You’ve stumbled onto the secret of all great storytelling.
If you’re a storyteller, then this page is about to become invaluable to you. Characters are the backbone of every great book, movie, or television show. Unforgettable narratives are driven by human frailty and the broken or brittle decisions that are a result of those weaknesses.
Characterization is not impersonation. Great storytellers aren’t doing an impression of the personalities populating their story. Done well, it’s the author’s job to fully realize that character on the page. Most fiction writers spend significant time considering plot, but I wish I knew more who were half as devoted to developing their characters.
As architect of the story you must be three people: the character who knows only what he or she is supposed to, the author who knows everything, and the reader who will one day experience it all.
Despite the headline, there is no “ultimate guide” to developing your character. I’ve been studying this stuff for more than a decade. Our studio has well over a century of combined storytelling experience. And guess what? Even among our group of writers there is no one way to do this, or anything.
But it’s still worth sitting down to write this guide for you. While there is a lot of industry focus on what separates self-published titles from their traditional counterparts, too many comparisons are focused on conversion elements such as the book’s title, genre listing, product description, and cover. And yes, those elements are all critical for selling your book.
Yet, longterm, that’s a poor place to focus. After your book is bought, it needs to resonate with readers, and that will only happen if you nail your character work.
Sterling & Stone is all in on character.
We produce mostly genre fiction. We do have a line of nonfiction books where we pass on what we’ve learned to our audience of writers for the lowest possible cost, but we are a story studio, so our focus is naturally fiction. That means books, television, and film. Someday it will include graphic novels, games, VR/AR experiences, or any other form of storytelling that comes along. We dabble in literary, but because we have a business to run and there is generally much less revenue in literary fiction, our attention is on the sort of well paced and strong plotted stories that currently thrive in the marketplace.
These are the stories where character traditionally takes a back seat to what happens next in the story. But not for us, and hopefully not for you.
Think about your favorite books of all time. Pick the first one or two or three that pop into your head. Once you pictured the titles, your next thought probably went right to the characters rather than something that happened in the story. Now try the exercise for the last movie or TV show you saw and just had to tell someone about. Even if there were a staggering number of events and all of them bordered on lunacy, most people are still only driven to share their experience if they are emotionally invested in the journey. And those storytelling treks always come down to character.
You don’t have to care as much about character as I do to have a successful career as an author. Truth is, these days it’s easy enough to focus on plot, write fast, tickle the algorithms, enroll your book in the right marketplace, and see a nice enough return on your titles every once in a while to keep you writing.
But if you want to create perennial work that is human focused, can remain ignorant of the algorithms, and gather passionate and fiercely loyal readers who will inhale your work and tell their friends, characters must come first.
This is one of the hardest jobs for a storyteller. Fortunately, it’s also the most rewarding. Readers deserve complex characters like the people in their lives, not the wallpaper amateur authors use to dress their narratives. This doesn’t have to be an overwhelming endeavor, but it does require both understanding and practice to get right. Well-developed characters are rarely obvious. They are nuanced, with subtlety and subtext prioritized over blunt force personality traits.
As with any of the single page guides I create for hardworking writers like you, who want to do the hard work of understanding their stories, this one comes with the usual caveats. This time my warning is simple: don’t allow yourself to get overwhelmed.
I made this as exhaustive as I could (it was supposed to be the ultimate guide, after all) without getting lost in the weeds. There are entire books on character creation, and you should read at least a few of them. But too many storytellers get lost on their way to greatness because they don’t know how to get going. It’s never been easier to learn as you work. Get started, pay attention, and constantly improve.
Don’t expect to finish reading this and became a master by the end. But you should use this page to give yourself a working vocabulary that covers everything you need to know about basic character creation and improve every story you write on a foundational level.
Before we give you a long list of elements to focus on, we’re going to quickly cover the different types of characters in your story. All of the below advice applies to characters in general, but you do want to adjust what you’re doing depending on the type of character you’re creating for your story.
- Protagonist: the hero of your story.
- Antagonist: the character who stands in the way of your protagonist’s goals.
