Techniques, examples and exercises that will help YOU write great characters
Characterisation and character development in writing aren’t easy, but they’re absolutely critical to writing a wonderful and memorable story.
In fact, as a rough guide, people turn the pages because of plot, but they remember a book because of character.
Don’t believe us?
Then answer this. Can you recall, in detail, the plots of:
To Kill a Mockingbird?
The Hound of the Baskervilles?
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?
We’re going to bet not. But do you remember Scout and Atticus? Holmes and Watson? And the badass Lisbeth Salander?
Of course you do. And that’s the aim of this post: helping you achieve the same level of vibrating life that these characters achieved. In effect, we’re going to tell you how to characterise a character. And it’s not magic. It’s just the logical application of tried-and-trusted writing techniques.
First, choose the right protagonist for your story
Before you start, it’s worth realising that there are two basic types of protagonist in fiction.
The first type is an ordinary character plunged into the extraordinary. And, by this process, they become a little more extraordinary themselves. Harry Potter seems ordinary, albeit he is a wizard. Jon Snow of A Song of Ice and Fire seems ordinary, yet there’s more in store for him than Westeros expects.
These characters are often reluctant or hidden heroes. They don’t choose their adventure. Their adventure chooses them.
The second type of protagonist is more obviously out-of-the-ordinary. They’ll cause a stir by their nature, i.e. Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. These people could make things happen in an empty room. Characters like this may be anti-heroes like Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, anti-heroines like Amy Dunne in Gone Girl.
And just to be clear: both types of protagonist are absolutely fine, but they need different things.
Will typically refuse adventure, or accept it only reluctantly
Will typically have something of the boy next door / girl next door quality to them. That doesn’t mean they have to be boring or average (we’re all different after all), but it does mean that they can act as a kind of placeholder for the reader. “That person could be me. That adventure could have been mine.“
Will typically find something heroic or extraordinary in themselves as a result of the adventure. Something that was buried becomes visible.
The adventure has to echo or vibrate with whatever is distinctive about the character. So at the very start of the Harry Potter series, Harry seems like an ordinary boy, except that he’s an orphan. No wonder then that the entire series revolves around Harry completing the battles of his lost parents.
Will often leap into adventure. May even create it.
Will typically seem nothing whatsoever like the nice kid next door
Will have something astonishing in them all the time. Something that probably makes them look awkwardly ill-at-ease in the ordinary world.
But, as with ordinary characters, the adventure will resonate with who they are. Sherlock Holmes is a detective – so let him solve crimes! Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a CIA guy, so drop him into a thriller, not a schmalzy love story!
Next, create a character or protagonist profile
How to know your character better than you know your best friend
Figuring out who you want to lead your story is the first essential of success.
But the next part – the fun one – is every bit as important. And the rule here is simple:
You have to know your main character better than you know your best friend.
The simple fact is that strong characterisation is based on knowledge. The only way to write a really convincing, lifelike, vibrant protagonist is to know them inside out. If you have this knowledge, you will find yourself using it. If you don’t have it, you can’t.
So the problem of writing character comes down to this: you have to know protagonist. And we’ve got a brilliant technique to help with just that.
If you haven’t yet started your book, then work on the character creator exercise below before you start.
If you have started, but think that maybe you started prematurely, then back up. Do the exercise and then read back through your work, looking for places where your characters seem a little blank.
Oh, and scattered through this blog, you’ll see invitations to get your “Ultimate Character Builder”. Click that pop-up, grab that invitation. It’s an amazing tool. If you get it and use it, your characterisation will improve immediately. Guaranteed.
So. Let’s start.
Begin with a blank sheet (or screen). And begin to write down everything you know about your central character. Don’t be too concerned to edit yourself at this stage. Just let rip: this will be your character profile. It helps to group your comments a bit under certain themes, but if that inhibits your flow then just write. Group your notes up later.
You should cover all kinds of topics, including:
Your character’s backstory
Where did your protagonist come from? What was their childhood like? Happy or sad? What were relations like with their parents? Or brothers or sisters? If their father was (say) extravagant, what impact did this have? If their mother was (say) easily tearful, how did this affect them?
And what about now, where relations with others are concerned? Were there key incidents in childhood that shaped this person in a way relevant to your book’s story?
Write how your protagonist’s backstory has shaped their drives, their character arc, and will shape your plot. It helps if examples are concrete, showing your protagonist via actions and choices in specific situations.
Your character’s personality
You’ll have ideas about personalities already – these may have more depth and subtlety when the structure of a back story is already in place.
Start to answer as many questions as you can think of.
Is your character sunny and carefree, like Lizzy Bennet in Pride and Prejudice? Or hardened, unforgiving, like Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?
What impression would they make on a casual observer? High school freshman Charlie Kelmeckis is shy, self-conscious, told in Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of being a Wallflower. (“You see things and you understand. You’re a wallflower.”) There’s more than meets the eye, though. Charlie is gentle but has hidden anger issues. In this sense, you can create flaws and subvert archetypes, making your character human, not clichéd.
And are they screwed up in any way? Are they conflict-avoiders or conflict-seekers? Are they sensitive or selfish lovers? How emotionally involved would they get? Will any of this feed into their character arc?
And if you answered a Myers-Briggs personality test in character, what would your character’s results be?
Ask these questions to ‘get to know’ your characters.
Be sure, most essentially, you know your characters’ deeper goals and motivations. What’s their deepest wish? What’s the goal, the thing they most desire? (Does it change?) What’s their motivation for wanting it, and what does it say about their nature?
