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Good Writing Is ... # 3 What is the most important element of successful fiction? -- Characters!

Updated on December 2, 2011

The answer is: characters; that is characters with -- well -- character.

Review the work of any best-selling author and what do we find? Interesting, believable people (or other life forms) who populate the story’s world and travel down the life journey dictated by the plot.

What? you expostulate; surely, you mean characters are the most important element after plot.

No. I am definite on this one. Even a killer plot, full of action, twists and turns, surprise, tension and conflict falls flat, unless the quests are undertaken by characters who not only seem real, but with whom we can connect, like or dislike, root for or against, learn from, experience their life vicariously, grow with, fall in love (or hate) and above all, believe.

No amount of active writing, descriptive language or skillful dialogue can rescue a story bereft of interesting, believable characters. I will borrow a line from an excellent book The Writer’s Little Helper by James V. Smith (author of the Delta Force series, among others – who should know considering his plots are total action and he is no great wordsmith – but a best-selling author.) Here it is, and put this one thought into your memory banks:

Story is what happens to people.

Have you got that? Is there one successful work of fiction out there that does not rely on character? If you can name one, I’ll edit everything you ever wrote, or will write free – a lifetime commitment.

And before you start emailing me with lists of books not dealing with human beings; let’s understand that animal characters (or aliens) are still human in literary treatment. Bugs Bunny is a smart mouth youth from Brooklyn, judging by his accent. Peter Rabbit is a nine year old brat. The bunnies from Watership Down are heroes on the scale of Tolkien. Well, you get the drift.

No matter what form our characters take, for the purposes of writing, they are human. If they are not, we can’t relate to them. Only humanity is comedic, or tragic or romantic.

We need, above all, interesting characters in our writing.

How do we develop character?

Before we even set pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), we want to know who we are dealing with. For each character in my fiction, I write a short biography (yes I do) setting out where they were born; to what kind of family; what was their birth order; their education; favorite games, favorite food, best friend, hobbies, and what conflicts have they lived; traumas have they survived; are they quiet natured, feisty, logical, emotional … I write this down on an index card and pin it up on my cork board (half a wall in the hallway I call my office, and where I also work out plot, but that is another article.)

You’ll note, I’ve written all this without talking about appearance. Yes, I do jot down a few thoughts on their looks – tall, short, color hair, pretty or ho-hum, But I consider these of secondary value, and rarely provide physical descriptions in my writing aside from a few vague details which may become important. In my novel, This Bird Flew Away, all we really learn about our protagonist, Bria Connelly is she has carrot-red hair and pale freckled skin which blushes easily, much to her consternation. My minor characters often have no description of appearance at all.

Why? Because when I read, I like to imagine what a character looks like, and get quite perturbed with writers who want to spoon feed me the character’s appearance. You know those hideous passages: “He was tall, dark haired, chisel featured, with leathery, tanned skin that crinkled around the eyes in a most manly fashion.” Well excuse me, but maybe I saw him as a short, chubby-hubby type.

Back to the subject at hand. Why do I go to all this work to document my characters? They need to be real people to me, and real people are affected and shaped by their experiences in life. My characters are so real to me; I wouldn't be surprised to find they've been blogging on their own. This exercise assists me in keeping my characters in character, (excuse the play on words,) not have them shift and change as the story unfolds. Our characters must remain true to themselves, and if we forget why they are what they are, our view of them and subsequently, our portrayal of them will not remain constant.

How do we present our characters in our writing?

We may present them directly by one of four methods:

Appearance: (by appearance I don’t mean the above example – schlock, pure schlock) Here’s an example of an excellent description taken from the thoughts of another character:

“She comes in a chauffeured car. She is all cream and roses. Her stockings are purest silk; her underskirt, just briefly showing, is lined with lace.” – Fay Weldon, Female Friends.

Note how this description tells far more than what she looks like; we know she is wealthy, well cared for, vain. This is good characterization.

Action: We can introduce much information about our characters through one or a series of actions, (and no, I don’t mean he is good because he does good things.) Here’s an example:

“I needed Frank’s phone number. I attacked the pile of paper, the overdue phone bill; the credit card statement thrown there, out of sight, out of mind; a letter from the school: Darla had skipped class again – later; a report from our Member of Parliament – was it election time again? There, stuck between a shopping list and a pizza ad, I found it.” – Lynda M. Martin, Makepeace Cleaning.