- Deuteragonist: an important character, secondary to the protagonist (the sidekick).
- Love interest: a common element even outside of romances.
- Tertiary characters: background characters.
- Confidant: best friend, love interest, mentor, or any character the protagonist can confide in.
- Foil: a character whose values clash with the protagonist’s to highlight the protagonist’s personality.
- Dynamic character: a person who changes throughout the story.
- Static character: a person who doesn’t change.
- Stock character: archetypal characters (the innocent, the explorer, the jester, etc.).
- Symbolic character: this person is representative a larger theme or emotion.
- Round character: a fully realized person the audience feels they know.
Yes, this is a lot of different character types, but stories need variety so consider this your cast. Don’t use every type in every story, but please understand them all. Character development is more than making up a person and giving them a name, a job, and a place in your story. Your reader deserves more than literary cardboard, your character needs a backstory and the traits that make that personal history believable.
This (ultimate) guide to 20 things that will keep your characters strong and make your stories stronger.
1. Know who your characters are and (just as important) why they are in the story
Characters aren’t something to collect with abandon, they are there for you to create with purpose. The more you understand why a personality makes the cut, or why you have given your protagonist a particular set of quirks. This list isn’t in order of importance, but this one is still up top because you should never, ever ignore it.
You don’t have to know every character in your story beforehand, and you can absolutely allow the narrative to unfold to reveal people you never expected populating the pages almost a step ahead of you, but there should be a reason for every character in your story. Even if the person’s only job is to tear the movie stub of the couple going on their first date.
Beginning storytellers will add characters for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with story. Maybe they like the way a certain character thinks or dresses or talks. That’s not good enough; an inventory of excuses for an unnecessary character’s presence isn’t the same as a reason. After a while this becomes second nature.
Seasoned storytellers understand that if you color a character too much, readers will expect you to do something with that and not leave them hanging. When you’re learning how to create compelling characters, ask your self the following questions:
- What role does this character play in my story?
- Is this person essential to the story I’m trying to tell?
- What is his or her relationship with the other characters?
- Are they considered an addition or subtraction when around others?
- Is my character a stereotype, and if so how can I can I round them out?
- How will the story change if the character doesn’t exist, or isn’t on the page?
Answer those questions and your character will be more well-rounded from the start.
2. Create full character profiles
You can’t truly know your character until you spend time with them on the page and have seen how they behave. Only after you accompany this person you conjured from nowhere through some sort of incredible journey can you use your combined experiences to sharpen that personality for your reader.
You get to decide everything, but you are also responsible for those decisions. Do your job, and a character of your creation will feel real to your reader. Some people are closer to the characters in their favorite books than they are to most humans in their actual life. If you’re one of those people, then you already understand the gravity of this responsibility. Let’s get you prepared to greet it.
No two writers handle character exactly the same. Johnny is one of the three authors I write with. I’m on the outlines and he’s on drafts. Our process has steadily evolved over the years, but right now it’s more character based than ever before. He recently asked me to scale back to something almost skeletal on the “what happens” part of the outline. Johnny wants “as much as I can give him” on character. A sentence or two per chapter is good enough to get him going on what must occur, because our characters will both fuel and respond to the events.
To create quality profiles that yield real feeling characters:
- Get in your character’s head. Ask yourself, what would it be like to have lived all of my life as this person? Start with empathy, even or especially if you’re brainstorming the villain.
- Interview your character. We use something called Character DNA, a set of 350 questions. We never use them all, but we have a bank to draw from. Everything from What was your earliest childhood memory? to What would you like to be doing five years from now?
- Give your character a secret. Treat this as an essential step, even if the reader never knows what it is. That part isn’t important. You’re getting to know this character and secrets often drive behavior.
- Make them complex. You probably don’t have a single simple person in your life, so don’t disrespect your characters by making them one-dimensional. Give them backstories (we’ll get there in a few minutes) and contradictions (we’ll cover that, too).
- See the world from their perspective. Your character’s childhood, parental relationship, religious and political beliefs, peer group, political leanings, sexual preferences, and strong opinions all inform the way he or she sees the world. That means you have to temporarily see it that way, too.