The more you know about your character in every detail large and small, the more fluently that knowledge will transfer itself to your text.
Be sure any relationship is deeply sewn into your study of character arc and action, romantic or otherwise. For example, perhaps your central character seeks to avoid a certain painful truth, and this is the challenge around which your story revolves.
In that case, a character’s key romance could perhaps be with a person who challenges him to face up to that truth, i.e. Lou and Will in Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You. (Lou must convince Will life is worth living after his paralysis.) Or perhaps the characters collude to avoid such truth. (Lou and Will arguably do this, too.)
Elaborate on relationship(s), including your character’s romantic interest(s). Why has your character chosen this partner? Is he or she like the partners your character normally goes for?
Try and explore their intimate dialogue. Do they go in for cutesy baby-talk? Or hard-edged flippancy? Or reflectiveness? What are their pet names for each other? Do they encourage maturity in the other or bring out the less mature side?
What are their disagreements about? Do they row, and if so, how? How do they mend rows? What does one love most about the other? What do they most dislike? What is your predicted future for the relationship beyond the end of the novel?
Do spend real time and thought on this exercise and technique, especially if your novel revolves around romance or relationship. If your answers feel good and true, you will start to develop real chemistry between your lovers.
Romance mustn’t just be thrown in for the sake of it. It should feed back into character arc.
Your character’s looks
What does your character look like? You can note down build, hair, eye hue, but don’t stop there. Find the distinctive things about your character’s physiognomy. Please don’t (unless this is central) just give your character some obvious distinguishing feature for the sake of it. Be subtle.
Think of an actor or actress who could play your character. If you need a visual image to work from, then look through magazines until you’ve got something you can use. Pin it up close to where you work, and work from that. Or create an inspiration board, either a real one or using a site like Pinterest, to pin images of your characters, of story aesthetic, etc.
Just don’t forget to keep things grounded. Combine objective with subjective. Not everyone will swoon over your beautiful person, nor will everyone believe a plain character looks unappealing.
Jane of Jane Eyre is told by most she is plain, though some tell her she is pretty. Rochester changes his mind as he falls for Jane, describing her face as ‘delicate’, but Jane’s words are ‘puny and insignificant’ (telling us Jane is self-conscious of her looks).
Your character’s life (i.e. all the rest)
And don’t just write about all the important things. Write about the trivial, too. So what food does your character like? It’s relevant in a book like Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire what ‘food’ protagonist Louis likes, as he struggles with his new identity.
What skills do they have, i.e. can they speak other languages? Languages help Daenerys in A Song of Ice and Fire. Have they ever used a weapon? Katniss in The Hunger Games uses a bow not just to eat, but deliberately to show strength.
Describe their hands. Jo March’s hands in Little Women are ‘stiff’ from writing. Does your character drink or take drugs, like Alex in A Clockwork Orange? Do they drink for fun, or perhaps to forget something? What is it about them that takes them to these places? What makes your character laugh, and what does their laugh sound like? What animal would they be and why?
And so on and so on.
Many of these questions will have no direct relevance to your book, but the more questions you ask and answer, the better you will know your character.
And you should aim to cover at least five pages or so with this exercise. Maybe more.
Don’t do it all on one day, as you won’t get everything you need in a single go. Give yourself several days for this. Repeat the exercise for other main characters. Keep your notes available as you start to work on other things, so you can enrich your notes as you go.
The less central a character is to your book, the less you need to know him or her, but don’t skimp. If in doubt, do more.
And this exercise does work. You’ll end up with more knowledge than you ever had before, and this knowledge will transmit itself into your writing. Your characterisation improves. Your characters being more lifelike, your book will be better.
Next, build the reader’s empathy with your characters
Why your character’s motivation matters so much
You know that thing that literary agents do?
“While we liked your book a lot, we didn’t quite love it. We didn’t quite feel empathy with your main character, but wish you the best of luck in finding representation elsewhere.”
Makes you want to scream, doesn’t it?
And the issue is NOT that your character isn’t nice enough. It’s not that she needs to do more home-baking, or go to more church meetings, or smile more sweetly.
If a character really wants something, and the reader really gets why that thing matters so much to that character, then the reader is committed. They’ll feel intensely involved.
They will, if they’re a literary agent, want to represent your novel.
And just to say it again: empathy has nothing whatsoever to do with niceness. (And if you’re in any doubt, then re-read Lolita. Or American Psycho. Or even The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. Nice is boring. And readers want to be gripped.)
And finally, check that character profile
Once you’re into character development writing (say 5 to 10,000 words), look back at your work. Is your character emerging? Do you describe in cliché? Does your character come across as human, or as implausible movie character?
Be tough on yourself to be rid of cliché. If necessary, go back to this exercise and hammer away at your character profile.
Talent helps, but drive and effort take you further.
If you need more help (and you do; everyone does), then there’s loads on offer at Jericho Writers.
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About the author
Harry Bingham has been a professional author for twenty years and more. He’s been published by each of the three largest publishers in the world. He’s hit bestseller lists, had a ton of critical acclaim, and has been published in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, China, Japan . . . and lots of other places too. His work has been adapted for the screen and he’s enjoyed (almost) every minute of his career. (More about Harry, more about his books).
As head of Jericho Writers (and previously the Writers’ Workshop), Harry has helped hundreds of people find agents and get published. He’d love it if you were next. (More about us.)