What’s the most important thing in your story? What do readers bond with more than any other aspect of a story? The characters. How do you make yours unforgettable? Please enjoy the tips below gleaned from some of the best books and thinking I could find.
David Corbett says something in his The Art of Character that rings true for me. To write great characters, first know yourself. How? My advice is, go into therapy and start examining your own motivations. It will have lots of side benefits in your life. It will also stir up your emotions which, for an artist, is great fodder. Also, read lots of psychology books.
To write great characters, first know yourself.
A lot of what you’ll find below comes from Alexandra Sokoloff’s Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, a book that gets right to the meat of storytelling. I recommend it very highly. Buy it here.
ONE-SENTENCE DESCRIPTION OF A COMPELLING MAIN CHARACTER:
Characters don’t exist without story. Story can’t work without characters. The whole plot-driven or character-driven dichotomy is a false one to my mind. A character reveals himself through his reactions and actions in a story. A story moves forward on the actions of its characters. To me, when people describe a story as character-driven it just means that story has realistic, surprising, three-dimensional, compelling-as-hell characters.
Below is an awful sentence in terms of prose elegance. But it’s great at describing the scope of a main character’s journey through a story.
A TYPE OF HERO/INE (e.g., 16-year-old prep school student, reclusive Hobbit, young justice-minded scion of an Italian-American crime family syndicate, plucky Southern Belle just before the Civil War) experiences an INCITING INCIDENT, and wants OUTER DESIRE, but ANTAGONISTIC/ANTAGONISTIC FORCE throws up roadblocks at every turn. Despite FLAWS, and HERO/INE’s WOUND/GHOST, HERO/INE GOES TO EXTREMES to get OUTER DESIRE with the help/hindrance of ALLIES and MENTOR, mapping a CHARACTER ARC from STARTING STATE to ENDING STATE and, after fighting their FLAWS in a WORST NIGHTMARE climax, having the INNER DESIRE beat out the OUTER DESIRE in tense internal conflict, and succeeding or failing to get OUTER DESIRE, HERO/INE discovers that they really wanted INNER DESIRE all along and heal their GHOST/WOUND/CORE TRAUMA or at least learn to live with it better, unless it completely destroys them, in which case your story is a tragedy, not that there’s anything wrong with that, unless Hollywood is right.
So what does all that jargon in the sentence above mean? I break it down below.
- INNER DESIRE (usually selfless and noble, aka what the character needs to learn, or what they really need deep down). Some authors call this the character’s “Need.” The INNER DESIRE expresses who the main character really is in their best self. Example: Clarice Starling’s desire to protect innocence. Scarlett O’Hara’s desire to save and preserve Tara, her home.
- OUTER DESIRE (usually selfish) Clarice’s Starling’s ambition to rise quickly in the FBI. Scarlett’s desire to marry Ashley because he’s the perfect noble Southern gentleman, which would ennoble her, except she’s not really all that noble, so if she’d gotten him, it never would have worked.
- HOW DO YOU SHOW THAT THE INNER DESIRES AND OUTER DESIRES ARE IN CONFLICT? In LA Confidential, Bud White talks to his lover Lynn Bracken about wanting to be smart enough to solve the Night Owl case, even though his outer goal is to protect women and get even for his dad’s physical abuse. (When he solves the Night Owl, that puts Lynn in danger, and because the bad guys want to destroy him, they use his hot-headedness against him so he ends up punching Lynn.) His desire to be seen as smart and to be taken seriously as a real detective is his INNER DESIRE.
- HOW DO YOU SHOW THAT THE INNER DESIRE IS WINNING OUT OVER THE OUTER DESIRE? Example: Scarlett makes it back to Tara, and even though she wants to run off with Ashley, she sees how bad things have gotten (and she must save and preserve her family home (INNER DESIRE) so she helps her sisters and everyone there pull it together. At the midpoint of the story, she vows to “never be hungry again.”
- CHARACTER ARC: there are several options: HERO/INE doesn’t change like Shane or Candide. Or HERO/INE accomplishes goals through good, but stays essentially the same, like Forrest Gump. Or becomes stronger like Clarice Starling. Or learns that her role as family matriarch is ennobling like Scarlett O’Hara. Or like Michael Corleone, goes from good to corrupt and also from weak to powerful.
- GHOST/WOUND/CORE TRAUMA: (repetition compulsion): Clarice couldn’t save the spring lamb but she is compelled to try to save Katherine, another innocent about to be slaughtered. Hamlet’s father’s ghost is literally the GHOST/WOUND/CORE TRAUMA. It represents his desire for revenge and justice that drives him to destruction. In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged is literally being stalked by his own shadow self, which he unleashed in an act of vainglory.
