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How to Write Characters

Updated on March 8, 2016
  • What are their goals?
  • What are their strengths?
  • Weaknesses?
  • Ideals and morals?
  • Views?

Authors can begin outlining their characters by giving them profiles, answering character questionnaires to find out information they never would have guessed, and determining relationships with other characters. Characters can also develop as the story is being written, by making decisions and following them through (or not, whatever the case may be). Just remember that characters can have a mind of their own, and may act differently than how the author expects them to in certain situations.

Profiles

Profiles are meant to serve as a general sketch of the character by providing important details. Hair color, eye color, body type, gender, race, age, and sexuality deal with the biological aspects of a character, while familial relationships, occupation, outfit description, goals, strengths, and weaknesses show how a character will act and react within the world. Building a profile, whether short or long, can benefit authors as they write their characters. Some authors like to pick real life people who have the same appearance as their characters to use as a reference (although describing characters exactly like this real life person is not recommended). Profiles can be brief, just to give an idea of who and what the character is before diving in to the story, or can be extremely detail-oriented to organize a complicated personality and behavior.

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Questionnaires

Whatever you can’t figure out when writing the character or building a profile, can be answered with a questionnaire or character test. There are hundreds of character questionnaires and Mary Sue litmus tests to determine hidden traits and whether they are deemed ‘good’ or ‘bad’ characters. These questionnaires can aid writers in figuring out the more elusive characters by finding little details that may or may not be included in their novels. Knowing a character’s backstory can further the plot, but knowing a character’s favorite color, food, or music can add a subtle note of personality that can explode into a widely-known trait readers identify with.

Mary Sue tests, and others, can help writers understand how readers might perceive their characters. Determining whether the character has stereotypical traits, fits the profile of other widely-known characters, or is completely different from anyone else in fiction is important to the writing process for authors. If a character is likely to receive a bad reaction from readers—whether due to an evil alignment or being poorly-written—the author can choose to change certain aspects of the character, or change the plot to tackle those issues within the story. Characteristics which readers pick up on may not be noticeable to the authors, so testing characters against certain parameters gives authors a microscope.

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Research

Before writing out a character, the author must research that character, especially if there is a certain trait such as a mental disorder, handicap, ethnicity or culture involved which the author is unfamiliar with. Even if the author isfamiliar with a mental disorder, research can aid in writing the most accurate character to avoid blatant stereotypes or clichés. Making the villain into a sociopath only increases the stigma against mental illness. Making the underdog blind or deaf depreciates real people affected by blindness or loss of hearing. Writing a character incorrectly insults readers. Take the time to read about personality disorders, victims of war, survivors of rape, cancer patients, amputees, soldiers, housewives, CEOs, different cultures, religions, even gender and sexuality.

This is also true for characters of a race other than human, from vampires and werewolves to aliens and beings of an author’s own creation. Doing research on established myths, folklore, legends, and other connotations (such as religious or cultural) can help determine how authors portray these characters and species within novels. When creating their own creatures, authors should look at what has already been done, as well as something to base the new species off of. Christopher Paolini created Urgals in the Inheritance Cycle to add something new to a world full of dragons, elves, dwarves, and other magical beings. An author can take a sea creature and combine it with a land mammal to create something entirely new (like a platypus). Aliens can be influenced by their planet and how it is affected by the environment of space.

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Good Characters

Good characters, as in effectively-written characters, have flaws. They are not perfect or ideal, but instead have human qualities to make them seem realistic. Good characters can jump off the page and walk down the street, blending in with the crowd. They may stand out a little, but they don’t outshine the rest of the world. Good characters are unique, but not one-of-a-kind. There is no trick to writing a good character, because it comes from certain traits, behaviors, actions, and reactions that are inherent to writing. If the character seems flat and boring, they aren’t doing enough to further the story, or their personality doesn’t capture the reader’s interest—however, that doesn’t mean boring characters are bad characters. If the story depends on a boring character interacting with the real world, make the action worth reading about. Experiment. Branch out from the classics and clichés, break away from stereotypes. As long as the character is not exaggerated or outlandish, but deep-rooted in the real world, readers will relate.

