Let’s face it: writing characters is hard. Writing good characters is even harder. But it’s possible.
I won’t be able to give you a step-by-step guide of writing good characters, but this article will help shine a light on how you can improve your understanding of people—fictional or not.
What Makes a Good Character?
In writing, there are typically two types of characters—Flat and Round. Flat characters are typically one-note; they are not your main character or supporting cast. They may show up for a single scene or have a specific role to get the plot moving forward, but not a lot of time is spent on them. Round characters, on the other hand, are more complex. They may grow, change, learn, evolve. They’re messy, but in a good way. They are the characters that leave a lasting impression on your reader. And these are the people that need to be good. But how to do that?
Good characters are realistic. Everyone is different, and sometimes not every decision they make will make sense to every reader, but overall, they have reasons for the choices they make, and they are built from their experiences just like everyone is.
They are consistent. Consistency helps with the realism of characters. Unless a major part of their character is unpredictability, people will almost always follow a set pattern. If a character takes the bus every day to work, and one day she takes a cab, there must be a reason for that. I’ve seen a lot of characters fall from grace because an author made them do something that wasn’t consistent with their character—just for the sake of moving the plot forward. Changing behaviour is not a tool to be used for plot; plot is the tool to be used for changing behaviour.
And finally, good characters have depth. There is more to them than what’s on the surface. Imagine the stereotypical blonde “hot-guy” trope. He is good looking, overprotective, and every bit a strong masculine figure. This would be a flat character. To give him depth, consider what might make him that way. Perhaps he is overprotective because he lost a loved one sometime in his youth and carries guilt for being unable to do anything about it. Perhaps he is a strong figure because he pushes himself to take any burden. What flaws might you uncover in your characters that make them human?
Now, what are some ways you can bring this complexity out of them?
A surface-level, but useful, way of creating characters is by modelling them after people in your real life. This could be anything from someone who passes you in public to close relationships in your life.
You may not want to use someone you know personally, and that’s all right. You could pick and choose aspects if that makes it easier. Or, if you prefer, you can base your own characters on other fictional characters (this is not the best method, as you may choose a character that isn’t wholly realistic to begin with). If you are still uncomfortable with modelling characters on other people, consider yourself, and think about different traits you have and how they may interact with the main trait of a friend or acquaintance.
Any piece of knowledge you have in your head can be useful for creating characters. I highly recommend having some background experience with psychology, sociology, or human behaviour, but it’s not necessary.
The main focus of creating a character is about diving into their past and present to be able to predict their future. This can be done front-to-back or back-to-front—whichever is your process.
The front-to-back method is to start with your characters history. What makes them who they are? Who are their parents and how does that influence them? Are they rich? poor? celebrated? rejected? How does what they experienced tie into who they become? For example, if someone comes from a rich family, they are most likely to be taught manners or courtesies. They are also more likely to look down on (or at least not understand the struggles of) those of a lower socioeconomical status than they are. There are always exceptions, of course. The character may be snooty and refuse their lessons. They may reject their status and work tirelessly to help the less fortunate. Why do they do this? These are the kinds of things you need to think about.
Opposingly, you may use the back-to-front method, in which your write the story as it comes, and whenever you make your character act a certain way, you need to justify the actions to yourself. Why have they just done what they did? Did something in their past influence them? Remember, change is very hard. Tony Robbins (an author and life coach) said that “Change happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.” This is especially true for people struggling with addiction or trying to break a bad habit, but it is true for all behaviour. If the popular jock at school is praised and celebrated for being a jerk and a bully, why would he change the way he acts? It’s worked for him so far. Something in his life would either have to shock him out of it, either to someone else (thus triggering empathy) or to him directly.
The Importance of Research
If you don’t have that background knowledge in human behaviour, now’s the best time to learn. You don’t need to go to any special class on the subject, but a base understanding of human psychology is a must when it comes to creating unique and interesting perspectives. I’ve always said that a book with no conflict is boring because it’s not realistic. Everyone has their own beliefs, experiences, and goals, and very often, those goals don’t match up with each other.
