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.
The Central TrifectaYouTube channel Weight of Cinema came up with as good a foundation of character as any:
Personality is the sum total of the character's traits. How do they act, think and feel? You need to be able to answer this question for several reasons:
- Most stories are about characters acting, thinking and feeling things. Without this, you don't have much to write about.
- Most people don't think, act and feel the same way. For instance, many stories start with the Call to Adventure, with characters getting the opportunity to go do things that are, well, worth writing a story about. Now, a young woman who is bored or unsatisfied with life may Jump At The Call; conversely, her father, who has responsibilities to his family that he cannot meet by gallivanting off into the sunset, may display Refusal of the Call. And that's just one stimulus of the literally thousands that you could put in a story.
- People who do not act, think or feel things are boring. You would not choose to spend time with them in Real Life, and your consumers — who are often much pickier about the media they consume than the humans they spend time with — will not choose to consume your media.
Motivation is sometimes known as Back Story. Most human beings have a goal, something they want to achieve — spanning from the mundanity of eating their Trademark Favorite Food to wanting to Marry for Love to caring about Saving the World. What is that character's goal? You need to be able to answer this question for two reasons.
- Differing motivations can create conflict, one of the most important elements of a story. Two characters may be on the same side, but if one of them is genuinely invested in a higher goal while the other is Only in It for the Money, you can create situations in which the two characters — despite being on the same side — argue about what to do and how to do it.
- Motivations can cause characters to become sympathetic. A character may be an antagonist, opposing the main characters and trying to stop them from shooting bad guys; but if we learn that this character has a Dark and Troubled Past in which his wife was lost to a stray bullet during an outbreak of gun violence, it becomes difficult to resent him for his attitudes. He may oppose the heroes, but he does so on reasonable and relatable grounds.
- This point bears repeating, because it is the heart of how to create interesting villains. Characters who do things For the Evulz are neither interesting nor compelling; but characters who do bad things for intelligent and sympathetic reasons are both. And the Truth in Television is that very rarely does anyone — fictional or otherwise — do something because they are a Complete Monster; they are much more likely to be a Well-Intentioned Extremist.
Development is the question of how the character's Personality and Motivation are affected by the story's plot. As a general rule, characters are expected to change over the course of a story. They should either learn to overcome their personality flaws or discover that their motivation is dysfunctional. Are they going to? You need to be able to answer this question for a couple of reasons:
- A character's development is strongly linked to the story's tone. While most stories involve a character overcoming their flaws, some genres actually require a Static Character, such as episodic comedy and tragedy.
- A character's development is strongly linked to the audience's perception of the character. In general, people who strive to overcome their flaws are perceived to be good people, sympathetic characters worthy of the audience's love and devotion. Therefore, having a character refuse to re-assess their priorities (or, in the case of a Static Character who provides ethical inspiration, a character who refuses to show that they have already attempted to re-assess them and decided that they were already on the right track) is a very effective short-hand for making them villainous.
Inspiration and OriginalityArt 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 authors' works), and remain original.
However basing your characters on people you know has drawbacks: sometimes people don't like seeing themselves in fiction. Also in the case of an ongoing series, a change in relationship with the author might lead to abrupt changes in the story; there are some particularly nasty examples.
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.
ConceptBefore 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.
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.
BackstoryThis 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.
PersonalityPersonality 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
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.
We have a trope here called "Informed Attractiveness" for when The Author tries to make The Reader believe a character is attractive, and fails. Sometimes it's because the character acts in a non-attractive or offputting manner. However, at other times it's because The Author got too specific and tried to cram his/her personal ideals of beauty down The Reader's throat. "This character needs to be attractive, but I don't know what The Reader thinks is attractive. I'd better give as much detail as possible in the hopes of convincing them!" Yeah, you can see the Insane Troll Logic from here. It also takes away from one of the best parts of reading—the involvement of the imagination. So simply be as brief as you can in describing the character's appearance. Give only the salient details and let The Reader's imagination do the rest. It will automatically supply whatever traits The Reader does like, neatly avoiding the original problem. You don't know what The Reader thinks is attractive. So don't try. Let The Reader tell you.
Flaws, Traits and Bonding
Most personalities involve traits—sloppy vs neat; shy vs outgoing; even-keeled vs. easy to upset; open-minded vs traditionalist; The Spock vs. The McCoy, etc. Some of those traits are typically described as "virtues" (heroism; selflessness; morality; loyalty) while others are described as "flaws" (selfishness; cowardice; lack of success with girls; insecurities). Typically, a character ought to have some of both. Very rarely should a character have only one.
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. However, if a character is solely flawed, this can leave a feeling of sourness in The Reader's mouth. "Why am I bothering with this story? I came here for Escapism, not to see my own problems reflected back at me. I want a character who is admirable." That's where the virtues come in. However, a character that is all "virtues" also is inaccessible because while he's admirable, The Reader does not and furthermore cannot empathize with him. He is like the moon: awesome, but irrelevant to The Reader's life.
