I like writing characters. I personally think I’ve gotten pretty good at it by this point. There’s just something fascinating to me about diving into what makes someone what they are. Unfortunately, because I’ve seen some amateur fiction (including my own early works), I’ve seen a lot of really bad characters. So here are a ten tips that have helped me write characters in the past and general reflections about what does and doesn’t make a good character:
1. Spy and eavesdrop constantly. Chat with strangers.
The best way to make your characters realistic is to base them off of reality. As voyeuristic as it sounds, constantly observing your surroundings is a great way to get a feel for what people are like. Listen to how they talk. What they tell each other when they don’t think anyone is paying attention to their conversations and what they tell people when they’re in the company of more people. If you live in a place where it’s acceptable (e.g., rural America vs. New York City or the entirety of Japan), strike up conversation with strangers, especially people who come from a different area than you. You don’t even have to learn their names. Just get a different perspective. It’s these little bits of life that give you a bigger perspective of people.
2. Virtues lie between two vices.
Every character needs flaws to be interesting. You know that (and if you don’t, you may need some remedial lessons in writing characters). It’s easy to give a character negative traits. But keep in mind that this goes the other way as well. Aristotle believed that a virtue is a point between a deficiency and excess of a trait. In other words, lacking something good is bad (duh), but too much of a good thing can also be a bad thing. What’s more, due to its nature, such a trait can be portrayed as both good and bad at the same time, adding layers of depth to your character and your story.
Here’s an example from a pacifist playing devil’s advocate. Are you familiar with Trigun at all? It’s an anime/manga about an expert gunslinger called Vash the Stampede, who could probably take down the toughest adversaries in one well-placed shot if he wanted. The only issue is that he’s an extreme pacifist and does everything he can to cause as little harm to people as possible. His pacifism is portrayed not as cowardice, but as strength. It would be so much easier to kill his enemies, especially as they’re trying to kill him, but he refuses because of his commitment. However, that same strict pacifism also leaves his body covered in scars, and occasionally puts more people in danger because he’ll try to save everyone instead of simply killing one to save the rest.
Another example, and one maybe more people know, is Superman. Superman is noble, just, pure, and nigh indestructible. In fact, one of his character flaws is that he’s TOO strong. He always has to restrain himself because humans are as frail as bugs to him. Listen to his “World of Cardboard” speech in Justice League Unlimited. Superman’s greatest strengths are also his greatest burdens: he has the power to do anything, but he has to take care to keep that power in check so he doesn’t hurt anyone. He’s a savior of the people, but even he can’t be in two places at the same time and has to pick and choose who to save.
It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as that. Just keep in mind that there are always two extremes. Someone can be a nihilist, or they can be a zealot. They can be rebels, or adhere to rules so closely that it gets in the way of what’s “right.” They can refuse help from anyone, or be totally dependent. Flaws don’t always have to be so clean-cut.
3. Flaws should always have impact.
I’ve heard arguments that Bella Swan from the Twilight Saga is a terrible character because her only real “flaw” is that she’s a bit clumsy at times. Now, this isn’t the place to discuss the merits and flaws of the Twilight Saga (of which there are many of both), but I bring it up because of how Bella’s flaws are presented. Bella can be stubborn to the point of stupidity and trusting to the point of dependency, but we’re shown time and time again that this stubborn attitude of Bella is “right.” She’s clumsy, but it doesn’t affect her much and can arguably be an endearing quirk. The issue isn’t that Bella isn’t flawed. It’s that her flaws don’t matter.
