Know your Characters

Character development is one of the most important elements to creating an engaging story.

As Michel de Montaigne posited, character development is “our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately. All other things, ruling, hoarding, building, are only little appendages and props, at most.”

If your readers don’t care about your characters, they won’t care about what happens to your characters, they won’t care about your characters’ motives and they won’t care about whether or not your characters reach their goals or find resolutions to their conflicts.

In other words, if you fail to create compelling characters, your book will be left in literary purgatory, unread and collecting dust.

Tragic.

I’m getting all teary-eyed just thinking about it.

But never fear, The Word Count is here with tips and suggestions to help you create banger characters!

Before we can explore how you can go about creating your characters, we should discuss the various character types.

General Characters Types

1.) Protagonist

This is your main character, the driving force of your plot.

This is NOT to be confused with your narrator.

This will most likely be the character that your readers care about the most.

2.) Antagonist

Basically, the opposite of your protagonist.

He/She will be the general opposition to your protagonist.

Your antagonist can be your villain, but not all antagonists are villains.

At the simplest level, your antagonist is someone who disagrees with the values, modus operandi, and/or decisions of your protagonist.

3.) Villain

The character who is evil.

Your villain typically has motives and goals that are separate from your protagonist and often serves as the main source of conflict for your character.

4.) Confidant

A character in whom your protagonist (or your villain) confides.

5.) Dynamic Characters

Dynamic characters change throughout the story.

These changes can be positive or negative, but they always relate to the character’s motivations, desires or personality.

6.) Flat or Static Characters

A Flat Character is at its basic level, the opposite of a Dynamic Character.

These characters do not change much (or at all) over the course of the story.

His/Her background and personality is not explored as deeply as that of the protagonist and antagonist.

This does NOT mean that you do not need to create a backstory or personality for these types of characters.

7.) Foil Character

A foil character is the opposite of another character.

I wouldn’t go as far to say evil twin opposite, but a foil should exhibit personality traits that contradict with the personality traits of another character.

8.) Round Character

Round Characters are similar to Dynamic Characters.

They change throughout the story, but these changes may not be as permanent as the changes which a Dynamic Character undergoes.

Round Characters can also learn lessons throughout the piece, but these lessons may be marginal compared to the lessons learned by a Dynamic Character.

9.) Stock Characters

Stock Characters are those forgettable side characters.

They don’t necessarily change or learn lessons.

Overuse of Stock Characters should be avoided, but these types of characters can have their place in the right story.

So what makes a dynamic character?

1.) Likability

Like-able.

Not saintly.

There has to be some element of your character that connects to your reader. That does not mean that they have to be the self-righteous, do-gooder.

In fact, perfect characters tend to be less engaging to readers because humans aren’t perfect.

It can be helpful to think about some of the qualities that attract you to other people.

You might want to consider giving your character one or two of those traits while you are getting started.

2.) Personality

Humans are similar, but we are also unique.

Try to avoid cliche traits like the love interest that has a flawless face, a perfect body and generous charms.

Sometimes these cliches can be beneficial to your story (say for example that Mr. Looks Perfect turns out to be a complete scoundrel), but while you are fleshing out your characters it is best to stay away from cliches.

3.) Agency

At least, some agency.

This means that your character should make decisions with some sort of reasoning that has to do with their own goals.

Be careful not to create characters that are only plot devices, like that “best-friend” character that only has a few cheeky lines and only enters the plot to move the dialogue forward.

If your character is not directly important to the movement of your plot (like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby), make sure that the character is somehow significant to your protagonist or antagonist.

4.) Motivations

Just like people, characters want and need things.

These wants and needs should somehow tie into their decisions (and will somehow become components in your plot!).

Like anything in life, most of the things that we need or want come with obstacles (and just like that, you have some naturally manufactured conflict).

5.) Fears

Like motivations, fears will also play into your character’s decision-making process.

A character’s fears are a wonderful tool. You can use them to propel the plot through external conflict (like Indiana Jones and his iconic fear of snakes), internal conflict (like a fear of failure), the incorporation of fears into the character’s motivations, etc.

6.) Connections with other characters

How your character interacts with other characters is a significant aspect of your story.

This does not mean that your character has to have a best friend.

There are many types of connections that your character can have: Connections with friends, family, work associates, lovers, casual hook-up buddies, neighbors, enemies . . .

The list goes on and on.

7.) Strengths

Your character should be good at something.

They do not need to be exceptional, but they need to have something going for them.

You do not need to limit your character’s strength to skills either.

A character’s strength can be internal as well.

Intellectual and emotional strengths can be just as interesting as (sometimes even more interesting than) a talent.

8.) Weaknesses

Characters that are truly flawless are boring.

At the very least, your character should have something he/she isn’t good at or something that he/she struggles with.

Even the star athlete, who plays an instrument and gets straight A’s has one subject that they have to study for more than others.

Like strengths, your character flaw is not confined to skills alone. Your character can have an emotional flaw, a cognitive flaw, a flaw in his/her morality etc.

9.) Ability to grow

Even if you want your character to be a frustrating, unchanging bastard by the end of your piece, you have to provide your character with an opportunity to turn a new leaf.

Don’t pigeon hole your character into specific choices either. Not only will it make your character boring, it will make your story predictable.

Readers are joining your characters through their stories, don’t give them a one way trip, down a straight road.

Add a turn here and there.

Add a pothole.

Add a fork in the road.

Okay, so now that you have a general idea of what components make up an interesting character, it’s time for you to get to know yours.

Create a Character Profile Sheet!

A Character Profile Sheet will help you answer key questions about your character.

This process does not need to be done for all of your characters (although I find it helpful in deciding which characters are necessary to my plot and which ones I can trash or save for another project).

However, you should consider completing a Character Profile Sheet for your main characters (your protagonist, your antagonist or villain, your protagonist’s romantic interest and any character that is significant to your story).

Here are some categories and questions to consider when putting together your profile sheets.

1.) Description

What does your character look like?

Does he/she have long hair or short hair? Is it blonde, brown, red, chestnut, grey, purple?

Is he/she tall, short, skinny, fat,? How has this affected your character?

Does your character look more like his/her father or his/her mother? Grandmother?

Does your character have any injuries or health problems?

2.) Personality

Is your character shy or outgoing? Introverted or extroverted?

What does your character do for fun?

How is his/her self-esteem? What contributes to his/her self-esteem?

Does he/she have any secrets? Is he/her guarding someone else’s secrets?

Is your character loyal, self-serving, some mix of the two?

Does he/she have a nervous tick or a tell that lets people know when he/she is lying?

How does he/she work with others?

3.) Public Personality

What do other people say about your character?

What are his/her family’s opinion of him/her? How about his/her, friends, enemies, neighbors, teachers etc.?

4.) Relationships

Is your character in a relationship? To what extent, with whom and for how long?

Does he/she have an ex? What was the ex like?

Does your character’s significant other or lover have any exes? What are they like?

5.) Goals

What does your character want out of life? Why does he/she want that?

How close is your character to getting what he/she wants?

What stands in the way of your character’s desires and goals?

Keep in mind that you should NOT include every aspect of your character sheet into your story.

Your writing will get messy and clunky and boring.

Once your character sheets are complete. Take a highlighter and indicate which character traits are the most important. These highlighted section are ones that you should include in your writing.

But be strategic!

Don’t throw all of this information at your readers at once.

Now you have a few more tools to help you create realistic and interesting characters.

Best Wishes!

And as always . . .

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