This is why the third word in our heading is bonding. Virtues and flaws affect The Reader differently. Simply put, a Virtue is something that makes The Reader say, "I wish I were this guy," whereas a Flaw is something that makes The Reader say, "I am this guy."
So before we need to go any further, we need to re-define our terms. In fact, we're going to drop "Virtue" and "Flaw" entirely. Instead, we're going to describe characters in terms of Admiration Traits, something The Reader wishes they had, and Access Traits, which The Reader does have and is grounds for empathy with the character.
In your story, you will typically want at least one character who is Admirable ("I wish I were this guy") and at least one character who is Accessible ("I am this guy"). They are not required to be separate; Harry Potter, for instance, has both Access and Admiration traits, which is why he works as not only the hero of his eponymous franchise, but its primary narrator. In fact, as previously mentioned, it is best for every character to have both traits. If you've studied any fiction that's come out of Hollywood any time recently, however, you'll know that they've missed this memo—Michael Bay in particular has been unable to figure out Access traits for over a decade—so let's start with the basics of having at least one character who is audience-accessible.
Of course, Access Traits and Admiration Traits are not static, unalterable categories: they are subjective. And this is where it gets complicated. In The Whole Plate, a video series on Film Studies with the Transformers Film Series as their subject, Lindsay Ellis draws a comparison between Transformers protagonist Sam Witwicky and Guardians of the Galaxy protagonist Peter "Star-Lord" Quill. Both have similar traits: they're Adorkable, Manchild Handsome Leches. However, the way those traits are played are very different: for Peter, they form the basis of a Character Arc and are things he needs to get over before Gamora will fall in love with him. They are his Access Traits. For Sam, they are his Admiration Traits: he gets the girl even though he never stops his Entitled to Have You attitude, and thus the traits default to being virtuous simply because they are never actually addressed. We could go on about the Unfortunate Implications of this characterization (and Ellis does; see here if you want her to counter-criticize Guardians), but the point we are trying to make is not that one work is objectively, or even subjectively, better than the other. The point we are trying to make is that the same character trait can be an Admiration Trait or an Access Trait Depending on the Writer, and how they choose to tell their story, and what they want their character(s) to be like.
And this is why it's important you put a variety of traits on your characters: because one Reader's virtue is another's flaw. Every Reader will bond with every character in a different way, for different reasons, so providing as many reasons as possible—both Admiration points and Access points—makes those characters more likely to win an audience.
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.
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.
We'd also like to hearken back to the previous topic of "Hidden Depths." "Character Development" as a process is typically understood to involve the character themselves moving forward along their evolutionary path... but this is an overly narrow definition. Static Characters can be stars too; in fact, there is an entire genre of fiction, the Tragedy, that absolutely relies on the character being Static, on being unwilling or unable to acknowledge their Fatal Flaw until it has already tied the noose round their necks. Note also the brilliant evolution of characters in Lost, which depended so strongly on Flash Back. The characters may be Static today, but they weren't yesterday, and we explore not where they are going tomorrow but where they were yesterday.
"Character Development" is not actually about the character, it's about The Reader's understanding of the character. If that understanding changes, there has been character development. So evolving the character's current personality is no more valid, nor less valid, than exploring their Dark and Troubled Past and giving rationale for why they are the person they are right now.
Finally, character development is not supposed be a road to perfection. Characters should be human, and humans are not perfect. Removal of every single flaw is not recommended.
Insecurity and Irrationality
Nobody likes to talk about these, which is a shame, because there's so much rich and interesting character work to be done in them.
Insecurity is, to put it in trope language, a personalized Berserk Button. It's something that a character is particularly scared of and loses all sense of perspective when confronted with. In Real Life, we don't like discussing them because they comprise not just flaws but weaknesses; if you have a Berserk Button, it is logical to hide it from the world. But it's something you should absolutely dig into when writing, because it touches on so many useful things.
Let's take My Beloved Smother. Our Laconic wiki describes it as, "A controlling, clingy and overly-protective mother." This character can be used as a stock villain in any domestic drama — in other words, a source of conflict, the thing every story secretly runs on. A Coming-of-Age Story can easily use a Beloved Smother: the younger character wants to strike out and prove themselves, but Mummy Dearest won't let them. Drama! Easy!
But then we need to start asking questions. To get their Happily Ever After, the main character typically needs to defeat the villain in some way. There are genres in which this is both literal and lethal; an Action story where the villain is still alive at the end is unsatisfying, and one where he gets away scot-free even more so. But in a domestic drama and bildungsromun, there probably won't be direct physical conflict, so the main character has to defeat the Beloved Smother in non-violent ways. What might they be? Will the lead change their mother's mind? Or merely escape their clutches?
This is where the insecurity comes in. What drives a Beloved Smother? We've already answered: her child's independence is her Berserk Button. She doesn't want the child to grow up and be their own person. But why?