There are a lot of things some writers view as “easy flaws.” Some flaw or vice to give imperfections to an otherwise perfect character. These flaws, however, are not to be derided, since they can work fine. Any flaw is a legitimate flaw, so long as it’s written well. Let’s pick on clumsiness again, since I’ve seen it a few places. People in real life are clumsy. Clumsy people can function in real life as well. But clumsiness does have repercussions. Make those repercussions important to the story. A girl who sometimes trips over her own two feet doesn’t have a flaw. She has a cute and endearing quirk. But that quirk is less cute and endearing when she loses her job waiting tables because she drops a tray of glasses, or when she fumbles the gun as the undead are slowly approaching. Going back to the previous point: Vash’s flaw is that he’s too kindhearted. Superman’s flaw is that he’s too powerful. Someone reading those sentences might scoff at them and say that those are cop-out flaws more fitting of a Mary Sue. However, those traits become legitimate flaws when written correctly.
4. Write characters who don’t share your beliefs, but aren’t strawmen.
One common bit of writing advice is to “write what you know.” This is often interpreted as “write so that whoever reads your work knows who you are as a person.” If you’re writing like that, you’re really restricting yourself. A better phrasing would be “If you don’t know anything about a subject, don’t make a fool of yourself by acting like you do.”
If your characters only believe what you believe, you’re preaching to your audience, whether you mean to or not. If you mean to, go right ahead. The Chronicles of Narnia is a series of Christian allegories, and they’re classics. But unless your story is set in a place where Christianity is the norm, making every character a Christian (save for the atheistic antagonist) just because you’re Christian probably isn’t a good idea. In real life, people are diverse and have mix-and-match views on politics, religion, sexuality, conspiracy theories, and whether or not LOST was an amazing show or overrated and convoluted crap.
Write what you know, but don’t stop there. Expand your knowledge and take a risk. Are you an atheist? Make a protagonist a Muslim! Have strong left-wing views? Maybe your main character’s love interest is a conservative! Don’t base characters’ beliefs on what you believe. Base characters’ beliefs on what they believe. And then? Do your best to make them sympathetic. Giving a character a belief just to have another character ridicule them for it is mean-spirited and sloppy writing. Writing a strawman will gain you no respect from anyone but those who hold the views you’re praising.
This tip, incidentally, will probably help you grow as a person, since it forces you to try to understand the point-of-view of others. Wouldn’t the world be a much nicer place if we could all entertain another’s point of view now and then?
5. What they look like isn’t as important as how they look.
We say that the first impression is always the most important, and that’s true of characters as well as real people. However, when we say that, we’re not talking about just their physical appearance. I’ve seen a lot of people struggle with trying to describe their characters, occasionally trying to detail something as inane as their cheekbones. It might just be me, but I cannot for the life of me remember the last time I looked at someone and noticed their cheekbones. Often times, a person can change much of their appearance just by affecting a different demeanor, just because our personalities and who exactly we are ends up being displayed in how we act. How we carry ourselves. How we move. Telling me the color of someone’s hair or eyes doesn’t tell me anything about them apart from what color their hair and eyes are.
Don’t tell me that he has blue eyes. Instead, tell me that his eyes are piercing, or tired, or shifty, or analytical, or that they have a glimmer of mischief in them. Don’t say she has black hair without telling me how she wears it. Long or short? In a braid or unbound? How deep is his voice, and what tone does he speak in? Does she have a rigid or relaxed posture? When he moves, does he stroll like a cat, or does he prowl like a wolf? Plod like a bull? Trudge like…like some animal that trudges? Does she stand with arms crossed or at her sides? Does he fidget, and if so, how? Yes, you need to paint a picture of what your character looks like. But you only need to make a sketch, not recreate the Mona Lisa. Readers will fill in details on their own. When you introduce a character, tell me who they are. You can always fill in the rest of the information later. Every fan of Harry Potter knows what Draco Malfoy looks like, but in his first appearance, all J.K. Rowling said was that he had a pale, pointed face and a bored, drawling voice. However, through those six words and the boy’s dialogue, she said more about who Draco Malfoy was than an objective physical description ever could.