We’ve learned much about “I.” She’s sloppy and disorganized, in financial disarray and stressed over it, a mother having problems with a child, ambivalent about politics and prone to making lists she later loses.

Speech: Everything a character says does, or should do, tell us something of their nature.

“You’ve got to learn to handle the money I give you a little more intelligently, Irene,” he said. “You’ve got to try to understand we won’t have as much money this year as last…..I’ve worked awfully hard to give you and the children a comfortable life. I don’t like to see all of my energies, my youth, wasted in fur coats and radios and –“ -- John Cheever, The Enormous Radio.

Do we not get a remarkably clear image of the speaker here? He’s angry and bitter; he’s afraid for the future and apparently embroiled in marital difficulties.

Thought: Fiction has a flexibility denied film and drama, where all the audience needs to know must be presented externally. In fiction, one can enter a character’s mind. Thoughts are basically unspoken dialect, and methods of presentation will be discussed in a subsequent article, but like speech, thoughts help display character and set mood and tone. Here’s an example and do forgive my ego for presenting another extract of my own work, but it’s easiest to find.

“God! I hate it here. You wouldn’t believe the tension. Jess the Mess! What a piece of work. She’s a slapper, a raging tyrant, a petulant brat, self-important, self-righteous, lying, unhappy sour bitch!” – Lynda M Martin, This Bird Flew Away.

Not only does this tell us about Jess, the Mess, but also a lot more about Bria, a twelve-year-old girl much given to drama and in conflict with the woman, she’s describing.

“I remember realizing that I didn’t like the way he laughed. I mean, let’s face it, Wally laughs like a hyena.” -- Richard Bausch, The Fireman’s Wife.

These two short sentences, while about Wally, tells us more about the character of the speaker. He comes off a little on the catty side and obviously isn’t too enamored with Wally.

Indirect method of presenting character

This is my least favored method: authorial interpretation. In other words, the author comes out and tells us about the character, reverting once again to the all-knowing narrator.

“The most excellent Marquis of Lumbria lived with his two daughters, Caroline, the elder, and Luisa; and his second wife, Doa Vicenta, a woman with a dull brain, who when she was not sleeping, was complaining of everything…

… The Marquis’ life was as monotonous and as quotidian, as unchanging and regular, as the murmur of the river below the Cliff or as the liturgic services in the cathedral.” – Miquel De Unamuno, The Marquis of Lumbria.

One can only assume the author chose this method of presenting the Marquis to us to underline his words, as monotonous a method as the described life. This is an old-fashioned and out-of-favor way to present the inhabitants of your fictitious world, and once again we are back to article 1 – show don’t tell.

Direct presentation is far more likely to please the modern reader, but the indirect is often chosen by new writers, and rarely works well.

Advice on methods of presentation

In most instances, chose the direct method of presentation. Show the character, don’t tell, don’t give a dull, third person narrative of his biography. Work little tell-tale bits of personality, character and nature into the story. Instead of announcing who this person is, let the reader discover for himself, by revealing the portrait slowly, in layers as though peeling an onion. Such slow revelation adds to the building of suspense along with plot developments. And truthfully, in real life, don’t we get to know someone slowly. I know I avoid those who announce who they are and regale you with the story of their lives on the first meeting – boring. Don’t be a bore.

What makes a good character?

Good question, and as every writer and every reader has their own tastes there are no hard and fast rules, but here are some general guidelines.

  • Is he/she believable? -- Superheroes have their places in the appropriate genre, but even they have their frailties. Superman has to worry about kryptonite, and his feelings for both Lois and Lana, a nice triangular conflict. What makes a character believable? Complexity.
  • Is he/she likable, even if quirky? – Even your adversarial characters need to have some likeable qualities, and your hero definitely must. Readers can’t connect to someone they can’t like.
  • Interesting? Self-explanatory. We get enough boring in real life.
  • Honorable (but not saintly, please?) Readers have to trust the character. Lies are okay so long as the reader is in on them. It’s cheating to lure the reader on in his belief of a situation, only to tell him later it was all a lie. If our hero isn’t above a little fib now and then, tell the reader this is so and ask for forgiveness. On the other hand, no one truly likes a paragon of virtue and see number one --- believable.
  • Is he/she capable of humor?
  • Capable of fear? (But not cowardly.)
  • Appealing both in a physical and emotional sense? But please, not a perfect ten (back to boring.)
  • And most important of all – will the reader connect with the character in matters of the human condition?

