Tuesday, October 2

3 Ways To Create Incredible Characters

5 Ways To Create Incredible Characters

I love Joanna Penn's blog over at The Creative Penn. After writing one post today about the business of writing (Amazon's KDP Select: The Best Long-Term Strategy?) I was happy to read something about the craft of writing. As I read, ideas popped into my head, points I needed to keep in mind as I begin a rewrite of my latest story. So, for better or worse, here are 3 ways to create incredible characters:

1. Create a detailed backstory for each of your main characters
Readers want to know that you know the details, the minutia, of the fictional world you've created. You don't have to tell readers the entire backstory--in fact it's best if you only reveal the minimum needed to carry the story along--but you need to know it.

Why? Well, for starters, it will keep you from contradicting yourself (hair blond in one scene, black in another, a name spelt differently in different places, and so on), and it will give you a deeper understanding of your characters.

Nowadays when I begin a story I create a file for character names and descriptions and another for general world history. Character biography sheets are great aids (here's another, and another). There are also character tests and quizzes you can use. Your characters backstories don't need to be extensive, you just need to give them enough verisimilitude to bring them to life on the page.

2. Be mean to your characters in order to create change
In Changes, Harry Dresden finds out--surprise!--he has a daughter and that she is in mortal danger. Harry turns his life inside out to save her life. He does things he swore he never would, things that would, if he did them to achieve another goal, mark him as a bad guy. Jim Butcher takes Harry through a character arc so extreme that, if it were written by someone less skilled, he could have made the character unbelievable. Broken him. As it is, Jim Butcher succeeded in rejuvenating the series and taking it, at least for a time, in a different direction.

How did Jim Butcher do this? He gave Harry something that meant a great deal to him (a child) and then took it away (the child was to be ritually sacrificed). Find out what your characters want, what they would die for, and take it away from them--or give it to them and arrange for them to lose it.

I know it's hard to create wonderful characters that are real to you and then make horrible things happen to them, but you have to. The struggle against odds, against the bad guy, against injustice, and so on, that's what makes us root for a character, it's what makes us want to see what happens in the end.

3. Show who your characters are through action
You've heard this before: Show, don't tell. I believe sometimes telling is just fine, especially if you want to move from point A to B quickly. That said, just as in real life, what your character does shows a reader what kind of a character they are. What would we think of Harry Dresden if he discovered he had a daughter in mortal danger and he shrugged his shoulders, told us how devastated he was, and then went to drink (warm) beer at McAnally's? On the other hand, what would we think of Harry if he did everything conceivable, no matter how ethically dubious, to save his child from being killed?

How characters react to the challenges you present them with, how they reach their goals, that tells a great deal about a character. But you all know this. If a person tells you one thing and does another, which are you going to believe?

4. Learn from what you like
I've used Harry Dresden as an example of a well-written character. Harry lives. (He even has a Twitter account!) Perhaps you love the Dresden Files as much as I do and perhaps you don't. It doesn't matter. Choose your favorite book, or books, put on your editor's hat, and study how the author made you care about her characters. Perhaps you love them, perhaps you hate them, study how they shaped their characters to be what they wanted.

Well, that's it! There is a lot more to say about character development, but I need to go and practise what I preach. :) Good writing everyone!

Other links you might like:
- Writing Resources
- 7 Common Self-Publishing Fears And How To Banish Them
- Amazon's KDP Select: The Best Long-Term Strategy?

Photo credit: dorena-wm


  1. I like your list. I agree with making a detailed backstory for your characters. I just let it out a little at a time to help create suspense.


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