The reason for writing good characters is so readers can see a part of themselves within a novel. Novels are meant to take people to a new world, whether for escape purposes, relaxation, or excitement. Readers find disconnect when characters are too far from their reach, completely and entirely fictionalized, because it takes them out of the adventure by showing them how unrealistic the world is. However, this logic doesn’t work with all novels, especially fantasy and science-fiction settings, where the world is so unbelievable that it works for readers who want to escape reality. In that instance, the characters are the foundation for readers, keeping them grounded in the novel, so giving them characteristics of actual people makes the story seem real even though readers know it’s not.

Good characters have multiple facets to their personalities, what is known as being three-dimensional, which means they can be unpredictable at times. This unpredictability can be a good thing for readers because they don’t know what will happen next, which brings excitement, wonder, and curiosity to the tale. These characters exist within a world of gray, where right and wrong are not always easy to find in a situation (i.e. the real world). Readers may know how a character will react in a certain situation given previous scenes of context, but differing from that perceived notion of action or reaction can add depth to the character as a person. Major characters, especially, need to be well-rounded and developed to an extant where readers can view the story in their eyes yet see what is happening around them to influence their decisions.

Buffy

Take Joss Whedon’s Vampire Slayer Extraordinaire and Heroine, Buffy Summers. In the beginning of the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the teenage Chosen One is a spunky, naïve girl who just wants to have fun with her friends during High School. Throughout the show, her innocent and childish qualities strengthen into a woman who stalks the night, defeating anything that stands in her way. Her backbone hardens, giving her the strength to stop the evil threatening her family, friends, and Sunnydale neighbors, but she remains a loving, compassionate person. From a lost, scared little girl she turns into a fearless leader who makes choices and sacrifices based on the good of the world. She has flaws, but she does the best she can with what she’s given.

Bad Characters

When I say a character is ‘bad’ I don’t mean in an evil-villain sort of way. Bad characters are stereotypical, unoriginal, flawless, over-powered, don’t change, and don’t learn anything from their arc or journey. Most bad characters are called Mary Sues or Gary Stus, which have a stigma for being too perfect or a version of the idealized self. When authors try to put themselves in their novels, erasing their own flaws and adding superficial strengths or qualities, they’re making an unrealistic, poorly crafted character. Characters are allowed to contain aspects of their creator, but they’re not meant to be puppets for the author’s design.

Poorly-written characters tend to be two-dimensional, with a one-track mind or consistent personality which can become predictable after a while. The negative aspect of these characters is their predictability and lack of change. Two-dimensional characters may be stereotypical, based on an exaggerated or unrealistic version of something the writer has seen all his or her life. These clichéd beings can never be major characters, because readers will grow weary of their constant disregard for change despite the experiences they’ve undertaken. This in no way means characters need to change every part of themselves throughout the course of a novel or book series.

If a character is seen as a ‘good guy’ due to selflessness or a resolve to do the right thing, his morals and views may be tested to determine the strength of his inner character. Sticking to those morals and displaying a strong will can give readers the satisfaction of knowing that being sure of yourself is a good thing; but it depends on how this is done within the novel. If the character learns nothing from the test, or continues to view the world in black and white, readers will yearn for change. The same can be said for villains: with a decent enough backstory, villains may not be ‘excused’ for their behavior, but understood in a way readers can see why the character is acting wrongly in the situation. Villains do not always need to be reformed, or even stopped, to have a good story. Their change mostly comes from the way readers view them after certain events (Voldemort, for example, never changes his goals but is more accepted by fans of Harry Potter than Professor Umbridge).