In other words, the best characters to be found in literature are those that could be living next door to you – real people (even if they live on Planet Xerox and have four arms, five legs and reproduce by planting pods.)

Characters to avoid

This is easy – any character who doesn’t have the above attributes. New writers often create persons who are too perfect, completely evil, total heroes or absolute victims, in other words, two dimensional stock characters. I don’t think they deliberately set out to do so, but through inexperience miss opportunities to build and develop real personality as they tell their stories. Every speech, action and reaction is a chance to display and create character. Don’t let them pass you by.

Just lately, I read what is possibly one of the worst written novels I’ve ever encountered. I bought it at the thrift store for animal rescue for 25 cents – and it was worth half that. By the end of the first chapter, I knew this was one for recycling and tossed it into the blue box. What was the straw that broke the camel’s back?

Our protagonist (a term I’ll go into in a subsequent article) is a lawyer, who used to be an actress, and is now defending a stereotypical teenage girl who killed her stereotypical molesting father, in a stereotypical midnight-in-the-trailer-park home, against a stereotypical DA who has no redeeming qualities, but wants to get into the pants of our stereotypical 5 foot 9 inch, D cupped, drop-dead-gorgeous, long red-haired heroine. This was the line that did me in:

“She strode across the floor to the witness box in her loose-limbed, swaying model’s walk, tossed her gleaming hair behind her shoulders, gave Roxton {our DA} a dismissive huff and addressed the witness. “That, Mrs. Arnold, is a bold-faced lie!”

That, my friends, is terrible writing. And even worse characterization. This author has “I watch too much bad TV” written across his forehead.


  • Know your characters before you begin writing.
  • Keep your characters real.
  • Present your characters in direct methods.

And from our previous articles:

  • Stay active
  • Show and share, don't tell and describe
  • Keep your own voice out of the story.
  • Let your characters do the work.

I wish you all good writing, and the friendship of good characters.


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    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 3 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Lynda, I came back for a refresher course on this character development chapter. This is such good information and really helpful to me as I finish up the last chapters of my novel. Thank you.

      I really liked your comment, "My characters are so real to me; I wouldn't be surprised to find they've been blogging on their own".

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 4 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Thanks for kudos, Glenn. Glad to be able to help. Lynda

    • Glenn Stok profile image

      Glenn Stok 4 years ago from Long Island, NY

      I got it. You explained this very well. Describing the character is best done by letting the characters actively describe themselves rather than the author describing the characters.

      This is a lot easier to do when the author knows his or her characters, as you explained.

      Same goes for situations in the storyline, by letting the characters describe the events. It would be boring if the author passively describes what is going on.

      I can see how these methods create a much more exciting and interesting read.

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 5 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Sometimes writers make their characters too black and white, two dimensional, or as straw-men in a morality play. Such writing is second-rate at best because even the worst of villains has redeeming qualities. We may sense the author's attempt at emotional manipulation and rebel, perhaps.

      But I know exactly what you mean. As a girl, I HATED Pollyanna!

    • profile image

      Sapphira 5 years ago

      Talking about characters, have you noticed that more often then not, characters that the author doesn't want us to sympathise end up getting the sympathy whilst the person made to please is an utter disaster? In some books, I hate the protagonist so much that I side with the villain and cheer him on!

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      What a fine compliment. Thank you and I hope I have been of assistance. Lynda

    • Bbudoyono profile image

      Bbudoyono 6 years ago

      I will take this hub as a guide. Thanks a lot for writing it.

    • sagebrush_mama profile image

      sagebrush_mama 7 years ago from The Shadow of Death Valley...Snow Covered Mountain Views Abound!

      I'm wondering about "pre-writing" (I guess that's what I'd call it) to get to know your characters. I've worked with a friend off and on, with some ideas we have for a series of stories, and in our initial writing, we didn't really know our characters. They came together as we went. Setting that aside, now, I think we have a better idea of who our characters are, and can start again with the stories. I think we were on the verge of getting descriptions/biographies of our characters written out, when life interfered, and we had to set our project aside.

