Tips on Creating a Great Fictional Character
You’re sitting down to write, racking your brain for ideas. You want an original, interesting character for your story, but where do you start? What makes a character original? What makes a character interesting? Well-developed characters are essential to great stories. The complex art of character writing is both an innate and learned skill, and there is no one easy way to go about it. But there are several important factors to consider that will help you to develop a more fleshed out, relatable character.
1. Don’t reveal everything right away. Reveal information about your character as the story progresses, through their actions, thoughts, dialogue and even appearance. Keep the audience interested by withholding some information and resisting the urge to spell everything out right away. At the same time, you should be fully aware of the reasoning behind your character’s actions, even if they are not explicitly stated in the text.
2. Characters are people, and people are often contradictory. In terms of consistency and continuity, keep your facts straight in your story. If a character was born in September or has a sister, those facts won’t change. But in terms of actions, remember that people act and say different things around different people, depending on the time and circumstances. Your character may be very honest around their best friend, but shy and inhibited in the presence of someone they don’t know very well. Your character may feel they hate their mother in one chapter, and enjoy their company in the next. A complex character will fluctuate in their moods and opinions, and you must accommodate that and allow for those changes. Remember also that every change in opinion or emotion should have a driving factor behind it.
3. Know as much about your character as possible. Even if you don’t include everything about your character in your story, having a full understanding of them is important. This goes for your minor and supporting characters as well. Well-developed characters across the board will make the world of your story rich and believable. You should be able to answer basic questions about them. Where did they grow up? What is their family life like? What do they enjoy? What do they detest? What annoys them? Get inside their head and figure out what makes them tick. What are their innermost private thoughts, secrets and feelings about themselves and others?
4. Good dialogue is essential and reveals a great deal about your characters. In order to write good dialogue, you must be able to anticipate what your characters will do and say in any given situation. This is where knowing them inside and out is extremely helpful. Picture a scene of dialogue play out like a film. Ask yourself, how does my character feel speaking to this person? What is the situation and setting and how does that effect the conversation? How are they moving about and interacting with the space? Something should motivate every line of dialogue, from a response to gesture to a facial expression or even a sudden memory. Know what moods your characters are in during the conversation, what they are trying to achieve and what is foremost on their minds. Remember that people often say things they don’t mean (“I hate my friend”), lie, deny and cover things up. For example, if someone asks your character an uncomfortable question, they are likely going to get uncomfortable and try and avoid the topic.
5. Avoid stereotypes and clichés. Time and time again I’ve seen a character introduction open along the lines of: Jenny has a perfect life, great friends and a loving family. But one day everything changes. Of course things will cause changes in your characters, but no one is perfect. Nothing is ideal, and relationships are complex. Keep in mind that there is always something going on under the surface and there is much more to people beyond surface-level impressions. In addition, don’t try to re-write or copy characters from other stories, TV shows, movies, comic books, etc.
6. Show us, don’t tell us. Subtlety is key. Even if you are writing from a character’s point-of-view, refrain from too much explanation. Trust that your audience will pick up on hints and subtleties, as these not only provide insight into a character but are also very intriguing. For example, instead of just writing: I really miss my best friend., add something like: Every time I look at the scrapbook she made for me, I’m overcome with loneliness. I really miss her. Your characters can certainly be honest and direct, but too much directness makes for a boring character and a boring story. Remember that characters are not always aware of why they feel the way they do. Some characters are more in touch with themselves than others.
7. Know your character’s motivations. Every character has wants and needs. Their want (or wants) is what drives them and propels the story. For instance, a character’s want may be to become a valedictorian, but their need is gaining their parent’s approval and acceptance. Wants and needs may also come in direct conflict with each other: a character wants to be popular, but really needs quality friends that really care about them.
8. Avoid stereotypes and clichés. Everyone from your most minor character to your antagonist should have motivations, compulsions, and conflicting emotions and desires. Never write a “typical” character. Naturally, you don’t have to spend as much time fleshing out minor characters, but keep in mind that they too have wants and needs. A well-developed minor character can make for some great interaction with your main characters. Some of the most minor characters are the most memorable.
9. Write from your own experiences and observations. If you’re having trouble coming up with a situation or scenario, writing from your own experiences and observations is an excellent place to start. When you’re sitting on a bus or in a crowded room, listen in on people’s conversations and jot down interesting bits of dialogue. Write and think about your own life experiences and why they impacted you. What troubles, intrigues and excites you? Newspaper articles, advice columns and editorials can also provide inspiration for characters, conflicts and story ideas. Drawing connections to your own life will give your characters depth. Many writers write parts of themselves or their friends and family into their characters, making them all the more believable.
10. Make a scrapbook or collage that represents your character. This can be a very useful exercise in fleshing out a character. Cut out and copy pictures from magazines, books and websites that represent your character in some way. Browse royalty-free art websites like corbis.com and save images that inspire you. Browse a clothing store and decide what your character would wear or buy. Having a palette of textures and images will give you a lot to draw from.
11. Take a personality test with your character in mind. Fill out a test, quiz or survey that asks personal questions and answer questions based on how your character would. This will provoke and inspire you to consider things you might not have, and give you more ideas for shaping your character.
12. Brainstorm an outline of your character. List their hobbies, interests, favorite colors, and any other benign or interesting fact you can think of. What are their flaws? What are their strengths? What music do they like? What do they look like?
Character creation can be very challenging. It requires creativity, thoughtfulness and critical observations. Yet it can also be the most fun and rewarding part of writing a story. Think of your favorite characters from movies, TV, books and other stories. What makes them so memorable and lovable? Try your hand at coming up with your own memorable characters, experiment and see where it takes you. You never know, you could write the next iconic character!