How to Write a Great Character

Read time: 4 mins

Writers place characters in stories to have an impression on their readers.

“As I don’t write characters that leave no impression on me.”

– Lauren DeStefano

Creating characters

When creating main characters in your writing they need to be make an impact on the reader and should be believable and engaging. Main characters are more believable and arguably more interesting if they are multifaceted and show identifiable personality with motivation to pull them through the events of the story.

Memorable main characters

Unlike side characters the main characters in most novels will have memorable names which clearly distinguish them from other people. The main characters will also be developed through the story and undergo some degree of change, this process is often described as the character arc. This arc is most pronounced with the main character, especially the protagonist.

Your main character is so important that they are likely to be introduced within the opening section of the novel where they will be introduced in an active scene making them relatable for the reader who will witness the character making a decision or reacting to something rather than reflecting on events in their backstory.

What makes a character different from everyone else, is characterization. Describing direct characterisation Janet Burroway highlights a character’s qualities as speech, action, appearance and thought and to these Matthew Salesses adds that we should think about our character’s attitude. In this we develop understanding of their actions and decisions. He suggests an exercise a writer can carry out to focus on the character’s attitude by considering as broad as possible ‘They [the character] were the kind of person who … ’  by answering this question repeatedly about the character, the writer focuses on what attitudes the character holds. The significant features will be the basis of what makes that individual different from others and it is that which will make them interesting and engaging.

For the protagonist this attitude is likely to include some of several positive and appealing features.

Orson Scott Card reminds us that some characters are drawn as relatively flat characters which was pointed out by E.M. Forster, who suggests that, in fiction flat characters can be just as important as rounded characters. An example of a flat character would be Mrs Micawber who never deviates from supporting her husband.

Craft complex protagonists

The delight in a complex character can be their unpredictability. It is this ability to surprise which intrigues and engages as Mary Kole points out the best characters are those readers either love dearly or that intensely. For igniting of this passion within the reader comes from the same passion for the character in the writer. The level of care the writer has about their character can be increased by them getting to know that character in detail perhaps by listing answers to questions about the individual to build up a clear picture of what the character looks like, what food they like, what the main events were in their life, who they mix with and where they live and are they in love. From this bank of information some detail will be used in the writing but rather like the tip of an iceberg most will just inform the writer so they can build up a more rounded personality to set in action within their story to carry out the events of the plot and interact with other characters through the story.   

Another technique for developing character is to decide on a character and in a scene then, as an exercise, write what that character would be thinking – their internal monologue. By doing this for several different characters you begin to hone in on the differences between those characters which will help to find those you are most passionate about and most interested in writing about. Awareness of the internal monologue could also be the basis for incorporating some of that thought within the novel. This can increase how the reader relates to that character allowing them to witness internal conflict and personality closely.

Often characters are made to stand out by having a memorable quality or quirk and this can be used to differentiate individuals, to surprise and bring both interest and uniqueness.

Make marvellous antagonists

To bring conflict to a story the protagonist is likely to be up against antagonistic forces and most often this will be in the form of an antagonist. This character will be interesting if they are much more than one dimensional. The stronger or more objectionable your antagonist the more powerfully they can work against your protagonist. This will lead to more extreme measures being required by to overcome the conflict the protagonist will find themselves in.

Antagonists are more satisfying if they possess their own morality which the reader can see playing out this may be part of their backstory or a feature of their personality but it needs to make them seem rounded and believable with their own consistent objectives and motivation.

The same questions could be used to build up a bank of information on this character or you could develop a specific set for these. Such a set could include, what their weakness is, what they secretly enjoy and what are they like most about themselves.

Whatever the conflict and struggle between the two main characters readers do not want the protagonist to succeed easily so the villain must have skills and allies to work to mount a convincing and enduring challenge to sustain the story. The stakes of your story can increase where the two main characters are pitching against each other strong opposing forces lead to higher stakes and greater reader engagement.

Authors seek to make their main characters lifelike but as David Morrell points out there is a paradox here as we have never known any living person in the way we can feel we know a written character. In fiction we can access someone’s innermost thoughts and emotions, an experience which he describes as ‘…totally unrealistic, however magical.’ He also cites Forster saying one of the central appeals of fiction is that novels suggest a more comprehensible and thus more manageable human race.

Bibliography

Morrell, D. 2008 The Successful Novelist, Sourcebooks Inc. Naperville, Illinois

Boulter, A. 2007, Writing fiction, Palgrave, Hampshire

Forster, E.M. 1956 Aspects of the Novel, Mariner Books,New York

Do leave your comment