      Again, another helpful hub!

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 7 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Hi respenser -- now that is a true compliment and I'm happy to know these article have become a resource for writers. No, it is not an easy process to dream up believable, full-fledged characters, but I stand on my statement that without them, no work will succeed. Lynda

    • resspenser profile image

      Ronnie Sowell 7 years ago from South Carolina

      I have lost count of how many times I have read your writing hubs. This character development process is not as easy as I thought, but I'll get there.

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Well thank you again, cindyvine. I'd better get hustling and get the next article out quick. Heaven forbid you and everyone else should get caught up. Lynda

    • cindyvine profile image

      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      I'm reading them all now!

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Thank you.

    • SwiftlyClean profile image

      SwiftlyClean 8 years ago from Texas

      Another great hub of great info.Thanks so very much.

      Sharon Smith

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Hi Duchess, every project I've ever done has been started several times over, and rewritten several times over -- the trick is to keep what is good each time. And yes, it is exciting. Writing is too important to settle for the first things that flows out your fingers -- I read that somewhere.

    • profile image

      Duchess OBlunt 8 years ago

      lmmartin, I am thankful you have taken the time to put this series of articles together. I find myself going back to my novel and putting on the thinking cap with each one. Trying to apply what you are saying with what I have done so far.

      I find these so very helpful. They provide great direction on the "how to". I've not read anything so far that have been so clearly written and so easy to understand.

      Now the difficulty is that I'm to the point where I think I have to restart my project completely. A rather daunting prospect, while at the same time exciting.

      Thank you again.

    • itakins profile image

      itakins 8 years ago from Irl

      Right on-absolutely yes.

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Why thank you itakins. What a lovely compliment. Perhaps when this series is complete (after #112) I'll compile them into a book on writing for regular folks. Nothing artsy -- just straightforward how to. What do you think?

    • itakins profile image

      itakins 8 years ago from Irl

      I have a book on writing techniques and it doesn't give half of this information-quality wise!

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Rafini -- You're right -- this is why you get lost and don't finish -- no plan, no map. no idea of where you're going or why -- which is the next hub. Thanks for coming in.

    • Rafini profile image

      Rafini 8 years ago from Somewhere I can't get away from

      uh-oh. I'm in trouble here. How do you know the characters involved before you start writing the story? Maybe that's why I get lost in the middle of a story and don't finish...

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Me too, Marissa -- character rules, and I can't get into a novel with thin characters. I didn't say we should give no details of appearance -- but don't paint a picture, and certainly not a descriptive paragraph. The reader can get enough details not to be jarred and I will speak of appearance when it is necessary to the character's development. For example, if it is important the person be attractive -- well yes, I mention that. But I don't deal with appearance a whole lot -- considering it as unimportant to the story as it is to me in real life.

    • Marisa Wright profile image

      Kate Swanson 8 years ago from Sydney

      I'm interested in your comments on appearance. I was taught to introduce description early, so readers didn't have time to create their own picture - but I must admit, your approach has merit. I guess if you're going to leave it to the imagination, you just have to be careful not to accidentally mention something about their appearance later, to avoid jarring the reader.

      I think you're so right about character. I've enjoyed some books that have very little plot, just because the characters have been such interesting people.

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Thanks Stephen. I'm basically paying forward the gift others have given me. I was fortunate to find good mentors and learned much under their generous tutelage.

    • Sherbet Penny profile image

      Sherbet Penny 8 years ago from Galway, Ireland.

      And part 3 is again another great hub. Your insight is priceless, and the time taking to write this hub is appreciated. Looking forward to part 4, thank you, Stephen.

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      You can leave another if you want.

    • profile image

      Tammy Lochmann 8 years ago

      oops I made two comments... Strange... Thanks again

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      I believe that is called synchronicity: when something comes along just when you need it. Glad to be of assistance, and thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. Much appreciated. Lynda

    • profile image

      Tammy Lochmann 8 years ago

      I have begun to develop a character since I found your hubs. Thank you so much for this advice.