As an author, this will be very difficult for you, because you know exactly what everyone in the book does, and you know what they all need to do to get what they want. They, however, do not. People lie, keep secrets, some even try to get what they want even at the expense of others. This is not a negative view on society, just realistic. There are amazing people out there too. People who want to help others for the sake of helping, who are selfless just because they are, but this is rare. And unless you’re writing the kind of story with issues that forces characters to all band together, you need to reflect this truth in your writing.
This type of research may include watching TV shows or movies that deal with the human mind (I’m currently watching Criminal Minds, which gives tremendous insight about how childhood trauma and experiences compound with genetics and other traits to create human monsters). You may read books (fiction and/or non-fiction). Whatever method of research you choose, choose another. Come at it from multiple angles. Try to get inside the head of your characters.
How to Make Them Believable
Believability is a struggle for a lot of authors because you’re the one writing the characters. Of course every action they take will be believable to you; you’re the one behind the wheel. There are some moments it may not make sense, though. In horror movies especially, people are always angry or annoyed when the characters act in a way that they wouldn’t. What most people don’t understand is that the characters don’t know they’re in a horror movie; the audience does. And if the character is afraid, excited, running on adrenaline or endorphins? They’re not thinking clearly. Not like the clear-headed author or the exasperated reader/viewer.
Remember that you put a small piece of yourself in every character you write, but they are also their own people, too. Don’t be afraid to ask for help—especially if the character is of a different ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation than you are. If you want your character to connect with people like them, you need to make them act like it.
This is why POC (person of colour) Hermione Granger in Harry Potter doesn’t make sense to me. I like the idea of diversifying a cast, but Hermione was never written that way, so for this to be true, some of her actions would need to change. I don’t come to this from a place of absolute knowledge because I am not a person of colour, but I’ve seen how they are portrayed in media and I’ve read books and watched movies written and produced by people of colour. My main example is from the second book/movie when Malfoy calls her a Mudblood. In the book, Ron is the one to explain it, but it’s not a far leap before that to know that it is a slur. If Hermione was written as a person of colour, it is my firm belief that she would’ve reacted differently to the word. She would’ve faced a lot of discrimination in her life up until this point, and being at Hogwarts would’ve been a place where she believed she would finally fit in, only to find out that she was once again viewed as “other” because of how she was born. This would be the same for LGBT+ characters as well, who are treated as less than because of something outside of their control.
Moving on from that rant, I will say that not everything about your characters needs to be included in your story. To be honest, normally only 10% of all research for books actually goes into the book. The rest, the author keeps just in case they need a refresher for later scenes or to better know their characters, settings, and story. Don’t feel compelled to include all of this information in the story—infodumps often just confuse and annoy readers.
Another great tip is to try out some exercises to get to know your character better. Here are a few:
What Would ______ Do?
This thought experiment really gets inside your character’s head, and you only need to do two things. 1) come up with a scenario, and 2) ask yourself “What would _____ do?” Put your character into this scenario and imagine any and every way they might react to it. What is their first thought? If they’re in trouble, how do they get out of it? Are they impulsive, level-headed, selfish, altruistic? Are there other people in the scenario with them, and if so, how does that change things?
There are quite a few of these out there, and even if you don’t believe in them, they offer insight about how certain personality traits mix, what influences them, and how people with these traits are most likely to act. They come in a multitude of forms, from the 16Personalities quiz to enneagrams—to even Hogwarts houses! Some people may not like labels or boxes, but this is extremely helpful for navigating your characters’ thoughts and feelings.
I will shortly be posting an entire article about D&D alignments and how they can help you with character-making, but for now, knowing what alignment your character falls under (and if they change in any way) is an excellent way of knowing them. It may seem surface level, but it can help you understand why a character acts a certain way. Are they a Lawful Good character, like Steve Rogers/Captain America (Marvel)? Or are they Chaotic Good, like Robin Hood? Are your villains Lawful Evil, like Thanos (Marvel)? Or Neutral Evil, like Scar (Lion King)? Or even Chaotic Evil, like The Joker (DC comics)? You’ll probably also have side characters who span the rest of the alignments.
Whatever methods you use, never be afraid to ask for advice and feedback. Other people can tell you whether your character seems realistic or not from the way they’re written. Be sure to ask people who don’t know your character’s backstory. Get perspectives from multiple angles, but don’t share everything unless absolutely necessary. After all, your reader isn’t likely to read an entire biography about your character, but they still need to know enough to understand them.
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