- FLAWS. These often come naturally from the ghost or core trauma. Or they might be a function of personality. In Ember in the Ashes, Laia is spying for the Resistance because they have promised to get her brother out of prison, but she’s shy and not apt to take risks, not courageous like her brother and parents, so at first she makes a terrible spy. She will have to overcome her flaw of cowardice if she is to get her OUTER GOAL, which is to save her brother. Michael in Tootsie has a major flaw: He’s a great actor, but he overthinks everything, which makes him impossible to work with. This flaw becomes a strength when he harnesses his perfectionism and creates a flawless female disguise, which lands him a lead on a soap opera. Katniss’s abrasive directness becomes an asset when she becomes a Tribute in the Hunger Games, and it makes her a fantastic figurehead for rebellion. Look for ways your characters’ greatest flaws can become a great strength in your story.
- CHARACTER INTRODUCTION: The first time you see each of your characters should be memorable, and this is especially important with your HERO/INE. The way you introduce them should be a layered reflection of the main character’s state of mind and their character arc. Use everything: where they are, what they are wearing, what they are doing.
Example of Character Introduction:
“The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and for no other.”
–Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
“Captain Ahab stood upon his quarter-deck. There seemed no sign of common bodily illness about him, nor of the recovery from any. He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness. His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus. Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded.”
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick or The Whale.
- WHAT BITS OF BUSINESS IN YOUR SCENES REVEAL THE HERO/INE’S PERSONALITY, BOTH STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES? Clarice stumbling over her words at the autopsy. Chief Brody trying and trying to master the bowline knot. Scarlett making a dress out of the curtains and gargling with eau de cologne to hide the alcohol on her breath. These bits of business add a lot of richness. They are the essence of Showing (not Telling).
- EXTREMES: HOW DOES YOUR HERO/INE GO TO EXTREMES TO GET WHAT THEY WANT? Clarice telling Lecter her most painful memory. Michael in Tootsie disguising himself as a woman to get a part.
- SPECIFIC ACTOR WHO WOULD IDEALLY PLAY THE ROLE: Helps you visualize the character, and speak in their unique voice. Pick an actor you know well. Choose wisely and you will start to hear your main character’s dialogue in that actor’s unique voice. Dialogue is one of the strongest tools for creating vivid character.
- MYTHIC RESONANCE: HOW DOES YOUR MAIN CHARACTER’S JOURNEY REFLECT A FAMOUS MYTHIC STORY OR SHAKESPEARE PLAY (the Bard himself retold classic myths and folk tales)? Star Wars and the Hero’s Journey. Moby Dick/Jaws and Battling the Monster as in Hercules and the Hydra. Clarice Starling visits Lecter in the dungeonesque prison basement like Theseus visits the Minotaur in the labyrinth. Katniss Everdeen faces trials like Hercules and other mythic heroes do. Katniss resembles Artemis, the avid archer Goddess of the Hunt, and the Amazons with their bows and arrows. O Brother Where Art Thou and Cold Mountain are both retellings of the Odyssey. Adding mythic elements to your main character gives them resonance that hooks the reader. Why not? There are no new ideas, just new twists on old ones. I like to play a game when I read or watch any story: What famous old chestnut does it most resemble? Believe that I was geeking out on how Sons of Anarchy is like Hamlet, and how House of Cards is basically Richard III. Isn’t that cool? I know!
- WORST NIGHTMARE: WHAT IS YOUR HERO/INE’S WORST NIGHTMARE, AND HOW DOES THE CLIMAX OF YOUR STORY BRING IT TO LIFE? Indiana Jones hates snakes and ends up in a huge pit of them. Luke fights his greatest fear: Vader and finds out he is his father. Think of a massively climactic set piece that could put your Hero/ine in a physical manifestation of their worst nightmare. What’s Quint’s worst nightmare? To be eaten by a shark. What’s Michael Corleone’s worst nightmare? To lose his soul like his father did.
- ANTAGONIST: A dark mirror of the protagonist. Sometimes it would take very little for the protagonist to become like the antagonist. (Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter in Red Dragon, Holmes and Moriarty.) Sometimes they have the same goal, but the protagonist won’t use immoral means and the antagonist will.
- ALLIES: They often reflect different sides of the protagonist’s personality. They sometimes help, sometimes hinder. Sometimes they betray and change sides. They can have common constellations like Kirk, Bones and Spock: gut, heart and head, for instance. Harry, Ron and Hermione: gut, heart and head again. Look for these kinds of character constellations in your favorite stories and see how you can use what works about them, with a new flavor in your own work.
Here’s an excerpt showing a famous Ally. Notice how the description of the ally is also a description of the feelings that lead to one of the OUTER GOALS of the main character:
“It was Toto that made Dorothy laugh, and saved her from growing as gray as her other surroundings. Toto was not gray; he was a little black dog, with long silky hair and small black eyes that twinkled merrily on either side of his funny, wee nose. Toto played all day long, and Dorothy played with him, and loved him dearly.”
–L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
- MENTOR: They act as a kind of superego and hold the key to the lesson the Heroi/ine is meant to learn. Obi-wan Kenobi and Yoda, Morpheus in The Matrix, and Jiminy Cricket
- LOVE INTEREST: In Romantic Comedies, the love interest is often also the antagonist. One of my favorite kind of romances is the “sparks fly” kind of romance in which the two main characters instantly bug the crap out of each other. The LOVE INTEREST often represents the qualities that the main character needs to be whole.