Give your character a strong enough identity that it helps you to understand their place in the world. The more your story feels like a container of truth, the more weight it will carry. If you can properly make the reader believe in your character on the page, then your story will mean more to them.
Most of understanding who a character is comes from knowing where they came from.
3. Give your characters a strong backstory
We all have our baggage, so does your character.
Consider the mile marker’s in your protagonist’s life. That matters for all your characters to some degree, but with the usher tearing your ticket it only matters whether he had a good or bad day before showing up to work, and whether he was nice to the couple on their first date. For your protagonist, that backstory is everything.
You should have fun here, without getting carried away. Some of us could write imaginary memoirs for our characters, that doesn’t mean we should. But we do want enough personal history to understand why a character responds to situations the way they do. There is no limit to what you can know as the author, but you should only hang a lantern on what’s important for your reader.
Our life is made up of every moment until the one we just inhaled. Your character needs a history that feels like an honest origin story, and not just a bunch of happenings that felt cool to come up with.
If you interview your character before creating their history, you will have naturally colored some of this in already. If not, you can still interview yourself as the character after you understand their backstory. The process will be illuminating.
- What are the significant events in my character’s childhood that affected the person they became?
- Was anything about their adolescence especially traumatic?
- Where on the income spectrum did your character’s family fall?
- Did they accept their upbringing, or rebel against it?
- What are the three healthiest relationships in your character’s life, and how are they defined by them?
- What are the three most toxic relationships in your character’s life, and how are they defined by them?
- What is my character’s biggest ambition?
- What is my character’s biggest secret?
- Has my character ever gone into mourning?
- What is the most destructive patterns in my character’s life?
- What are my character’s three pivotal life moments?
You can do a lot with those last two. Consider your own destructive patterns and how they’ve held you back. Now do the same for some of the people in your life. Most of us don’t pay nearly enough attention enough to the rhythms of our own behavior, but we can’t afford to ignore that when it comes to our characters. Know when she’s looping, so you can give her an earned exit from the behavioral echo.
Use the three pivotal moments to find the pattern. Tell yourself three stories of significant events in their life, or times when they had to make an important decision, then find the common elements. Congratulations, your character just gained another layer.
4. Draw upon your own experiences
This is one of the greatest joys of being a writer, so please don’t miss out. Good, bad, and all the characters who live in between (that should be most of them). The joy of creation lives in every character and helps you to develop your creative self.
People who know me agree I’m a really nice guy, but I’ve been heinous on the page. One of our studio’s most popular characters is a serial killing genius who couldn’t be more fun to write. Heroes or monsters, I’ve had a blast with both. I’m also used to drawing heavily on my own life to tell a story. This doesn’t mean that everyone I know always shows up, or that my characters are writers or anything like that. But if I see a clever billboard while driving, it’ll probably make the page within the next week. That comes with writing an average of 5,000 words a day. You’re always skimming from the surface of your life.
You should do it too, in big ways and small. It’s easy.
Do you remember a time when you were really scared?
How about a time when you couldn’t stop laughing?
What about getting your heart broken?
Or breaking someone else’s?
Have you lost a grandparent, a child, a cherished pet?
Were you ever abused or molested?
Have you ever been unkind? Or perhaps even the perpetrator of evil?
No matter who your characters are, there is always at least a splinter of you inside them. Be intentional.
5. Make sure your backstory always has purpose
Drafting your character’s personal history for your understanding is great, but deluging the reader with it is not. It’s a natural desire to share what you know. You’ve spent all that time inventing this person, of course you want them to crackle on the page. Don’t worry, they will. But sometimes addition can lead to subtraction and too much of what you know won’t serve the story. Your reader didn’t buy a biography, they want to be told a story.
There are three simple questions when adding backstory from your research into the narrative.
- Does it drive the story forward?
- Does it define something about your character the reader didn’t know before?
- Does it serve as a callback to an earlier point, or to further the bond the character and reader?
It can be one or all three of those, but if it’s less than that, the backstory is for you and not the reader.