Diversity

When people say “write what you know” it can sometimes hinder the creative process. White males are abundant in literature, from the classics to today’s time, for multiple reasons. Lately, authors have attempted to challenge this staple by bringing in female characters, people of color, people of a homosexual orientation, people with handicaps, and other characters that can be found in real life. An important aspect to writing characters has to do with diversity, so readers can identify with these characters and join the journey. Seeing a book filled with white men running around on an adventure may not sound appealing to a young black girl, no matter how great the story is. The same goes for heterosexual relationships between characters taking center stage when a reader is homosexual. However, authors should not create diverse characters just to be ‘politically correct’ or gain a wider readership; the story shouldn’t be about the character’s race, age, gender, or sexuality. If a character is handicapped, writing a tale solely about overcoming that disadvantage does nothing to bring hope to readers who are unable to do the same, but instead pushes unrealistic expectations on them. If you have a black woman, don’t make her into a stereotype for other characters to comment on. If you have a gay character, don’t make the entire novel about his relationship.

These are real people who act the same as everyone else. Representation is not the same as shining a spotlight to make the author look good. With a large character cast, there is a lot of room for diversity by simply making a white character Asian and a heterosexual female a lesbian, but keeping the same personality or characteristics. These can be main characters, not just minor characters to be the butt of jokes or show off the author’s ability to write outside of their comfort zone. What I mean is this: don’t make the story all about one aspect of the character. J. K. Rowling admitted Dumbledore is gay in an interview, but never said outright what his sexuality was in the books. There were hints, particularly when Grindelwald was involved, but it was never a main feature of the story. (Some readers feel like this is poor representation because it was never explicitly stated in the books, but others disagree, saying there was enough evidence and approaching the subject within the books would have been a distraction to the story). However some readers may feel, J. K. Rowling didn’t make a huge deal about Dumbledore being gay, but instead wrote him as a person just like she did with Harry Potter.

Character Relationships

Along with diversity, unless an author is writing a romance novel, there is no need to focus too much attention on a romantic relationship. Writing in a character just to be a love interest is simply poor writing, and readers will be disappointed, because that character is a two-dimensional, flat waste of space. Characters have relationships just like real people: they have parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, estranged siblings, extremely close in-laws, the uncle of a mother’s cousin’s half-sister, etc. They also have friends, acquaintances, best friends, colleagues, rivals, anonymous stalkers, frenemies, allies, supporters, strange love-hate sexual tension, boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, lovers, almost lovers, and more. People may not like the character, people may love the character, the character may have a crush on someone who has a crush on someone else, they may be oblivious to each other’s feelings, or extremely aware but reluctant to act.

Characters can have a good relationship with certain family members and a horrible one with others. They may end up in unhealthy romantic or sexual relationships. Characters can have manipulative friends or be the puppeteer behind an alliance. That one friend the character never really notices or appreciates can end up the hero of the story by one simple act. It is important for authors to remember the diversity in relationships to evoke feelings between characters, especially when it comes to building one between friends or lovers. If readers are just told two characters are in love, they’ll want to see why and how they love each other. If two characters are best friends yet have completely different personalities, what draws them together? How does their friendship work when it is strained or put to the test? How did they become friends in the first place? An entire novel can be written about a character’s relationship to multiple people.

Important Factors for Naming:

  1. The Setting: Don’t name your Cowboy Cthulu, no matter how tempting it may seem.
  2. The Meaning: Something symbolic or descriptive of the character, but not overly symbolic. Don’t make it obvious.
  3. Unique—yet familiar: Ebony Dark’ness Dementia Raven Way is the worst name in the history of writing. Don’t use any of these words for a name. Just don’t.

Names

A character’s name is important, especially in relation to the plot and how readers view the character throughout the story. Names can have significant meaning based in reality, a made-up language, or have no obvious meaning at all. They can be religious, cultural, modern, futuristic, historical, or fantastical. The setting and plot of the story sometimes dictates the names of characters. Fantasy novels tend to have characters with vibrant, creative names, like Legolas and Gandalf (to name a few) from the Lord of the Rings by Tolkien. Names can also contain connotations, like the cat named Lucifer in Cinderella. They can be aliases, nicknames, or titles, given by other characters or based upon the character’s past.

Writers should look up baby names and meanings when thinking about their characters. There are books on the most recent or popular baby names within the past few years, and numerous online databases to look through. Some of these are modern, but names for different time periods (such as the Victorian era) are also available. Looking at the common names according to time and place can aid writers in giving their characters accurate names. This works for both first and last names. If the character is a noble or high-class citizen, look at family names of royalty. Last names such as Tanner, Smith, Johnson, and others were given due to the family profession, while others are given for qualities or attributes associated with that family.