6. Give them quirks.
It’s the quirks that really set people apart and make them interesting. When you get right down to it, nobody is truly “normal.” Everyone has something that makes them different from most everybody else. Maybe they drink vodka out of a sippy cup. Maybe they cross themselves before and/or after tense/important situations even though they’re not Catholic. Look to real people and be sure to note the little things that set them apart from others (if you have a significant other, these would be that list of things you love about them). Get creative, though not to the point that it gets gimmicky.
Also: quirks aren’t always a good thing. Give them quirks that make them irritating as well as endearing.
7. Fill out a character sheet for a tabletop RPG.
Okay, this one is incredibly nerdy, but bear with me. After all, generally one third of roleplaying games is becoming a character you create (the other two thirds are interacting with a fictional world and rolling dice, meaning that tabletop gaming is actually pretty great for developing your writing skills). Find a character sheet for some game. Dungeons and Dragons, maybe. Maybe for a game with a setting that fits your character’s world a bit better. It doesn’t matter. What this allows you to do is quantify your character’s personality. It’s not something you should swear by since stats are based around gameplay instead of narrative, but rather a way to look at their personality relatively. Figuring out how many points they have in strength, intelligence, dexterity, luck, and the like gives you a good indication of what your character is like.
Also, it’d maybe be a good idea to try to at least partially restrict yourself to the game’s rules on creating characters. Reminds you that your character can’t be the best at everything.
8. Details, details, details!
This one is, in my opinion, the big one, and is really the only important one since everything else is technically a part of it. To write your characters well, you have to know your characters. Everything from what their beliefs are and what motivates them to what their favorite food is and if they can play a musical instrument. Every little detail about someone tells you something about them.
This is perhaps simultaneously the easiest and most difficult part of writing characters. It has to be felt more than learned, but a lot of it is ultimately arbitrary and has to be thought up on the spot. While something as small as what brand of cigarettes your character smokes probably doesn’t matter to the story, knowing the answer helps both you and the reader understand the character just a little better. From what I’ve heard from smokers and people who sell cigarettes, there are stereotypes associated with different brands. If you’re asked the question, the correct answer could be “definitely this brand,” or “I don’t know, maybe this brand,” or “I’m not sure; what do you think?” The answer, however, is never “It doesn’t matter.”
You don’t have to know every little detail about your character. However, you do need to know the big details that the essence of your character is built on. That way, when the question of some small detail arises, you know them well enough to pick an answer easily.
9. Let them off their leash.
Knowing how to answer the question of details concerning your characters is different from knowing every detail about your characters. You cannot know every detail about your characters, and you probably should not know every detail about your characters. That way, there’s both room for interpretation and space for the characters to breathe and take over for you. One of the best (and worst) things that can happen to you is your characters taking on a mind of their own. Best because, when that happens, you know that you’ve successfully created a person and not just a puppet. Worst because they can sometimes screw up your entire plot. But hey, for a character who’s stable enough that they can write themselves, that’s a fairly small price to pay.
10. Become the character.
When professional actors are playing a character, they often start to become the character they’re playing. They act as them both on and off the set. And there’s some of that in writing, too. I’ve often thought that every character you write has a little bit of yourself in them. Now I think the reverse is equally true, if not more so: a little bit of every character you write becomes part of you.
I’m not advocating acting like your characters in your everyday life. In fact, doing so can be downright dangerous (bet you never thought writing could be dangerous!), as I’ve ended up going through a mental breakdown and insomnia along with my character, and I couldn’t for the life of me tell you which one of us was cause and which one was effect. What I am saying is that, as you write a character, your minds should be as one. You think their thoughts. You write with their voice. You feel their emotions.
This is probably the most dangerous advice on the list. Like I said, I’ve had a breakdown right alongside my character, and it’s fairly easy for the character to bleed into real life. But if you can master slipping in and out of characters and actually being who they are, you’ll be allowing them to speak directly.
Well, I could definitely come up with some more pretentious advice if I tried to. But for now, that’s a good, solid list of ten points. Good advice? Bad advice? Be sure to let me know! I hope this helps at least someone out!