6. Pepper your character’s history throughout the story
Don’t let that last tip scare you off adding a liberal amount of backstory. You absolutely should. Just make sure it’s the best stuff, and not dumped all in one place. You’ve never gone up to someone at a party and started telling them everything about your life in an info dump like Chunk when Mama Fratelli’s about to shove his hand into the blender. If you have, I’m sorry, about all of the times you’ve probably eaten alone.
Backstory can be tricky to get on the page, if you’re trying to force it. Know your character’s history like you would know your own and this becomes more manageable. You make these people up, but it should never read that way. That means only sharing what makes sense to share. Always in the appropriate amount. Too little or too much affects your pacing. And there’s a fine line between starving the reader for information and boring them with details the author feels compelled to tell them.
Never assault your reader with excessive exposition or contrived explanations. Always layer backstory into your story where it makes most sense to do so.
It is okay to tease at things without fully explaining them. Curiosity is a highly effective driver. But don’t ask any questions you don’t intend to answer, unless that’s your intention. Ambiguity should never be an accident. Related:
7. Never send your characters to Exposition Laboratories
Even if you get super, stupid successful and your books are optioned for movies, then they commission you to write the screenplays for those movies, please don’t ever have your characters go to Exposition Laboratories.
This isn’t an actual place, but you’ve seen it plenty. Most genres have a version of this trope. Imagine every disaster movie ever. At some point the hero goes to Exposition Laboratories so some scientist who doesn’t matter to the story in the slightest beyond explaining what’s happening to the audience. A version of this scene is sometimes necessary, it’s up to you how ridiculous you want to make it. We suggest subtlety.
Audiences don’t want info dumps of information. Even done well, they are an interruption to the flow. The larger the dump, the bigger the wall you’re erecting in front of your story. Characters can’t express the obvious through dialogue because it undermines their believability, and delivering the information through inner monologue can add unnecessary weight to your story.
Find subtle, intelligent ways for your characters to discover the things they need to know.
8. Who your characters will become is just as important as who they are.
Backstory is great, but that isn’t what your reader came for. The character’s quest should be informed by their past, but remain in the present. If you’re writing genre fiction, it’s essential for your character to change over the course of your story.
The pilot for Breaking Bad does this perfectly. Walter is perfectly milquetoast. No respect from anyone. A true sad sack. But the story never wallows in it. Once that backstory is established it’s used to fuel one of the most impressive character arcs storytelling has ever seen.
Give your characters places to grow, then make sure they do.
9. Give your character plenty of internal conflict
Even if you’re avoidant in real life, you can’t afford to turn a blind eye on your character’s suffering. Heap it on without apology.
The problems your character will have with the world are actually problems he or she has with themselves. They are projections, or perhaps reflections of the demons inside them. Cognitive dissonance, the clash between want and need, the chasm between who your character is are and who they’ve been telling the world they want to be with their behavior, it’s all a part of the cocktail, even if your character doesn’t know it.
10. Give your characters fears and desires
You already know your character needs an arc, and that it needs to tie into theme. You probably also know they need strengths and weaknesses, though we’ll cover that next. But realize that fear and desire are a pair of elements that influence everything else in your character’s life and you will have someone who feels much closer to a living, human person to your reader.
Define your character’s internal compass. Know what drives them forward, and the irritations holding them back. Our formative fears and desires often shape us. Your character needs at least two primary goals. One for their life and another from the story. These can be the same, and can also overlap, but they might be entirely different. It depends on your character and on the story, but as with all the other elements, it should never be an accident.
You don’t need to go deep with minor characters, but your protagonist and antagonist should have these goals serve as the basis of their journey. This will ground your narrative with purpose and direction.
- Motivation: every action your character takes should be done for a reason, even if he or she doesn’t know what that reason is. A goal helps your reader invest in the character’s journey.
- Purpose: every character should add value to your story. Knowing what a person wants or fears will always give you insight into the way they think and will likely behave. Purpose helps both your character and your story feel more authentic to your reader.
- Fear: that’s why we’re here, but it’s worth restating: fear shapes the human experience. We’re plagued by the unknown, dogged by insecurities, and forced to constantly doubt ourselves. Make your character afraid of something elemental and you will be stoking empathy in your reader.
