How to create characters your readers can't resist
I’ve been teaching creative writing for quite a few years now, and there are three questions that come up most often when I’m talking to a new class. They are, in no particular order of precedence, how to write convincing dialogue, how to know what point of view you should write in, and how to make sure your characters are well-rounded, recognisable, and relatable. They’re all good questions, and each of these elements are important considerations, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and argue that there’s nothing more important than character when it comes to making your writing the best it can be. I’m fond of telling my students that good characters can often paper over cracks in your plot, but a great plot can’t hide half-baked characterisation. Your characters are the access point through which your reader will enter the world that you’re creating. It’s essential that they find that access point compelling, or else you’ve lost them.
But creating compelling characters does not need to be difficult. Different writers will have different processes, and, as ever, it’s important to find the approach that works for you. But the core idea is the same, no matter how you spin it out, and applying the following ideas in some form or another to your writing will help you grow your characters from a half-formed thought into someone whose story your reader has to discover.
1. Learn everything you can about them
And I do mean everything. Your reader may never find out your character’s date of birth, the name of their youngest sibling, their favourite flavour of ice cream, their secret crush at high school, their shoe size, their star sign or their thoughts on the existence of extraterrestrial life. None of the above may have any bearing on the story that you’re telling. But they have bearing on your character. Your character’s world view, their education, their family, their interpersonal relationship history, their political opinions, their innermost thoughts, their fears and hopes and secrets – all of this plays into the person that they are by the time your story takes place. All of this rich, layered, unique history will inform the choices they make and their interactions with other characters. Unless you know your character inside out, you won’t know what makes them tick, and you run the risk of shoehorning them into a decision based solely on the needs of the plot. Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory holds that the majority of a story should be inferred from the unseen information that lurks beneath the text as presented on the page. I absolutely believe that the same is true for characters.
2. Find (or draw) pictures of them
I mean, personally I have the artistic talent of a lump of rock and you'd be hard pushed to categorise my stick figures as human, so I'm going with the first one. If the second works for you, great. Or try a combination of the two. Or maybe you can get a good, visual image of your characters inside your head without much effort, and you don’t need an external stimulus, in which case go with that, but I'd strongly urge to to nail down specifics even so.
As writers, we'll often tend to think in description rather than physical form, so you might find that you know specific attributes such as hair colour, height, muscle mass and so on, without necessarily having a good mental picture of how that constitutes a specific human. Fortunately, the internet is absolutely full of pictures, and picking one that chimes with your inner idea of how your character looks can help solidify them, psychologically, into a real person for you. It helps to conceptualise the character as an individual when they exist, in some form at least, outside of your head.
3. Know how they'd react to the best and worst that life can throw at them (even if it's not in your story)
One of the very best things you can do to uncover a deeper knowledge of your character is to put them into a situation that will force them to dig into their own reserves – and if that situation does not occur within the boundaries of the story that you’re writing, so much the better. Exploring your character in short studies unconnected to your work is a great way of releasing the writing from any kind of narrative relevance and allowing it to be entirely about character discovery. You don’t even need to write in proper sentences if you don’t want to; nobody’s going to see this work but you. What does your character fear above all things? Find out, and put them in a situation where they’re forced to confront that fear. What secret would they never want the world to discover? You should definitely know that, and it can be an instructive exercise to write a scene in which the secret comes out. Again, this does not need to be – and in fact usually shouldn’t be – a situation that takes place within the story that you’re writing. It may be completely impossible within the boundaries of our known universe (I for one am not looking forward to the zombie apocalypse, and I bet your character isn't either). That doesn’t matter. What matters is what you can learn about this person that you're creating.
4. Keep a list of some sort (trust me)
I learned this one the hard way. When you’re 60,000 or so words into a novel, you don’t want to discover that you’ve forgotten the name of your main character’s sibling that you know you mentioned somewhere but never made a note because it didn’t seem particularly important at the time. CTRL+F is no help when you can’t remember anything about a piece of character information other than the fact that it exists.
What that list looks like, and when and how you develop it, is up to you to determine, based on what suits your process. Some writers love a character factsheet, on which they pose a series of questions and answer them for each major character, usually before they start writing the story in question. I’ve worked with writers whose character factsheets for a single novel literally took up an entire lever arch file. That works for them. It wouldn’t work for me; I prefer to freewrite to find character information, and I find that the best time for me to do this is when I'm about 30% of the way into a novel. Freewriting, however, is not a very organised way to manage the little details that emerge (like, for example, siblings’ names), so I keep a running list of factual information that I encounter. The process for developing your list might well look completely different.
List-making might feel a little bit mechanical, but I can promise you that Future You will be glad you did it. You don’t want to take the chance of contradicting yourself, because even if you don’t notice, somebody will. I’ve seen it happen too many times before to be in any doubt of that.
