Creating Great Characters

© 2007 Daniel Arenson

Great fiction depends on great characters.

That epic fantasy you’re writing might have the world’s most brilliant plot, setting, and writing... but if your characters are dull, your story won’t soar. The reason is simple. Readers need to care about the story. They want to invest their emotions in your work.

Readers will care about a story if they care about the characters.

You might think your story is the most exciting story ever told. “My epic fantasy has chases, battles, wars, torture, and action that never stops,” you say. Shouldn’t that be enough to keep readers turning the pages?

Well then. Why did we care about the battles in Lord of the Rings? (I know you’re surprised I chose such an obscure book as an example, but bear with me.) Sure, all the orcs, knights, swords, and monsters were exciting, but we only truly cared about the battles because they were about the characters. We wouldn’t care if a million orcs and knights battled it out, unless we cared about those little hobbits caught in the middle.

Why was Dragonlance so popular when I was a kid? Those novels were full of action, battles, dragons, and armies, but all the action centered around the characters, their stake in the outcome, and their emotions during the wars. Sure, the dragons were exciting, but the main reason we kept reading was because we loved (and hated) Raistlin.

Even if you’re writing grand scenes of epic battle, they should focus on the characters involved in the conflict. Make those characters so real and important to the readers, that they’ll keep turning the pages to see what happens to them.

So how do we create these characters that readers will love?

Great characters are larger than life

Great characters are exaggerated. They do things we never would in the real world. They are over the top. By exaggerating their traits, you’ll let them leap from the pages and become real.

Is your character tall? Don’t just make him stand 6’1”. Turn him into a 7 footer. Wow, now that is interesting. How did he deal with life, being a giant? When did he begin growing so tall? We all loved Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride, after all.

Does you other character suffer from anger? Don’t just have him scowl all the time. Let him trash his room in rage. Consider the character of Esteban in The House of The Spirits, whose temper became legendary.

Consider the TV show Lost. Audiences love Sawyer because he’s not just a scoundrel… his behavior is so scandalous, he draws our interest every episode. Hurley became popular because, with his size, unlikely hair, and distinctive way of speaking, he was unlike anybody we’ve seen. On Lost, characters stood out. The characters who did not were written out of the show.

You know what? This isn’t true of fiction alone. Think of characters in the real world. Richard Simmons, Michael Jackson, Howard Stern... celebrities know that to stand out, to grab our attention, they must be outrageous. We might dislike them, but we notice them. They know what we writers should know when creating characters.

Let characters in your stories get noticed. Make them larger than life.

Great characters are complex

Don’t think, based on the above, that characters can be one-note beings. It’s not enough to have “the giant”, “the scoundrel”, or “the funny one”. Your characters need to have the complexities of a real person. That means a history, motives, dreams, fears, loves, interests, and desires.

When creating characters, I like to brainstorm with a big piece of paper (or text document). I often start with a physical description.

Eyes. What color are they, what shape? What emotion lives within these eyes, and what do they say about the soul that hides behind them? Eyes are the windows to the soul. What do your character’s eyes say about her?

What color is your character’s hair? What style is it, and why does your character wear his hair this way? Is it long, matted, and dirty from tribulation? Is it always neat, and never goes for three weeks without a haircut? If the hair is shaggy, why is it shaggy? If it’s meticulous, why?

How tall is the character? How much does he or she weigh? Does this person carry any scars, tattoos, piercings? What is the story behind them? How does your character dress?

How has your character’s physical appearance affected his personality, and vice versa? How does it affect the way others treat her?

Lots of questions. But they’re worth answering. If nothing else, answering these questions will let you brainstorm about your character. Maybe you’ll learn new things about him.

When I create characters, I like to carry an image of them in my mind. I might not include all this information in the story, but it helps me know the character. And when I know the characters, I know how to write them.

Let’s ask some more questions.

Think about how your character expresses himself. Is his voice loud and confident, or shy and quiet? Does he have any catch phrases? What is his body language like?

Do your characters have any physical habits? One of my own characters bites her lip when nervous. She also shrugs only one shoulder. Does your character bite his nails, tap his finger, or scratch his chin often?

Describe your characters’ background. Where do they come from and what have they done in life? How does this affect the way they’ll act in the future? What are their goals?

What do they like and dislike? When I create characters, I write about how they think, what they want, what they fear. Does the character have any quirks? What is the character’s favourite food? Favourite music?

Write about how they think about the other characters in the story. If they love another character--why? If they hate another character--why? How will this affect the relationships between them? How will they reveal their feelings? Will they act upon or hide them?

By now, we’ve collected an impressive list of questions about our character. Maybe you’ll have questions of your own. By answering them, we’ll slowly come to understand this person we’re creating.

Heroes and villains

Let’s face it, perfect heroes are boring. If a character is always altruistic, righteous, and infallible, we lose interest (or worse, get annoyed with him). We might admire the character, but he’ll make us yawn. Enter the flawed hero, and he’ll steal our interest right away.

Flawed heroes, even outright anti-heroes, are more interesting. On the TV show House, we might hate the main character, but if he were always perfectly moral and polite, we wouldn’t watch the show. Why would we? He wouldn’t be interesting.

I try to give my own heroes flaws. Sometimes their flaws get them in trouble. Sometimes their flaws make them less admirable. But it always makes them more human and more interesting. Even a minor flaw—a penchant for gambling, a tendency to interrupt others, horrible taste in music—helps.

Think about the real world. Almost all people, even the best ones, are flawed.

While you’re creating flawed heroes, you needn't make your villains evil incarnate. In the real world, the worst people still have people they love, and people who love them. They still have a tender side they reveal to their closest companions. Your villain doesn’t have to be a cackling maniac who kicks puppies every day after tea. He might be an evil overlord, but he can still love his shih-tzu.

And guess what: Your villain probably doesn’t even know he’s the villain. He thinks he’s the good guy.

Yeah, I know that Sauron was an evil overlord with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, but that was then, and this is now. Evil overlords have been done to death since Tolkien. Even Darth Vader turned out to have a good side. When I create villains, I don’t want them to be completely heartless. I try to humanize them by revealing their fears, haunting past, and even their tender side.

Let your characters direct the plot

We now come to what is, perhaps, the most important point.
Once you really know the characters, let them write the story. Place the characters into the setting of the story, and let them direct the flow. Remember this: Great characters drive the plot. Not the other way around.

Creating a great plot, then forcing your characters into it, is the wrong approach. The characters should be the true driving force behind the story. Base the plot on their motives, their emotions, their desires and hatreds and loves. The plot happens because the heroes and villains direct it. It is a poor plot which exists for its own sake, with the characters simply tagging along.

When writing, it’s good to know the general storyline. But let your characters direct the flow.

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