- Desire: Your character’s wants are extremely powerful, and will push him or her to do terrible, heroic, or maybe dangerous things. Desire is a consistent quality driver of story.
- Love: or hate, since they are opposite sides of the coin. These are the two most powerful emotions, so imbuing your character with either one will automatically supercharge much of the other stuff.
Fears and desires add shade to your characters strengths and weaknesses, so let’s talk about those next.
11. Give your characters strengths and weaknesses, but make sure they also have a specific flaw
Do not make your character a Dudley Do-Right. I created a character in one of my first series with Dave. I made Desmond a little too knowing, a little too honorable, and a little too courageous. Dave called him Desmond Do-Right, and we had to make him go dark in later books to account for my earlier lack of judgment.
No one wants to read about a perfect character. Anything close is boring. You want a character who is as flawed as everyone else you know. Human, vulnerable, and real. Even Superman, a living god, is occasionally forced to deal with kryptonite. A perfect protagonist is alienating to your reader.
But please, don’t make your character Barney Fife. Unless that’s the point. Always with intention, no matter what. Your reader needs to relate to the character, so that means making them human, somewhere in the middle of wonderful and needs some work. Probably not too different from you.
Once you’ve determined your character’s strengths and weaknesses, it will feel more natural to find places in your story to exhibit their positive and negative behaviors. If your character is scared of the dark, it will seem noble when he enters the abandoned mansion first. If he’s naturally courageous, it might be more heroic to hang back and let someone else take the lead.
And don’t forget to give your character that flaw. Humans are imperfect. Know what it is that your character always gets wrong. This will be closely linked to their patterns. When in their lives have they felt most restless, been the most discontent, afraid, or hungry? When have those negative emotions led them to regrettable behaviors, and how often do those feelings resurface?
We’re all different, because we’re all dragging different baggage behind us.
To be imperfect is to be human. So you can write a more human story by giving your character personality flaws that play into their relationships, fears, disappointments, and discontent.
12. Make your characters distinct
It’s fine to have character types you can lean on. Actors and directors do this all the time. If you’re watching a Scorsese movie, odds are good that you’re also watching either Dicaprio or Deniro. Johnny and I have a small stable of character sketches we rotate through. It’s practically an art with Dave. Most of his books have a lonely teenager, an abusive father, or someone taking too many pills. Several of our books together have all three. But still, even those character types are all different, from one book to the next.
I referred to them as sketches for a reason. Even if you’re starting from the same place, there are things you can and should do to refine the character and shape them into something unique. You still want to articulate the characters fears and desires and strengths and weaknesses, now detailing how speech, dress, or physicality might influence or demonstrate these qualities.
Make your characters unique by giving them individual ways of talking, dressing, and behaving. Add diversity to your cast, not just so the social and ethnic makeup is representative of the world you’re presenting for your reader, you also want a balanced lineup of personalities to act as foils for your most important characters.
Avoid stereotypes. Like the rest of your sketch, they might serve as a decent place to start, but you can always do better. Your characters deserve a personality that isn’t born from tired clichés. Take the time to craft personas who represent a clearer world view.
Keep them interesting by giving them interests. Thin of the last fascinating person you met, where you couldn’t wait to hear them expound about their passions. Craft this experience for your reader by creating characters who care deeply about their areas of pursuit.
Give your character a quirk. We all have odd habits that seem normal or innocuous to us but are noticeable to others. These are the sorts of small details that help your character stand out, even if you’ve used a similar character before.
13. Make things really difficult for your character
We’ll keep this one simple, because I’m sure you’ve already heard a version of it plenty. Story is conflict, so we can probably agree that the same is true for character. You want to make your characters:
- FAIL: This is the only way they can grow.
- SUFFER: This gives meaning to their success.
- WORK: It isn’t enough that things go well, the reader wants to see the results of your character’s effort.
It’s your job as god of the story to be at least occasionally unkind to your characters. Make them insecure, uncomfortable, and uncertain of their future. This is for the best, even if it’s hard. Readers will thank you with five-star reviews.
