • A character should have flaws.
    • Real people have flaws. A character without flaws is boring.
    • If a character is perfect in one area, then he/she must be imperfect in other areas. Think of Sherlock Holmes. He’s brilliant at solving mysteries, but his personality is impossible. He’s arrogant, impatient, insufferable, and a drug addict.
  • Do the opposite of the stereotype.
    • Instead of the dumb, beer-belly, racist, small town sheriff create a young, hip, sharp, modern woman character that is a worthy opponent as the sheriff. It makes the character more of a threat to your hero.
  • Turn strengths into weaknesses.
    • For example—a confident character refuses to admit a mistake, which leads to a bad decision and creates further problems.
  • A character should make mistakes, have bad judgment, experience weakness, and doubt themselves, otherwise there is no story.
  • A character should grow and change through the course of the story.
    • Their character determines their actions.
    • The character’s actions control their arc.
  • Dialogue reveals character.
    • Voice is the essence of character.
    • Voice makes a character come alive.
    • A character’s voice should be distinctive from other characters.
    • Don’t force dialogue—let it flow.
    • Don’t have a character spouting information they would never say because you want the reader to see the other characters or setting. For example—“Hi, Jared, my husband of five years. The sun brings out the highlights in your brown hair as we sit outside on the patio of our new home.” Nobody talks like that.
  • Readers learn about characters through their words and actions.
  • Don’t manipulate your characters. Give them sufficient motivation for their actions.
  • Don’t just have talking heads in a scene. Involve your characters in action that moves the plot forward and reveals their personalities.
  • Give your hero a worthy opponent. It’s much more difficult and satisfying when the hero defeats an intelligent villain.
  • Don’t use your characters to preach your personal agenda.
  • Don’t involve your characters in purposeless action. Your characters need to drive the story, not just be involved in a series of incidents.
  • Have active characters, not passive characters.
  • Make your characters dimensional by making them distinctive.

If you make your readers care about your characters as much as you do, the story will stay with them even after they reach the end. That’s the type of story we all want to write.

1 Comment

  1. I borrowed the seocnd in the series, The Girl Who Played with Fire, from the Lodi Whittier Library, and enjoyed it even more than the Dragon Tattoo. It’s mostly because Lisbeth Salander is even more central to the story, and the author slyly gives her even more to do and reveals much more about her history and character. Be forewarned that as in the first novel, the author gets you hooked before he throws in the scenes of torture and brutalization that can be disturbing to read.


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