So You Want To/Make Interesting Characters

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How-To Guide


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So you've decided to write a story. But you realize that no matter what genre you're writing, your epic plot of awesomeness won't amount to anything if the readers don't like or understand the characters.

As characters are arguably the most important part of a story, here are a few tips to get you started on that.

Inspiration and Originality[edit | hide | hide all]

Art tends to reflect Real Life; characters are no exception. Basing characters on people you know (whether you like them or not), or would like to meet in Real Life will help you make your characters feel like people, and will help you avoid the more cliché characters (that are often based on other author's works), and remain original.

Even if you base your character on an archetype or other known character type, by all means, put your own spin on it. Not just a superficial difference, mind you. Instead, twist it around. Give them a different personality, background, loves, hates, goals, dreams, wishes and outlook on life. Exaggerate a certain personality trait, or give them a different trait not usually found in that character type, yet congruently fits in with your character's unique personality (for instance, give a dark brooding antihero a gallows sense of humor).

Overall, while not every character needs to be completely original, as all but a few stories are inspired by previous ones, you want to make your characters yours.

Concept[edit | hide]

Before you have a Backstory, before you start fine-tuning your character's Flaws and Traits, you should have a strong idea about what your character generally is, a core concept that you will build everything else around. Think about why it will be interesting to read the character, or the basic traits that you think will make him stand out or appeal to the target demographic. If you can sum it up in a few sentences or draw it with a few broad strokes, it's all the better. The devil shouldn't only be in the details; the best characters should be instantly recognizable.

On Tropes[edit | hide]

Tropes alone don't make characters, but every character in every medium can be placed in one archetype or another. If you want to start with the tropes you want your character to be defined by (by no means do you have to), check out Characterization Tropes to see what mixes and matches with what. Then, when you have a few tropes that outline their personality, match it to their backstory.

Backstory[edit | hide]

This is what your character did before "getting here." After all, when you are writing a story, your characters exist before it, as does the rest of the world you are creating.

Planning a sensible backstory for your characters helps strengthen their personality traits and establish their way of life. If your character's story and life is solid enough, they won't feel to the reader as "just a face" that was put there to fill a slot in the plot. In turn, having your character's backstory clearly influence their decisions (even if it is not clear to the audience what the backstory is) helps your readers relate to the character.

Sometimes people plan their characters from the backstory onwards. Say you have a main character Bob, who (like most other characters) has someone he cares about-- let's say, a younger sister-- suffer a Death by Origin Story. He felt that he could/should have done something to prevent his sister's death. Because of this, he constantly feels the need to protect people, even at his own expense. See what we've got already? He's selfless, loyal, and maybe a bit dim.

Sometimes, this is done the reverse, building a backstory for characters that are already at the acting stage: Now say you establish early on that Bob has a girlfriend named Alice. You have a general idea of what you want her to be like: shy and quiet, loves to cuddle. That's cool. Why is she like that? Well, she was always shy, and never really broke out of that. She grew up in an orphanage, where she was picked on, so she stays withdrawn most of the time. She and Bob (and Bob's sister) grew up in the same orphanage. After Bob's sister died, he saw her being picked on, and stood up for her. And then... here they are.

When you build a backstory for your characters, you need to take care of two particular issues: first, backstory among characters should be consistent with the world you are creating, regardless of the fact that the characters may or may not have met each other before. Second, your characters' backstory should fit their lifetime, otherwise the backstory may seem to keep going and going or it's incredible how many things has your character done in a few years. Both of these tend to break your readers' Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

Personality[edit | hide]

Personality is defined as the sum total of the physical, mental, emotional, and social characteristics of an individual, and the organized pattern of behavioral characteristics of the individual. Personality governs how the character responds to experiences, situations and other people.

The personality is the single most important aspect of your character, you may disregard or have a bad quality on the other traits like appearance and backstory. If your character doesn't have an interesting personality, he or she won´t be interesting at all even if the other traits are great.

See Develop Character Personality for more.

Physical appearance/clothes[edit | hide]

Clothes and appearance can tell quite a bit about a character. A vagrant or a street scum is going to look different from a smooth executive; high school students' clothes will give a different impression than those of a soldier and are impossible to mistake for those of the president of The United States.

Clothes can convey status, concern for hygiene, how characters want to appear to others and even reflect their personality. These appearances can be used to reveal a character or mislead your audience.

However, whilst appearance and apparel may add to a character, they shouldn't define the character (unless they really are that vain), and it definitely shouldn't take a whole paragraph to describe. A dress is different to jeans; a short red dress is different to a long black dress. You don't need a paragraph describing the creamy pearls encrusting the hemline in a lustrous paisley pattern, the elegant soot black lace encircling cuff and neckline, the smooth and shiny raven's wing black satin with a marl-effect finish, the daring and revealing slit to the thigh, the elegant midnight black bow adorning the butt. That sort of thing just tends to frustrate readers, unless they're actually looking for Costume Porn. Be sure to add tentacles where necessary.

Flaws/skills[edit | hide]

With few exceptions, characters need flaws. When a character has flaws, not only does their personality become more real, but it also makes them more human.

