Creating great characters is an art unto itself, separate
from storytelling. So, what are the basics? A great
character is someone the reader wants to spend time with.
Whether they're loved or hated, great characters intrigue
and draw us in. The best writers are able to walk that
line between universality and uniqueness, loading a
character with both. A reader needs to understand a
character and feel this is exactly what the character
would do given the situation and the character's past. The
reader is taken on a ride with this character, learning
more about them as they go.
That's pretty general. So, what are the specifics? Whether
you're a novice or an old pro, a quick primer on the
general rules can't hurt.
How do you find the perfect name? Most of the time it
either strikes you immediately or you change it fifty
times and finally give up. Here are a couple of
conventions to help out:
- Bad guys generally have hard names to pronounce or, at
least, contain hard sounds like the "g" sound.
- Heroes usually have common names like John or Jack.
The hero is supposed to be a more universal character
that everyone relates to. A more common name helps
- Many times the hero is referred to by his or her first
name, while other male characters are referred to by
their last name.
- Female characters are usually referred to by first
names. Unless, she is on the bad guy's team, then, we
refer to her by her last name.
- Don't make the characters' names too alike and avoid
starting different names with the same letter.
- Consider using nicknames for a character or two. Or,
perhaps, a character uses his middle name as his name,
or has made up a whole new name for himself. Mixing
these up a little will add realism to naming your
What your character has chosen for a
career can be one of the biggest ways to add insight into
the way your character thinks.
- Basic rule: Keep it short. Readers like to see a
character reveal herself through dialogue and action.
They also like to create the image in their heads. You
can definitely help them along with well-placed details,
but a laundry list of physical traits and clothing
choices is not recommended. In novels, adding a few
lines about history or attitude are helpful and can be a
lot of fun to write. But in screenplays, leave it out.
If you can't see or hear it, it doesn't belong.
- Associate objects with the character, like a ring, a
haircut, or some other item that clues us into his
- In your story, keep the description of your main
characters separate from your other descriptions. This
will set them apart from other characters and the
- What's important to her? How would this affect the
choice of career?
- Would money be an issue?
- Is he building a career or simply paying the bills?
- What's her ultimate dream and does this job lead
- Try to stay away from heavy dialects. Of course, there
are plenty of exceptions to this rule, but, generally,
they frustrate the reader.
- Make sure every character's dialogue is differentiated
from the other characters.
- Avoid having a character state the sub-text. Some
writers write a scene "on the nose" the first time, then
go back and hide what's really being said behind
dialogue or note it in the margins so they can keep
track of what's really being said. The best dialogue
says volumes without really saying what it's saying.
- Put opposites together as much as possible, a scene
with a shy person and an outgoing person can produce
some interesting dialogue.
- Keep it simple. Whether we like a character or not, we
have to understand what motivates her, and it has to be
universal enough to appeal to a lot of people. Being
motivated for revenge is easy and effective. Being
motivated to collect stamps is not so easy.
- The reader has to understand the motivation of every
- If your character was approached by a Fairy Godmother
at the very beginning of the story and told he has one
wish, what would he ask for?
- The two greatest motivators are: 1) stopping a
situation that creates or will create suffering, or 2)
starting a situation that alleviates suffering. Perhaps
it's represented by an object, like the world's largest
diamond... or love. But, the motivation is usually to
- Every character in a story needs a clear motivation,
even the guy delivering the flowers.
- Great characters have an inner goal and an outer goal.
Each links to the other, but can be conflicting.
The Character Arc
- Design situations that will bring out every emotion in
the hero. We want to see her laugh, cry, suffer, and
finally be happy. The best situation to bring out
character emotions is to threaten or destroy something
or someone she cares about.
- We need to know how each character feels about the
other characters. How this comes out is up to the
author, but it must be made clear if someone hates
someone else and why.
- A great technique is to use private moments, when the
character is alone, to reveal how she really feels about
someone or something.
- Everything that happens to a character affects his
inner emotions--how he feels about himself, or others
(like the bad guy), or the situation itself (upset at
- Determine your character's dominant emotion. Does she
represent happiness in the face of misery, or, maybe,
utter hatred. It's important to set a dominant emotion.
- Determine the direction of your character's arc. Is
the character getting more healthy or less healthy.
- Convention: A hero changes and that change helps him
attain the goal. Villains generally don't change and
because she doesn't change, she loses the goal.
- A great arc can be when a character learns to care
about someone or something other than themselves.
The Character Flaw
- Create a character bio. It doesn't have to be long,
but it's invaluable. Character Writer helps you develop
one and will keep countless details straight and
consistent throughout the writing process.
- Understand where your character is coming from,
physically as well as emotionally. A person is the sum
of her experiences. What has this character experienced
in the past that will affect how she acts in your story.
- Give every character a life away from the story, so
they're not just there for the story. Perhaps he has a
hobby or other interest, like writing.
The Character Theme
The story has a theme, so do great
- A simple way to determine a character flaw is to look
at the story and figure out a belief your character
holds that makes attaining the goal impossible. Perhaps,
he refuses to forgive someone, or is scared to death of
snakes. During the story, he learns to overcome that
- The character sees the flaw as a strength at first,
but eventually discovers why it's a weakness and that
it's in the way of achieving the goal.
- Determine a character's theme in one word -- smart,
funny, troubled, angry, determined -- and stick with it.