No matter how difficult you make things for your character, make sure you reveal those hardships to your reader in the most appropriate way.
14. Show, don’t tell
You’ve heard this over and over, but that doesn’t excuse you from hearing it now. This is the golden rule of fiction: tell stories as you want them told to you. And whether we realize it or not, we all prefer showing over telling, and that applies to your character development as much as to anything else in your story.
You could tell your reader everything there is to know about your character through narrative summary, but she will never appreciate that (or love your story) nearly as much as she’ll care if you trust her enough to color the picture and let her see it all for herself.
Reveal your character through dialogue and their interactions with other characters. We’ll discuss both of those in a moment. But first, let’s hit the reasoning so you won’t just get this right with your next character, but with every character you write throughout the remainder of your storytelling life.
A reader chose your book at least in part because they have have an active imagination and part of the joy in reading is in activating and using that imagination. Telling her about the characters in your story is a passive experience, but revealing character through dialogue, behavior, and subtext is always more impactful.
Reveal your character through the words they use, the things they think, and the way they treat the enemies and allies in their life. As a reader, would you rather be told that a character is friendly, or shown? Do you want to be told that they’re sad, happy, or scared, or would you rather see that reality for yourself.
TELLING: Sam didn’t feel well, but he couldn’t let that stop him.
SHOWING: Sam clutched his stomach, ignored his gurgling bowels, and entered the room anyway.
TELLING: Sam was happy. This was the first trophy he had ever won.
SHOWING: Sam couldn’t stop smiling as he set his trophy on the shelf. Alone for now, but not for long.
TELLING: Sam was scared. There was something evil on the other side of the door.
SHOWING: Sam’s brow and face were slicked with sweat, he couldn’t slow his heart, and he thought he might choke on his own fear. A heavy breath was coming from the other side of the door, and the creature making it was probably going to kill him.
Occasionally, your narrative might need a little telling, but if you’re showing well on the page, then your secondary characters can sometimes do a bit of that necessary telling for you.
15. Add perspective by using secondary characters intelligently
Much of a storyteller’s focus should stay fixed on developing their protagonist and antagonist. But secondary characters often deserve more attention than they receive. Done well, it’s your story’s side characters who can show sides of your hero or heroine that you’ve not yet revealed to your reader.
Maybe your protagonist seems weak, and perhaps even sees themselves that way. And yet, after viewing the world from another character’s perspective we come to understand that the hero isn’t weak at all, they’re holding onto some pain so that secondary character doesn’t have to. What appeared as a frailty was actually a strength. Of course, that works the other way around as well. Your character could appear strong, until another personality enters the story to disclose their weakness.
Great characters have layers, but no matter how much complexity you add a single perspective can only say so much. If given proper development, secondary characters can have a massive impact on both your characters and your narrative, especially if revelations are delivered mostly through dialogue.
16. Reveal character through dialogue
Your story needs interesting, believable characters. But you can’t just tell your reader the protagonist is interesting, because plenty of authors have tried that before and she’s going to have a hard time believing you. We’ve talked a lot about different ways to reveal character, but one of the most rewarding, both for the reader and for the character herself, is dialogue.
This can be difficult, especially for beginning writers, since dialogue is one of the hardest things to consistently nail. For some storytellers this is natural, but for many dialogue is an element of the writing process that requires more work. Sure, you want your characters to have witty banter and memorable one-liners, if that’s the sort of story you’re telling, but that can’t be all there is. The point is to know who your characters are, not how clever they can be.
Each character should have his or her own speech patterns, vocabulary, rhythm, and tone. In other words, a personalized but general way of speaking. Is their language more likely to be timid or bold? Do they curse like my mother, or are they afraid of bad words like my son? Are they honest, excitable, manipulative, calm? What do the things a character says reveal about where he or she has come from?
Miles Davis said that music lies in the silences “between the notes.” This is true when it comes to dialogue as well. What isn’t being said is often as important, or even more than whatever is explicitly stated. Consider all of this when crafting intelligent dialogue that moves your story forward.