Appearance

Besides naming, the character’s appearance is an important aspect within a novel. Outlandish appearances, such as blue hair and pink eyes, barely works in anime, let alone a modern fictional setting. Use subtle notes to make characters stand out: an eyebrow piercing, a birthmark, meaningful tattoo, scars, freckles, sun spots, pear-shaped bodies, and other small yet significant details. Authors don’t need to exaggerate their character’s features. This also goes for outfits and accessories. Certain clothing and apparel contain negative connotations, or are stereotypical to a certain character type. If the character is set in a modern world, jeans and a t-shirt are perfectly acceptable. Authors shouldn’t get carried away with character description. Readers can imagine the characters interacting with each other with just a few details to guide them.

The character does not need to be completely described the first time he/she is introduced. Beginning a story with “Jane has red hair and blue eyes, wears blue v-neck shirts and purple suede pants with camouflage combat boots” is a good way to bore readers. Real people don’t go around telling people what they’re wearing, so why should a character? Other characters can comment on a character’s hair: “Hey, looks like you cut your hair. Didn’t it used to be longer?” or “Hey, you died your hair! Is blond your natural color, or did you want to try it out?” They can also comment on an outfit: “I like your dress, it looks good on you.” Or “Is that jacket new?” which can actually open up for backstory or a good dialogue conversation: “Actually, my dad gave me his old jacket. He wants me to carry on his legacy.”

While it can be cliché, characters can also be described in a mirror or through actions: “Jane pushed her red hair out of her face, thinking maybe she should get it cut.” Or “As I looked in the mirror, I hardly recognized the person I saw. When did those wrinkles around my eyes show up?” This description can be given in small doses, little details throughout the beginning and middle of the novel so readers can get a sense of what the characters look like without being bombarded.

Character Archetypes

There are certain stereotypical or clichéd characters authors should watch out for. There are the tough guys, who refuse to be helped and believe in the power of manliness. The damsels in distress, who refuse to save themselves, waiting instead for a knight in shining armor. The typical hero, a good guy with a moral conscience who kicks ass the All-American way. The loner, someone who hangs out in alley ways with a cigarette and reads poetry by himself. The typical bad guy, who wants to destroy the world because he was bullied as a kid or didn’t get enough love from his parents. The list goes on.

Falling into certain character types can damage a good plot. Readers want to see something new, interesting, and mysterious; anything but what they’ve already read a thousand times over. Women can be capable of achieving their own goals without a man’s interference—they can even save the ‘knight’ from ‘dragon’! Heroes can get in trouble for breaking the law, or have a skewed view on right and wrong. Villains can have a deeper motive for revenge than being pushed into a locker in middle school. Labels such as preppy girls, goths, punks, jocks, nerds, outcasts, and others do not have the capacity to contain all of the individuality of the human spirit.

Characters in Writing

Something all authors and readers should remember is that characters have a mind and life of their own. They will develop as the story is being written by acting and reacting to the situations and other characters around them. If a writer or reader is surprised by a character’s actions, it may not be a bad thing. The whole point of a novel is to show a character changing throughout the story, so if a character acts differently than the author or reader expected, the signs are pointing in the right direction. Having a detailed profile with certain specifics set in stone may clash with live character reactions, so starting off with a basic idea of the character and going from there is recommended. Authors can add in backstory or quirks they note while writing to keep up with their character profile, as well as changes in attitude, appearance, or behavior to keep track of their character’s progress.

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    • profile image

      GalaxyRat 10 months ago

      Thanks, this helped a ton. :) Cheers.

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      Ethan Digby-New 3 years ago

      This was a very informative and extensively researched topic. I found your tips and suggestions especially helpful. Thanks for the help!

    • Nathan Kiehn profile image

      Nathan Kiehn 3 years ago

      A very well-written post. I enjoy how you methodically give tips on how to create characters. These tips are very useful; the detail will help me a lot.

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