When it comes to writing a story, there’s no denying that the characters play a large part in the process. The plot is the story, but without good characters, readers just won’t stick around long enough to get invested in it. In order to keep readers interested in the story, you have to have characters that will tell the story in an interesting way.
However, creating interesting characters is definitely easier said than done. People are complicated, and trying to create characters that are convincingly realistic and fun to read can be a bit overwhelming. There are countless different factors that you need to consider when creating the character, but once you have a good character concept, you’ll also need to be able to write them well. You can certainly say that your character is a genius, but unless you can show your readers that throughout the story, you aren’t really writing that character authentically.
Describe the Character’s Appearance Uniquely
The easiest place to start when drafting new characters is to decide the basics of what you want them to look like. Consider things like their gender, age, height, ethnicity, and more, and have a clear understanding of their objective appearance. Be aware, however, that the way you describe your character can have a huge impact on your readers too.
For example, take a character that has large eyes. If I don’t describe any other aspect of the character, and just describe the eyes as “large, doe-eyed, and full of wonder,” a pretty specific type of character comes to mind, don’t they? This is perhaps a young character, who still holds on to a lot of innocent curiosity. You probably also assume that this character is female. Without describing any other feature, the eyes alone can really clue readers in to the way the character is perceived by others and leaves the rest up to the readers’ imagination.
On the other hand, if I describe a character’s eyes as “round and bulging,” that creates an entirely different perception of the character. Despite having the same feature as the first character—large eyes—describing them this way brings a character that seems more anxious and untrustworthy to mind. This character may seem odd, unattractive, and fidgety, and other characters may get uncomfortable under this character’s gaze. It’s a trait that is often described as creepy, but if that’s the look you’re going for, you could read my article How to Write a Creepy Character Realistically for more ideas.
In addition to that, it’s important to avoid stereotypes and clichés when describing a character’s appearance. For everyone’s sake, don’t describe a character’s eyes as “piercing,” or their skin like “porcelain.” We’ve all heard those a thousand times already. If you really want your characters to stand out, you need to describe them in interesting and new ways. Don’t just tell your readers that the character has pale skin and green eyes, and instead describe their posture, the way they move, and the imperfections in their skin. Describe them in ways you’ve never seen other writers do before, and try to give them a real sense of uniqueness even if their objective appearance is pretty standard.
Along that same line, don’t be afraid to make your characters look rather average. Not everyone looks like a supermodel, so feel free to give your characters physical traits that are less than perfect. Readers are more likely to connect with characters that remind them of themselves, and being perfectly attractive is unfortunately not something most people feel they can relate to.
Check out Tricks for Describing a Character’s Appearance if you want some more pointers!
Develop the Character’s Personality
Once you’ve worked out the issue of describing what your characters look like, it’s time to delve in to some of the more complicated aspects of character creation—starting with personality. Now, creating a personality for a character isn’t exactly a one-step process. Personalities are complicated, multifaceted, and liable to change over time, so you should set aside some time to really give this some thought.
When you’re making a personality for a new character, it helps to break the process down into several different parts and tackle each part individually. Keep the other sections in mind as you’re building the character, and they’ll end up with a complete and cohesive personality in no time.
Describe Distinct Character Traits
When you start thinking about a character’s personality, you should start with the most obvious section—traits. Character traits are vast and varied, and they form the foundation of the rest of the character’s personality. But… what exactly is a trait?
Character traits are distinguishing characteristics that define how a person behaves (and how they are perceived by others in their world). These are things like intelligence, creativity, humor, bravery, morality, and cruelty. These are things that other people would use to describe this character to others. They are supposed to be broad and somewhat vague, to allow for further exploration and development throughout the story.
For example, the hero of a fantasy story probably has heroic traits such as bravery, honesty, and a good sense of justice. Alternatively, the hero could be cowardly, and only learn to be brave as they move through the narrative.
In addition to simply laying the foundation of the character’s personality, you should also use the character’s traits to determine what their interests are. A creative person might sing while they clean, write poetry on the bus, or doodle on everything on their desk at work. Interests evolve from traits, but they add a more in-depth layer to the character’s personality.
Craft Good Character Flaws
Not only should you consider the good traits your characters exhibit, but you should also take some time to think about their less-than-admirable qualities. Not everyone is perfect after all, so you should give your characters their fair share of flaws too. This includes things like a bad attitude, fears, addictions, health problems, and various other elements of themselves that could create an obstacle between them and their goals.
There are a lot of good reasons to give your characters flaws. It makes them seem more realistic, and it gives them something to overcome as the story progresses. The character’s own negative traits can get in the way of a linear story progression, which can shake things up and surprise your readers. In addition to that, it simply makes the character more unique and relatable, which will make your overall story more enjoyable for your readers.
