Small changes and a bit of planning can make the difference between a good character and a great character.
Let’s say you’ve finally got some time to yourself. Now you’re choosing between two books for your next read:
- The first recounts a throne succession with a standard murder mystery plot.
- The second stars a young, hesitant prince who struggles to know whether he should avenge the murder of his father by killing his uncle.
Which would intrigue you more?
Both share a core concept. But “Hamlet" also gives you a protagonist who’s juggling a complex set of practical and psychological conflicts: someone whose personal journey has grabbed people for centuries.
If you get your character creation right, your character, too, can help your book become a genre classic. Here are six steps to show you how to achieve a fully realized, memorable character.
1. Determine the character’s goals
To build a character who’s worth telling a story about, you need to first establish two things: your character’s current goal, and the motivations to reach that goal.
A character’s goal is simple: it’s the specific and actionable thing that a character wants over the course of your story. This is what will drive your plot forward as your character takes actions to fulfill their goal.
A character’s motivations, meanwhile, infuse the goal with meaning. If you’re struggling to nail down these motivations, ask yourself the ‘W’ questions that will help spell out your ‘in order to.’ Why, for instance, does your character want what they want? What are they willing to risk to achieve their goal? Where will they end up if they can’t achieve their goal?
When you put it all together, this is what it’ll look like in action:
- Luke Skywalker’s goal is to defeat the Galactic Empire ... in order to end the Galactic Civil War and restore democracy to the world.
- Frodo’s goal is to bring the One Ring to Mount Doom ... in order to defeat Sauron and ensure the safety of his beloved Shire.
- Hamlet’s goal is to kill his uncle ... in order to avenge his murdered father and show himself capable of decisive action.
2. Don’t forget the character’s external and internal conflict
If Frodo strolled to Mount Doom, dropped the ring in the lava, and made it back in time for second breakfast, you probably wouldn’t have much of a story to read, right? To avoid this fate, you need obstacles that will make the character unforgettable as they battle them.
You’ll find two broad types of conflicts in all stories, the first of which is internal conflict, or Character versus Self. All characters undergo internal turmoil that makes them question themselves and emerge changed in some way.
The second is external conflict. It’s generally accepted that there are five primary types of external conflict in fiction, including:
- Character (e.g., Walt vs. Hank in “Breaking Bad”).
- Society (e.g., Winston Smith vs. Big Brother in “1984”).
- Technology (e.g., Humanity vs. robots in “I, Robot”).
- Nature (e.g., The crew vs. the sea in “In the Heart of the Sea”).
- Supernatural (e.g., Peter Venkman vs. ghosts in “Ghostbusters”).
Just remember: every worthy protagonist needs a worthy antagonist. And it’s up to you to create the yang to your character’s yin to show readers exactly who your protagonist is when the odds are against them.
3. Determine their strengths and flaws
So now you’ve got your character’s external and internal conflicts in place. What strengths will your character use to conquer the conflicts and what flaws will hold your character back the whole time?
When you think about these strengths and flaws, steer clear of the extremes. You don’t want to make your character so great that all of the obstacles they face come across as easy to overcome. At the same time, you don’t want them to be so full of flaws that their eventual success seems unbelievable.
The best characters remind us of ourselves: multi-dimensional human beings with plenty of strengths and weaknesses. Your character’s strengths will get readers to root for them, admire them, maybe even swoon over them. But your character’s flaws are equally important: say, their stubbornness, their reckless streak, their penchant for selfishness. All these things will work together to make your protagonist well-rounded and relatable.
4. Create a backstory for your character
No person—and no character—are a mere snapshot of a moment in time. Just as you are informed by your circumstances and past, your character’s backstory should make them the person that we meet on the page too.
When creating your character’s backstory, ask yourself:
- Where did they grow up?
- What kind of childhood did they have? What’s their earliest memory?
- What sort of education did they experience?
- How close are (or were) they to their family? What kind of family environment did they have during their formative years?
Just remember: not every single detail of the backstory you create for your protagonist needs to appear in your story. You don’t want to overwhelm your readers with unnecessary details. After all, that will just bore them and encourage them to drop your book entirely. Instead, zero in on memories that inform what we see in the story.
5. Build the character's external elements
Put on your monocle because it’s time to visualize your character! Like a cartoonist drawing character sketches, you should form some idea of your character’s appearance. Early in your character creation, put a bit of time into outlining your protagonist's physical features, including their ...
- Appearance: How do they look to the world? Does their appearance play a role in the story?
- Voice: How do they sound to the world? Do they have an accent? Do they have a voice that “matches” their appearance?
Figuring out your character’s external traits doesn’t stop at eye color and tenor! Your grey-eyed baritone has to be different from all the other grey-eyed baritones out there, after all. To do this, make sure to add mannerisms that venture beyond a physical profile. For instance, you can reflect on your character’s …
- Posture: How do they sit and stand?
- Communication style: How do they interact with others? Are they a nervous gesturer? Do they make eye contact or attempt to avoid it?
- Tics: What do they do when they’re scared? Exhausted? Angry?
To nail down all the above, try using a ready-made character profile template that you can find at reedsy.com. It’ll help you figure out every layer of your character, from the external (such as appearance, voice, and posture) to the internal (such as their relationships, history, and how they want to be remembered after they die).
6. Do extra research to make the character believable
Say you want to craft characters so lifelike they seem more flesh than sentence, capable of walking right off the page and moving around without the puppet-strings of your plot tugging on their limbs. Then you’ll want to go beyond the limits of your mind and do some character research.
Let’s say, for instance, you’re scripting a working-class British character’s dialogue for a story set in the 1950s. You might want to research things like:
- Which working-class district would they come from?
- What kind of slang would they use?
- How did people greet each other in the 1950s?
It’s especially important to get your research right if you’re writing a character whose identity or experiences differ substantially from your own—for instance, someone from a different ethnic background, or someone with a mental illness you’ve only read about. It might even be worthwhile to reach out to a sensitivity reader in these cases to make sure you’re creating as authentic a character as possible.
Congratulations! By the end of these six steps, you should have a full-blown character on your hands—one with goals to motivate them on the inside, and a physical appearance that sets them apart on the outside. Now it’s just up to you to put it all onto the page and build a story that’s as memorable as your character.
This article is written by Jessica Kim and is based on Reedsy’s How to Write Characters You Won’t Forget post. It appears here with permission.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.