Do you know what one of my greatest challenges as a writer is? Creating good, believable characters. When I began my writing journey, creating characters seemed simple enough. Make up a name- with me it was usually something stupid like “Deacon Devlin”- tell the reader what this person looks like- He had dark hair, and… uh… dark eyes– and then start shoving words into their mouth.
Oh, how stupid I was… and still am, most days.
You and I both know that there’s a lot more to writing good characters. All “Deacon Devlins” aside, there’s a certain nuance to creating a believable, identifiable character. Think about it, you’re creating a brand new person from whole cloth. You’re charged with constructing their personality, designing their style and look, developing their motivation. That’s a pretty daunting task, and that’s before considering how that one character will fit into the arch of a completed story.
Bottom line, good character’s are hard to write. But, not impossible. Nothing is impossible. So, let’s, you and I, brainstorm for a minute. Let’s attempt to answer the question:
How do I write a good fictional character?
An important question, certainly. And, I’m sure we can get at least part of the way to answering it. However, before we tackle that question I think we should start with another:
What makes a bad character?
When I say bad I’m not talking about your antagonist. I’m mean poorly written. Now, I’ve written some pretty godawful characters in my life, and the one thing they all had in common was this: They were shallow. Only defined by their hatred for one thing or their love for another. Never questioning their motivations, if they ever had one. Characters who were either completely perfect or completely flawed. In a word, they weren’t human. They lacked complexity. Like cardboard cutouts, these characters only resembled humans.
To write a good character we must mimic the human condition as much as our talent will allow. Our challenge is to recreate humanity in all our noble imperfection. This is no easy task. So, what do we do? Well, we can start by making a checklist.
Here are four things to keep in mind when writing your characters:
What does your character want? What are they here for? If the answer is “nothing,” then, quite frankly, they don’t need to be in your story. Motivation is the most important features of any character. But, don’t get confused. Motivations don’t have to be earth-shattering. They can be as simple as keeping a secret or delivering information that is important to the story’s plot.
Or things could be more complicated. Characters can be motivated by their psychology. They could have a deep-seated emotional void they’re trying to fill. Maybe they were abandoned at a young age, and seek acceptance. Or, maybe they feel the world has turned its back on them and they seek vengeance.
Conversely, their motivation could be very straight-forward. Your character could be lost in the woods and searching for a way out before darkness falls, and the predators come out! Characters are often driven by their love for a girl, a car, their hometown, humanity, whatever. Just make sure that your character has a purpose, a drive.
I’ve talked about this before in my article Creating an Anti Hero, but one of the most efficient ways to convey a character’s personality is through their appearance. How a character looks and dresses should be a window into their soul. Look at how J.K. Rowling first introduces the character of Hagrid in Harry Potter: The Philosopher’s Stone
“A giant of a man was standing in the doorway. His face was almost completely hidden by a long, shaggy mane of hair and a wild, tangled beard, but you could make out his eyes, glinting like black beetles under all the hair.”
Pay attention to Rowling’s choice of words like, “wild,” “tangled,” “mane,” and the description of Hagrid’s eyes as “black beetles.” Right away the reader knows that this character is in some way connected to nature and the wild. That’s before Hagrid has opened his mouth, and without any direct exposition.
Another way to reveal your character’s personality is through dialogue. A certain diction can tell the reader what part of the world your character is from. Types of slang can fill us in on your character’s cultural background, or their socioeconomic status. And it’s never a bad idea to have your character make clear statements on how they view the world.
“Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit em, but remember that it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird.”
A necessary part of creating a complex character is a well-developed backstory. You need to write out the facts of your character’s biography. How extensive that bio needs to be is dependent upon how major a character you’re dealing with. There’s no need to imagine every detail of their life, but you do need to create the major events that shaped their outlook. What events are directly related to your character’s motivation? The seeds your character’s motives can be easily planted in their backstory.
Again, you don’t need to know where your character went to elementary school, or what their favorite flavor of ice cream is. Just know what events in their past drive them forward.
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Dialogue and backstory are great, but in the end, they’re just a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing. When you boil it all down, the true nature of a character can only be revealed through action.
When writing your character pay close attention to the choices they make. Be sure that those choices are in line with who you want your character to be. Their actions are how your character will ultimately be judged. So, who do you want them to be? A hero, an anti-hero, a tortured villain?
A character’s actions define who they are. Make sure their choices reinforce the character you want them to be. After all, we never see Hagrid stepping on a bug. And, Atticus Finch defends Tom Robinson not because he’s a hero, but because he believes in justice.
True character is defined by action!
That’s all I have today, but I do want to talk you about one more thing. I’ve made a little companion piece to this article. A character checklist. It’s a two page PDF file, with a series of guiding questions to ask yourself when writing a character. If you’re interested, follow the link below to download it for only one dollar. Your money will support this blog by helping pay for hosting fees and other expenses. So, if you enjoy the blog and would like to support it, or if you’re just looking for some extra guidance, give it a download! Your help is greatly appreciated.