As a writer, you have two basic options.
- The first is to not bother answering this question. The Beloved Smother's motivations are not important, and she exists merely to be defeated. In this case, your lead escapes the family home and calls it a victory, because there can't be any other; the lead cannot change Beloved Smother's mind because, simply put, she has no mind to change. She is not a character, she is a one-dimensional stock villain driven not by any internal consistency but rather by the needs of your plot.
- The second is to answer the question. This requires you to furnish your Beloved Smother with Personality, Motivation and Development, all the stuff mentioned above. Why is she so scared of her child growing up and becoming an independent adult? — especially because, as a mother, it is her duty to transform her child into a grown-up, independent adult? Well, that's up to you... But because she has a mind, your main character can now change it. They can help the Beloved Smother Face Her Fears.
And this is valuable because it leads to the other thing in the heading: Irrationality. It is very easy to look at a person who is behaving irrationally and just decide, "You're Insane!!" But the truth — both in fiction and in Real Life — is that very, very few people are insane. Many are irrational, but there's a difference between that and insanity. A person who is insane is acting on no discernable Motivation. A person who is irrational is simply... acting out their Berserk Button. They're doing something silly and senseless because they're scared shitless and believe that silly, senseless action will protect them somehow. They're reacting — they're overreacting — to their driving Motivation. And, because there is a motivation, their actions can be addressed. They can experience Character Development in which they overcome their fears and learn to react to them instead of overreacting.
And if all of this sounds like a neat character arc that you could use to enrich the characters around you, well, now you know why we brought it up.
Variety Among Characters
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 vs. 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.
RepresentationThe idea of "representation" is politically charged in the Year of Our Lord 2020, but what is it, actually? Well, it's simply the idea that, if there are gay people in real life, there ought to be gay people in fiction too. If there are black people in real life, there ought to be black people in fiction too. If there are women in real life, there ought to be women in fiction too. If there are black women in real life... See where we're going? "Representation" is simply the idea that there should be more than just white males in our stories.
There are a number of bad ways to do this: Stop Being Stereotypical, the Magical Negro trope, All Asians Know Martial Arts, Latin Lover, Black Best Friend or Gay Best Friend, blablablah. So let's talk, briefly, about ways to do it a bit more gracefully:
- Be a member of a non-white, non-male community. This is obviously difficult to control after the fact, but it can help create a sense of authenticity. This works best if you're writing a fairly normal story: Crazy Rich Asians, for instance, is a 100% standard Rom Com and could have easily had an all-white cast without anyone noticing. (It has exactly one story beat that is reliant on a pre-existing understanding of Asian culture — specifically, the rules of mahjong.) Having said that, it also had a 100% Asian cast and basically nobody noticed either. And that's kind of the point. If it doesn't actually hurt your story to have minorities in in, why not have them?
- Just have non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual characters standing around and doing things. This works better in a setting where characters are defined by qualities other than gender, ethnicity and sexuality. Deadpool 2, for instance, gets away with having an interracial lesbian relationship in it because, frankly, the fact that they're lesbians and one of them is Japanese is not important to the story — the fact that they're mutants, and willing to join Deadpool's X-Force, is what's important. And so they're just... there. They could have easily been heterosexual white mutants without anyone noticing; having said that, they existed and basically nobody noticed either. And that's kind of the point. If it doesn't actually hurt your story to have minorities in in, why not have them?
The counter-argument is, of course: "Well, nobody noticed... but that means nobody noticed. So if it doesn't hurt to not have them, then why should I go through the extra effort?" And, simply put, that's a fair point. But it does raise the question of why you think it's extra effort to write about someone who is not you. That's a skill you have to get good at if you're going to be any sort of successful writer. Are you sure this is your cup of tea?
And there's also the further fallout. People like seeing themselves in their stories. It's true that you might not be an Asian fighter pilot, but it's also true that there are not very many of those in popular conscience. You have a chance to be a hero to a lot of people by giving them a character they can see themselves in, to a much greater extent than they see themselves in, say, Pete "Maverick" Mitchell. It's low-hanging fruit, is all we're saying.
And finally, it raises a simple question about how we approach fiction. If you treat every woman, every non-white person, every non-straight person, every transgender person, every non-Christian person, as a Token Minority, then there's an implicit All of the Other Reindeer bias on display. What you're saying, whether you mean to or not, is that being female / a person of color / homosexual / transgender / non-Christian is abnormal. And, as such, you aren't the kind of person who appreciates representation, because the whole point of representation is to tell those people that they are normal. If you do not want to spread that message, that is your choice; but you may come off as a Jerkass — a look that has proven detrimental to a large number of people.
- 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.
- Canon Sue - Author Avatar: While it's not bad to give your characters exciting lives, if they are simple Author Avatars, have no real defects and struggles, and are used as a medium just to fulfill your desires, your character won't be believable as imperfections make characters human and therefore "more realistic" and deep.
- 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 likability 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.