But don’t overdo it. You want your characters to be unique, but as in real life there should also be overlap. You don’t want a cast where every character has an entirely different way of speaking so much that it becomes a distraction for the reader.
Keep your dialogue tight and avoid unnecessary exchanges. It’s okay to let your characters go on and on in the rough draft while getting to know them, but be vigilant in the edit and make sure that every line you leave in the story has a specific purpose. Always read your dialogue out loud. If it sounds unnatural, it probably is.
17. Keep your characters consistent
Consistency is essential to developing a strong character.
We’ve all been there. We read a book, see a movie, or are watching one of our favorite shows when a character does something we know they would never do. At least not according to everything the story has told us about the character so far. This makes us immediately tune out, at least a little. We can’t help it. There’s a part of us that’s stopped believing in that story. Even if this happens on a subconscious level, it is happening. Please, don’t ever do this to your reader.
Consistent characterization will help your reader believe, identify, and bond with your story. Someone who has been faithful to their spouse for twenty years needs an excellent reason to cheat. Simple temptation in that instance is never going to be enough.
Character stability is something you should be mildly aware of during the rough draft and deeply tuned into during revision. Try any of the following strategies to keep your work consistent.
- Create a bible. This can be simple. It can stay in Scrivener or whatever writing software you use, or in a separate document altogether. Either way, your bible houses all the details you might need for future reference. Physical descriptions like height, hair and eye color, or style of dress. Personal preferences such as favorite foods or places to visit. Style of dress, nervous ticks, secrets kept and confessed, etc.
- Give your draft character passes. This is a strategy you can grow out of for sure, but it’s especially helpful in the beginning if you’re the type of writer who has difficulty with consistency. Focus on going through the draft while paying attention to one character. Worrying about one thing rather than everything will help you to see where characterization might be uneven.
- Cool the draft. Returning to your work after some time away will open your eyes to inconsistencies you will be more likely to let go of after some time apart. Seeing something as new can help you see it for what it needs to be.
Inconsistencies can pull your reader out of the story. But you need her to stay invested, and ready for the next one. So keep your character’s behavior dependable, and always give them something to say.
18. Give your characters strong opinions
It doesn’t matter what genre you’re writing. It could be romance, sci-fi, or historical fiction. Your characters need opinions, because readers don’t bond with weak or indecisive characters. Characters drive the story, regardless of genre. If you make them incapable of making good decisions or having strong opinions, then the reader won’t trust them.
That may be fine for a particular character, if that is their character trait. We all know people who love to say things like, you decide, but we know they have little to no leadership ability. That’s fine for a side character, but it’s not okay for your main characters because opinions form action. That drives the story, and your reader needs urgency to turn the page.
Any time you have an opportunity to show conflict between opinion and action, take it. If a character feels strongly that they shouldn’t enter the cave, then have that character make a compelling argument as to why they should leave it alone. Then they can either enter the cave or not. Either way, you’ve made the reader care about the decision.
Your character can have unpopular opinions. In real life people have unpopular opinions and your audience may not like your main character for exactly that reason. It’s better to have a character with strong opinions who rubs your reader the wrong way, than a character who stands for nothing. At least the character with strong opinions will move the story along.
Look for opportunities to give your characters strong opinions. In your outline, in your draft, and definitely in your revision. Any time you have the chance to give your characters strong opinions, capitalize on the opportunity to make your story feel that much more authentic.
19. Give your character’s name the attention it deserves
Naming matters, much more than many storytellers realize.
But the truth is, a lot of authors don’t put nearly enough thought into their namestorming, or they give it the wrong kind of attention.
Yet, naming deserves deep thought as much as any other element of characterization. Name reveals a lot about plot and setting and background.
My father’s name is John but he’s gone by Joe my entire life. He’s also convinced that he would have had a different life if he’d been Joe as a kid instead of John, because everyone knows that Johns are more serious and Joes are more fun.
Sure, you could pick a standard name and make your person unique throughout the rest of your characterization, but taking their name into account from the beginning can add to that character. Ideally, the name you choose should have both purpose and power.
Use the following shortcuts and considerations when naming your character.