A list of traits is not a be all and end all in creating characters. You want to become these characters as you write and feel what they feel from the inside, then report on it. This can take time and lots of backstory work. If you don’t know how a character will react to things, how they will behave, then write a scene that poses the questions and see what they do. More on this below.
Still, I think if you want to keep all the information of your characters consistent, even simple stuff like birthdays, place of birth, and so on, you will probably want to fill out a character questionnaire and keep it somewhere you can find it quickly while you’re writing.
Here’s a pretty exhaustive Character Questionnaire that you can put into a grid so you can keep the info on each character side by side. I include in it some of the elements from the checklist above so it’s all there at your fingertips.
- Full Name
- Date of Birth
- Place of Birth
- Role in Story
- Astrological Sun Sign
- Meyers Briggs Type
- Age in Scene 1
- Hair color
- Eye color
- Skin color
- Language(s) spoken
- Appearance details: Overweight, underweight, clean or untidy, shape of head face limbs
- Frequently used metaphor or descriptive tags
- Movement: clumsy, elegant, plodding, meticulous, shuffling, graceful, etc.
- Ethnicity and race
- Education: Degrees and majors. Also, extracurriculars.
- Home life: What makes up their family at home and how are those relationships?
- Mom: Name, alive or dead, best day with her, worst day with her, overall relationship.
- Dad: Name, alive or dead, best day with him, worst day with him, overall relationship.
- Siblings and birth order. Relationship with siblings? Good days, bad days?
- Place in social group: leader, follower, outcast
- Which table would they sit at in the high school cafeteria?
- When they were 7 years old, what did they want to be when they grew up?
- Political affiliations
- Favorite Books
- Favorite Movies
- Favorite Music
- Sexual Orientation
- Mannerisms: specific gestures. What does the character do when they are nervous?
- Verbal mannerisms: What words or phrases does the character use a lot? What is their voice like? Do they speak quickly or slowly? With an accent?
- INNER GOAL
- OUTER GOAL
- Sex Life
- First Kiss (age, who, where, when, how)
- Level of Ambition
- Frustrations & Disappointments
- Temperament: choleric, easygoing, pessimistic, optimistic
- Attitude towards life: resigned, militant, defeatist
- Worst Nightmare – be detailed
- Ghost/Wound/Core Traumas. Describe what happened. Write it as a scene.
- Psychological disorders, and if they had a Personality Disorder, which one would it be?
- Extravert, introvert, or in the middle
- Archetype, Fairy Tale, or Mythic Character Comparison (Hercules, Medea, Wicked Witch, Odysseus, Cuchulain, Dracula, Baron Samedi, Icarus, Baba Yaga—lots of options!)
- What if anything would they die for?
- Best day of their life before story starts.
- Worst day of their life before story starts.
- When things go wrong, how do they react? How do they cope?
- What does this character see as their life purpose?
- How does the character see themselves?
- What is their favorite thing about themselves?
- What is the one thing about themselves they would change if they could?
FINDING YOUR CHARACTER IN BACKSTORY SCENES
These should be fun ways to get to know your characters. Write a scene about your character’s:
- First kiss (if it happens before story starts)
- First sexual experience (if it happens before story starts)
- Worst day in middle school (if it happens before story starts)
- Best friend. How did they meet? (if it happens before story starts)
- Love interest: When did the character know they loved them?
- Worst day before story starts
- Best day before story starts
- Biggest heartbreak
REASONS YOUR HERO/INE MIGHT BE FORGETTABLE
- Passive/No Agency
- No flaws
- No sense of humor
- Dialogue is flat or on the nose
- Too predictable
- Behaving like a plot puppet and not like a three-dimensional person.
A SECRET WEAPON (ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE)
- Take an acting class. The way an actor prepares a role is also the way you want to prepare to write in the voice of your characters. Many actors write reams and reams on the history and backstory of their characters and make specific choices about key moments in the person’s life. They go way beyond what is in the text. This is what it often takes to know your characters so well that they come to life.
- Read the best writing on acting: Stanislavsky’s works are a great place to start. I love his description of how he created the character of his own inner critic.
- Take an improv class in which you learn to create characters. Some of your favorite SNL skit characters were born from this process. Improv will loosen you up in all kinds of ways.
- Here’s why I think some training in acting is fantastic. When I write, I become the POV character, and if I’m doing it right, my language choices change according to who she is. I experience the events of the story through her personality. To get into that dream-like state, sense memory exercises can really help.
- Even if you would never publish it, write your own memoir. Focus particularly on the key moments in your life — the things that are most emotional for you, that have juice. Then change names and just enough of the details to protect the innocent—or the guilty—and pop them into your character’s backstory, or even into the story proper. When you reach a moment in your character’s story that is emotional, dig into your own story for an event that brought up similar thoughts and feelings.
- Great advice to actors is also great advice to writers. Use yourself. As Mrs. Which said to Meg Murray in A Wrinkle in Time, “I give you your flaws.” Use them to make realistic characters with lots of shades of gray.
I hope you enjoyed this post. Please share your comments here. I’d love to hear what you think. Also, share your tips on building characters.