5. Draw from life
I like to say that writers are magpies, only the shiny things that we collect are observations, quirks, interesting turns of phrase, and things of that nature. I’d strongly caution against including identifying (or identifiable) characteristics belonging to your nearest and dearest, or even – especially – that idiot who broke your heart three years ago, but observing patterns of behaviour in action, drawing out the little tells that give away emotional motivations: this is where characterological truth resides.
Say, for example, you have a character who uses passive aggression to bury her insecurities: think about where you’ve seen passive aggression in action, and think about how that played out in dialogue, in action, in emotional impact. I’m not for one moment suggesting that if Rob Biddle made you feel like crap once upon a time for missing his birthday party, you should explore the minutiae of the guilt trip via a character called Bob Riddle who gets upset when nobody comes to his engagement do. That’s clearly not going to pass muster when it comes to the “Any similarities to persons alive or dead is purely coincidental” disclaimer (and if you think Rob was passive aggressive about missing his party, you just wait). The point is, you’ve seen how passive aggression works in real life and how it damages interpersonal relationships. Building a character with that knowledge in mind will help you breathe life into their actions when you write them.
6. Your antagonist is very nearly as important as your protagonist
Please, please, please don’t neglect your antagonist when you’re getting to know your characters. They’re at least as important as your ancillary main characters and maybe more so, considering their impact on the narrative arc. Because they’re in opposition to your protagonist, and very often spend the narrative thwarting your protagonist’s noblest efforts, it can be tempting to forget that your antagonist oughtn’t to be doing all of this just to be a dick.
Everyone is the hero of their own story. We’ve all been in situations where, objectively, we know we’re in the wrong, but we also know that we’re basically good people so doing the wrong thing is heavily qualified by the fact that we (a) had no choice, (b) didn’t mean to do the wrong thing, or (c) don't usually do the wrong thing (except when there are extenuating circumstances). Your antagonist is no different. But unless you understand them at a very fundamental level – their hopes, dreams, anxieties, nightmares, and, above all, how they’ve been shaped by their own history – you aren’t going to be able to do justice to them as a fully formed character. Under-formed characters tend to act in accordance to the demands of the plot, rather than out of their own personal motivations, which readers can spot a mile off. If you’re doing all that great work on your main character, it’d be a shame to lose points because you stiffed the baddie.
7. Rejoice if a character does something you weren't expecting
I’ve had this happen to me on several occasions, and it is exceptionally annoying. I plan out my writing meticulously before I start, and it is not helpful when characters get ideas of their own and mess things up. However, underdeveloped characters can’t do this. They just can’t. They only exist for you to move them around the chessboard of your story, because without the guiding hand of narrative, they’ve got nothing to motivate them. Fully realised characters, on the other hand, can surprise you. I mean, they’re not actually acting autonomously, of course: they’re still the product of your imagination. But when they do something unexpected, it’s an indication that your brain recognises that they are people – not just ciphers – and it sort of… bypasses that bit of the creative process that consciously controls what’s happening on the page. That’s a great sign. Well done.
Good luck sorting it out, though.
8. Your character is not you. Let them make their own choices
Every character carries a little bit of their author deep within their soul. There’s no way to avoid that, I think. You are your own best and only guide to the way the world operates, to emotional response, to sensory input, to decision-making processes. It’s natural that you would use your experience as a baseline for your character’s own understanding of and reaction to events. But just because you would respond in a particular way to, say, the scent of fresh-cut grass on the breeze, or an arrogant blowhard publicly dressing down a customer service representative, does not mean that your character would also respond in kind. Sometimes, you need to let your character make what you would consider to be a bad decision. Sometimes, even a decision that you might find morally repugnant. People do stupid things all the time. And sometimes good people do bad things, very often without acknowledging to themselves that the thing is bad. I absolutely would not have got in a spaceship with Zaphod Beeblebrox, but Tricia McMillen did, and now we have Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Had he, in fact, been a serial killer (way more likely, I’d suggest, given the circumstances), it would have made for an entirely different story, but the point is that, in my scenario, there is no story. I go home and go to bed, and a little while later the Earth explodes.
Let your characters make the decisions that they need to make. Even if it’s not the same decision that you’d make under the circumstances. Your character is not you – even if they also kind of are.
Great characters are timeless. I almost guarantee that if I asked you to name your five favourite characters you’d have an easier time of it than if I asked you to name your five favourite books or films. Characters get under our skin and camp out indefinitely inside our brains – but only when they’re allowed the space to come to life. Think of your characters as people, not as agents of your plot, and half the battle is already won. Now think of them as people that you’d like to get to know – and go out and do just that.
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