With that said, it can be difficult to find flaws that align with the character’s personality and are serious enough to create obstacles in their life—without going over the top. I go a lot more in-depth on this topic in another article, How to Create Complex Flaws for Characters, and I recommend giving it a read if you want a little more information on creating flawed characters.
Consider Character Voice
Here, I’m not talking about how the character’s voice sounds (though you should consider that as well). Rather, the character’s voice is how they say things, not how they sound when they speak. This is the point in which you should consider how they phrase things, their speech patterns, and whether or not they curse. Do they always speak what’s on their mind, or are they more interested in listening to what others have to say? Do they always ask questions? Are they careful to structure their sentences grammatically? Do they have an accent? Do they use slang? Considering your character’s speech behaviors is an important part of showing who they are, since it can say a lot about them.
Establishing a particular manner of speaking is really important in writing, yet it is an often overlooked aspect of character creation. Having a unique speech pattern makes the character’s dialogue more recognizable to readers, which can be incredibly helpful in scenes with multiple characters. Not only that, but it just makes logical sense. If you aren’t thinking about this while you’re writing, then all of your characters will end up sounding the same since they will more or less just be an imitation of your own manner of speaking.
Give Characters Opinions and Beliefs
Once you have a pretty good idea of how your character behaves and speaks, you can move on to what they think about the world around them. Even the most indecisive characters should have at least a few strong opinions about things—even if those opinions relate to something as simple as believing pineapple does or does not belong on pizza.
Think about the character you’ve created, and try to imagine how they would feel about different topics. How do they lean politically? What are their reasons for leaning that way (taxes, healthcare, gun regulations, etc)? What do they think about the homeless, about children, and about different demographics of people? Are they religious? What are the things that they would be willing to argue about in a conversation with other characters?
Remember that when you are establishing these beliefs and opinions, they do not need to align with your personal beliefs. In fact, you should frequently write characters with different beliefs from yourself for several reasons. For one thing, it allows you to have a much more realistically diverse group of characters that all think about the world in their own ways.
Secondly, writing from the perspective of someone who takes the opposite side than you do on an issue can be a challenge that requires in-depth research and critical thinking, which can make you a more sympathetic person and a better writer overall. Lastly, by having a wider variety of beliefs among your characters, you are more likely to appeal to each of your individual readers.
Create Interesting Character Quirks
A little weirdness is endearing, so don’t be afraid to give your characters some iconic quirks. Their quirk could be as simple as just running their hands through their hair when they’re nervous, or as strange as a particular habit, twitch, or tick. They could just severely despise the color blue, or they could have a habit of speaking too loud all the time. No matter what you choose, make sure it isn’t too over the top unless you have a good reason for doing otherwise. Additionally, make sure that you aren’t romanticizing a particular condition, such as OCD or Tourettes.
In addition to giving your characters interesting quirks, you should also give them unique hobbies. People’s hobbies are generally not broad, but rather niched down to something that tells you a lot more about who they are as a person. If you know your character likes to write, decide on what specific genre they typically write in, such as urban fantasy or young adult romance. If your characters sing, decide which exact songs they sing. If they write music, describe how it sounds, what genre it’s in, and actually write out some lyrics to include in your writing.
Do Your Research
When you’re creating a character, there will be times when you need your characters to know or experience something that is beyond your understanding. You might have a character who’s a brilliant scientist, or a character from a culture you aren’t overly familiar with. In cases like these, you really shouldn’t take the easy way out and just guess. Astute readers will be able to identify inaccuracies, and that can seriously damage their perception of you and your story.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to become an expert on the topic that you’re character is familiar with. You only need to understand the elements that are relevant to the points that come up in the story, in addition to a general overall understanding of the topic. If you do some basic research online, in a library, or consulting with experts, then your knowledge on the subject is likely to far exceed most of your readers’.
If you want some more specific details on how you can write a brilliant character, my other article Simple Tips for Writing Genius Characters goes over some tips and tricks you can use to convince readers of your character’s intelligence—without being an expert yourself.
If you’re writing about a specific culture, consult people that actually live their lives that way every day. You can research their traditions, habits, superstitions, and whatever else you can on your own, but you should still make every effort to personally interview someone in that culture so you can be sure you are portraying it correctly in your story. Readers will appreciate the attention to detail too, and they’ll be able to immerse themselves in the story more readily.
Make a Good Character Backstory
Next, you’ll need to find some way to justify why the character behaves the way they do. Creating a good backstory can do just that, and although you don’t need to wait until this point to start thinking about it, I find that backstories end up being more interesting if they develop after you’ve thought about the character’s personality.
Think about everything you’ve decided on for your character already, and try to come up with explanations for what caused them to develop like that. If your character has special knowledge or skills, explain how they learned that. Did they have a mentor? Was it something they studied as a child? Did they dedicate part of their life to training a particular skill or style of fighting?