      Sincerely, Tammy

    • profile image

      Tammy Lochmann 8 years ago

      Funny...this advice comes about as I am developing a character. Thank you so much for this advice.

      Sincerely, Tammy

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Hi Nan, I should be paid for a lot of things, but rarely am, and never well -- the writer's life. Thank you for the praise -- it means a lot. Lynda

    • profile image

      Nan 8 years ago

      Immartin, your article is that of a college professor. I think that you share a lot, in letting the readers know how to project and write. You should be paid well for this article!

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      I'm back. No tornadoes here, thank God, just torrential rain and lots of thunder, much to my poor dog, Dick's dismay. Have you ever seen a 250 pound coward? That's Dick. Anyway, to Ann, thanks for the comment and glad to know these articles are of assistance.

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Hi Ann, the next one is on construction and plot (may need two for this) and dialogue is two, three or four down the road, and that's where I'd like to use an extract from Sam #1, because you handle dialogue well. Anyway, gotta run -- a thunderstorm is approaching and the siren went off, which means tornado possibilities. See ya (I hope)

    • Ann Nonymous profile image

      Ann Nonymous 8 years ago from Virginia

      Great advice. I am loving you hubs in this series, lmmartin! Keep them coming! Sorry I haven't gotten back to you yet...

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      What every writer hopes to hear -- their message is useful and accepted. Thank you, and I hope you tune in for the rest of the series.

    • tdarby profile image

      tdarby 8 years ago

      Fantastic series of hubs with absolutely critical information for anyone who wants to write well. Read them.

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Thank you again, papajack, and pleased to know you find these articles of some assistance. A treasure -- my goodness! I know a few individuals who might disagree ....

    • profile image

      papajack 8 years ago

      I'm still trying to catch up on my reading following my ice storm lay off. Just finished reading the first two segments and found them just the medicine that I needed.

      You are a treasure!

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Yes, I suppose song is another vehicle to relay internal thought in the theatrical medium. I'll deal with presentation of internal communication in a subsequent article -- though I'd try and cover all the basics first. Thanks for coming by papajack.

    • profile image

      papajack 8 years ago

      I have always felt that in Musical Theatre the songs were an expression of internal feelings, since I have never witnessed anyone walking down a street in full song with orchestral accompanyment.

    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 8 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      Excuse me for taking these out of order but I must say this quickly -- Dear Hello,hello: Your writing is not inadequate, only inexperienced and the more you write, the better it will become. Keep in mind a story needs however many words it takes to properly tell the story. I once fell into that trap with my third novel. Told by professionals in the publishing world I should have no more than 120,000 words for a successful novel, I became concerned as my word count topped 160,000 and rushed the ending, compressing too much. This was a complex story, with several subplots and inorder to do it justice, I needed 180,000 words. After a long internal struggle, I decided the story must come first and I would use however many words I required. Stay true to your story and don't worry about arbitrary rules set out by others.

      Thanks Petra. From my reading of your work I know you have powerful language tools at your command, and if I may be so bold as to say this publicly, your story A Marked Family is an excellent opportunity to work on character presentation. My feeling on reading it is it would benefit from treatment as though it was fiction, using the tools of fiction rather than the non-fiction narrative. I don't mean to be pushy (though I often am when I feel strongly about something) that story deserves to be reworked and represented. I am open to working on it with you, if you wish.

      Hi there Itakins, as always a great pleasure to hear from you. You are also a great storyteller though you also usually use the non-fiction narrative form. I think you'd have great success trying the more direct methods of fiction. True stories don't necessarily need to be told in narrative and can become more engaging with a different treatment. Thanks for coming by, and forgive my presumption in offering advice to someone who writes as well as you do.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 8 years ago from London, UK

      This is a terrific lesson and made me see how inadequate my writing is. The only problem I have a lot, when I write on hub I am always worried that I write too long a story. It is not an excuse but it did stop me from describing more. However, having read your hub I will work on it. Thank you very much for your help.

    • itakins profile image

      itakins 8 years ago from Irl

      Thank you Lynda-Incredible and invaluable information here-I will print these off in due course.

    • Petra Vlah profile image

      Petra Vlah 8 years ago from Los Angeles

      Another very good hub with useful information every witer needs to know about and practice. Thank you Lynda


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