- Look for root meanings. If you want your character to be heroic, you can name him something like Connor, Dorian, or Gabriel. For most genres that’s going to work much better than something on the nose like “Dash.”
- Pay attention to the era. Google is your friend. If you’re writing a book set in the roaring 20s and your character is a teenager, then do enough research to know what names were popular at the dawn of the twentieth century. Location and time should always factor into a character’s name.
- Make the name easy to pronounce. Don’t get cute. If you’re writing sci-fi, please don’t assume your name needs extra Qs or Xs. The name “Quaxelborg” doesn’t scream science fiction so much as amateur.
- Consider your reader. Vary your names. I’m always changing Dave’s. In our last book we had an Anika and an Alexa. We also had a Seb and a Sid. This creates unnecessary work for the reader. Alexa became Chelsea and Sid became Ned. Variation helps.
- Borrow from your life. Sometimes the best name combinations come from paying attention. A few of our studio’s most memorable names have come from mashups of baseball players my son loves, names I’ve seen on billboards while driving, or interesting monikers I’ve come across. Keep a file of interesting sounds, then draw on that file when you’re looking to name a new character.
- Get alliterative. But be careful with this strategy. It can work great, or seem especially gimmicky, depending on genre, tone, and execution.
Names are one of the ways your reader can bond with your character. Give it, and this last step, the attention they deserve to create the most memorable personality possible.
20. Give your character a great introduction
A lot of authors will introduce a character by focusing on their physical appearance. While this can be done well, it’s rarely the best option and should only be done with specific intention. It’s not that your character’s appearance doesn’t matter, but it is a lower form of narrative. Telling over showing your story.
Remember, you never get a chance to make a first impression. That’s as true in your story as it is in real life. Frame your character’s first introduction according to what you want your reader to know most about them. Consider the following starting points:
- Use backstory. If you can effectively deliver backstory without dumping exposition on your reader up front, this can give them a mainline to your character’s psychological profile.
- Show your character at work. What is it that makes this person unique? Are they great at their job, or miserable? Either way, professions are often an excellent means to reveal character.
- Let a secondary character do the work for you. As discussed, your protagonist can be revealed through other people in your story as well. Showing other characters talking about your heroine before she’s introduced can add tension and intrigue to her inevitable introduction.
- Show your character mid-decision. We are a product of the choices we make. Open your story with your character on the cusp of the right significant, life changing decision, and bonding is immediate.
- Have your character introduce his or herself. This works especially great in first person stories.
- Create a situation that has the character showing themselves. Johnny and I have used this device a few times, where we’ll have our protagonist go through some sort of intake process during the opening scene so the reader gets to know a lot about them, without it being exposition heavy.
- Describe your character. Of course, this is an option, and it deserves to be on the list, but it’s down here at the bottom so you will hopefully give some of the other less exhausted options a try first. If you go this route, please make sure you know what makes the description unique, and how that snapshot defines your character.
First impressions matter, in life and in your story. Make your main character’s the best it can be.
Characters tell the story …
Your story deserves strong, complex characters.
But there’s no way even a tutorial as thorough as this one can do that work for you. The only way to create truly memorable characters is to start writing and see how the people of your creation come alive in your story. Then do that again and again.
No matter the depth of your character, they will always be a different person at the end of your story than they were in the beginning. You will discover what shaped them, what sent them off on their journey, and what changes they faced in their world.
Give your characters obstacles, observe their mistakes, and help them to pivot through them.
Make them complex, unique, and relatable. Give them a voice that reflects where they were raised, their experiences, level of education, and personality. Know their happy place, the bane of their existence, and their life’s only refuge. Find their redemption and their glory.
Your character can and will mess up. You as the storyteller will help to shape who they become and define who they are in their heart, whether it beats in real life or not.
Yes, characters are the backbone of every story. And yes, unforgettable fiction is driven by the best of them. But now you understand that characterization isn’t the same as impersonation. Storytellers are collectors, so start gathering the bits and pieces that will help you to tell the best possible story. Not just character traits, but how they all work together to form your story’s theme, which is, of course, a character in itself.