In addition to what the character knows, you should also go back and reexamine their traits and flaws. What could have happened in their life to cause those individual parts of them to develop? This is especially important for flaws. For example, if a character has nightmares, what are they about? If they’re memories, you really need to iron out the details of those memories, and which details stand out as particularly upsetting. If the character is aloof and cold, then you need to consider why they would behave that way. Maybe an absence of affection from their parents as a child led them to seek attention as an adult, or perhaps a bad relationship with an ex-lover could leave them distrusting and distant.
Family plays a huge role in developing a backstory for a character, since a person’s family is the most influential force in their life for the first eighteen or so years. Try to imagine what your character’s family life was like, and what it looks like in the present timeline. Do they have a good relationship, or is there tension in the family somewhere? Were their parents never around, or were they helicopter parents? Do they have siblings, and if so, do they get along or not?
There are countless different ways you could describe a character’s family life, but while you are thinking about all the details, remember that you should be thinking about how this relates to the character’s role in your story. If the character’s backstory doesn’t serve a purpose in the story, then there’s no real reason to bring it up. You should still figure it out, but just because you know everything about your characters doesn’t mean you have to include it all in the narrative.
Establish the Character’s Motivations and Goals
Finally, in order to make your characters realistic actors in your story, you need to give them a purpose. This is where goals and motivations come in. A goal is what your character wants, while motivation is why they want it.
Goals are extremely important aspects to consider when building a character, and they can be as vast as ending a global or intergalactic war, or as simple as getting a promotion at work. What your character wants, both in the short term and the long term, is going to dictate their actions throughout the story.
Motivations are also important to consider, since describing why the character wants to achieve that particular goal is equally influential to the ways they behave. If a character wants something because they feel entitled to it, such as fame, wealth, or success, then they’re likely to have a more sour attitude at the fact that they don’t yet have what they want. On the other hand, if your character is sympathetic and wants something for the greater good or for the good of their loved ones, then they are likely to make more selfless decisions throughout the narrative.
You can also take this notion to the next level by thinking about exactly how far your character is willing to go to get what they want. Do they care enough about their goal to sacrifice themself—or someone else—to the cause? Would they go against their own morals and what they know to be right in order to achieve what they want? Would they backstab their friends? Kick a puppy? Rob a bank?
This principle is the foundation for creating a good villain for your story, but if you want some more pointers on how to write great bad guys specifically, I recommend looking at my other article: How to Write Good Villains in Fiction.
Choose a Name for Your Character
You don’t need to come up with the character’s name at the very end, but sometimes it takes time to come up with the right one. Though, in my experience, a name usually comes to me somewhere in the middle of the process.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a formula for generating the perfect name for characters. However, there are a few best practices for guiding your decision. When you’re trying to come up a name for your character, you should consider:
- The naming conventions of the world, realm, or country they live in
- The character’s cultural affiliations
- The character’s parents, and their inspiration
- Family name traditions
- Whether or not you want the character to use a nickname (recommended if you’re dead-set on using a more complex name)
In addition to those considerations, you should also take your reader into account. You want to make sure that whatever name you select for your character is going to make sense to your readers. It has to sound like a real name, within reason, and it should have an intuitive pronunciation. Even if you’re naming individuals in an alien species, try to stick with traditional English pronunciation. When in doubt, ask a few people you know to pronounce the name without context; if it doesn’t come out sounding how you expected, you may have to bring it back to the drawing board.
Your target audience also plays a part here. If you name a character “Kjell,” you have to understand that American audiences may struggle to read or pronounce that name correctly, though readers in Scandinavia are going to have an easier time with it. (It’s pronounced like “Chell” by the way.)
Although it’s important to make sure the name you choose isn’t too outlandish, it is equally important to not name your characters “Bob” or “Mary.” It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with those names, it’s just that they aren’t very memorable. You want your character to stand out, and if their name is too simple or old-fashioned, it’ll end up holding them back.
Allow Them to Evolve
I’m going to leave off on a really important point. People are not static. You are not the same person you were ten years ago. You are not the same person you were two years ago, and you won’t be the same person you are now two or ten years into the future. The point is, of course, don’t be afraid to let your characters change. Villains can become allies; heroes can lose their minds. Just because someone makes bad decisions in the beginning doesn’t mean they won’t wise up somewhere in the story.
Goals and motivations are dynamic as well, and you should play around with the idea of altering them as the story progresses. Not only can your characters change what they want, but the reasons why they want things can become more meaningful too. A hero that sets out to save the world could realize that they only want to do it to protect one special person. That doesn’t make their goal less honorable—in fact, it makes it more realistic, empathetic, and powerful.
Character development is one of the most interesting elements of fiction. Readers love to watch characters evolve over time, learn new things, and realign their goals throughout the story. Let your character realize feelings for a friend, fall from grace, redeem themself, and burn bridges from their past. They’ll be better characters after going through a personal journey—trust me.
Let your characters grow, let them get hurt, and let them—above all else—become someone different from who they were at the beginning of the story.
Good luck, writers.