Characters that have the same flaws as the audience are considerably easier to identify with than their less flawed counterparts. For instance, a character that feels envy, anger or negative traits will simply feel more realistic, as if they were people you could meet in real life.

It's important to take care of giving true flaws to your characters. Giving fake flaws like So Beautiful It's a Curse will make your characters less believable to the audience and inhuman. This often results in bad characterization like Mary Sues, and Creator's Pets, things you generally want to avoid.

This Character is you[edit | hide]

Fictional characters tend to reflect ourselves either as who we are/wish we were or who we wouldn't like to be.

As such characters that have the same traits, problems, or desires as the audience are more easily liked as the audience gets to identify with them and therefore they create a bond with them.

People like to imagine themselves as being the characters (though they are not always aware of it) they like and experience the adventures they have. As such, a character that has an exciting life will make your characters close to your audience.

When the audience develops deep bonds with the fictional characters they like, that fictional character becomes a synonym of his/her/it's fan base's self.

Hidden Depths[edit | hide]

Having a character that has no secrets to the audience is not a bad thing, as most authors prefer to flesh out all the traits of their characters from the start.

However, if handled correctly, giving a character Hidden Depths may make him more interesting and complete. Give your audience the chance to get to know your characters as the story marches on. Revealing the traits of a character of which the audience is not aware may change the perception the audience has of him or her.

Character Development[edit | hide]

You've built your characters, and given them a nice, balanced set of virtues and flaws. What now? Well hopefully, throughout your story character development will happen. In essence, character development is the road your characters will take through time to become what you want them to be. When done well, character development allows your characters to learn from their mistakes, the people around them, and the events of the plot, and through that learning, grow. It allows your characters to change. It also adds another layer of depth to your characters, and even flat stereotypes can become something different if developed well.

The first thing to remember is that character development needs to be shown happening. Ineffectual Loner types might, slowly learn that friends aren't necessarily a bad thing to have; they shouldn't stay ineffectual loners, true, but neither should they suddenly join the group and start making The Power of Friendship speeches. A little foreshadowing goes a long way.

The other thing to remember is that past experiences and personality will affect development as well; an introvert with a backstory in which they just haven't been brave enough to make friends will approach things differently to an extrovert who knows the technical ways to make friends, but has No Social Skills. Someone who has suffered torment or abuse in the past will approach things a lot more tentatively than someone who didn't.

However, character development is not supposed be a road to perfection. Characters should be human; humans are not perfect. Removal of every single flaw is not recommended.

Variety Among Characters[edit | hide]

The first step to building characters is interaction. If a group of people is traveling together, they need some similarity, for the most part. At the same time, you need some variety in how they act and think. You don't want your Five-Man Band to be five generic nerds who grew up in similar circumstances and act the same way. That's boring. You can still have five nerds if you want, but have them be nerdy about different things, and then match those things to their worldview. Some things to consider:

  • The character's hobbies, as well as the qualities that endear the character to the hobby.
  • The Character's goals.
  • The Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Just how idealistic is your character's worldview? All of your characters should be at some point in this spectrum. A Cynic in a group of Idealists may be funny; an Idealist in a Cynical group, decidedly less so.

Pitfalls[edit | hide]

  • Consistency: Avoid making Out of character moments or Character Derailment.
  • Mary Sue: Your character cannot be right/ be the most powerful/do the right thing all the time. You don't want a Boring Invincible Hero in there.
  • Rape as Backstory: If your character suffers from Rape as Backstory, don't treat it lightly. Being violated in such a way tends to have mental and social effects on someone. How they treat it should be an integral part of their character.
    • By the same token, don't Wangst about it. Try to find a realistic balance.
  • People commit two mistakes when adding a Dark and Troubled Past and a Freudian Excuse. One is that they treat it as if it's not there; the second is that they blow it out of importance when it is brought up. Acknowledge that a character that has gone through a life-changing event will be different from those around him. On the other hand, do not let it take the character over and have a strong effect decades after it had happened unless you plan to show the character as a severely traumatized individual.
  • This Loser Is You: A character that's all flaws can sometimes be as annoying or even more so than one with none that's the importance of balance.
  • Designated Hero: There are two metrics of likeability that a character can be rated on. One is the question of whether other characters in the same work like them. This is important because the sum total of characters, as a whole, are the Author Avatar; if the character is liked or respected by (most of) the other characters, then we know that The Author wants The Reader to like that character too. The other metric, however, is whether The Reader does like that character. In general, the answers to these two questions should always be the same; readers should like the characters you want them to, and dislike the characters you want them to. If the answers are different, then something is very wrong with your ability as a writer. You need to spend some time questioning what virtues your characters are supposed to feature, what flaws your audience is finding in them, and how you got from one to the other.

The most basic tenet of Audience Reactions is this: The audience is always right. It doesn't matter what you were trying to do, it matters what you did. And, for good or ill, if the audience doesn't like what you did, they don't have to give you money anymore. And money is probably something you need if you want to continue making interesting characters. When in doubt, assume the audience knows their head from their ass, and adjust accordingly. This does not mean you have to completely change how you write characters, or which virtues and flaws you want to assign them; it means you have to step back, deconstruct those flaws and virtues, and ask yourself what makes a character sympathetic (or not), and why.