Friday December 15
Subscribe to RSS Feed

Creating Fictional Characters

November 7, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified December 26, 2010

Detailed books have been written about characters and how to create them. I can’t possibly include everything about fictional characters in one article. But I can provide tips for creating strong characters and for cutting uninspired ones.

Characters carry your story. Quite literally. They walk the story from scene to scene, from location to location, and from character to character. They move your story. And they’re what a reader remembers.

Characters are your story. Without them, you have events without impact. Action without meaning.

You probably know the basics (and you’re putting the rules into practice, right?):

Reveal character through action and dialogue (not direct reports)

Avoid stereotypes

Describe characters without using physical traits

Make characters different from one another—give them different mannerisms and voices

Give them—protagonists and antagonists—both admirable qualities and flaws

Cut out a character if another can carry his plot load

Combine characters if you have too many with bit parts

Don’t name walk-on characters—bartenders, drivers, mailmen


What else should you know about character?

They are individuals with fervent motivations and competing agendas—avoid group think. They solve problems differently from one another. Characters seem like real people, but they feel deeper and act on those feelings much more often than we do. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t want to read about them.

What can a writer do to his characters?

  • Make them believable
  • Make them vulnerable
  • Make them want something without being overly needy—unless neediness is a character trait
  • Make them want something someone else wants
  • Make them want what they can’t have

Make your characters 3-dimensional and unique:

  • Let their emotions fly
  • Give them habits, hobbies, and quirks
  • Have them act, think & feel

Treat them cruelly—for the art, of course:

  • Give your character a secret
  • Reveal that secret to the antagonist
  • Have your character take a stand that costs him—professionally, personally, emotionally
  • Drive your character to do something against his principles to avoid doing something even worse

Ratchet up the cruelty:

  • Wound your warriors
  • Betray your idealists
  • Introduce death to one who’s never seen it
  • Throw something unexpected at your character
  • Remove a character’s support
  • Drop your character into a pit—figuratively or literally
  • Make your character fail
  • Kill a best friend, a pet, a spouse, a child

How’s your character doing now? Need other ways to get him moving?

  • Open the character’s eyes—to evil, to good, to love, to hate
  • Give hope to one who’s never known it
  • Introduce a new friend, a new enemy
  • Force a character to trust

Use words peculiar to this character in this place at this time. Make your character’s thoughts, actions, and dialogue Story Specific.

Characters aren’t interchangeable. They can’t be dropped into a new locale or plot and remain the same.

Characters fit plot and genre and location and time period. The tighter the fit—the more threads you use to attach your character to a story—the better story you’ll create.

A cohesive and unique and singular story.

A memorable story.

A story of remarkably unique characters.


Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Writing Tips

20 Responses to “Creating Fictional Characters”

  1. Pat Bertram says:

    You make a writer sound like a sadistic beast. Ratchet up the cruelty? Kill a best friend or spouse? Drop them into a pit? Sheesh.

    I’m just teasing. You’re right, of course. Without trauma, there is no character growth, but seeing it written out like that makes me see writers in a murkier light.

  2. Wanda H says:

    Hi Beth, This is a great posting. I’m making notes for myself to use on my Nano characters. I’m hoping they pass the tests these suggestions pose. Thanks for sharing your expertise.


  3. Pat, I know. Sounds awful for real people to be talking about doing such things to others. But you’re right–trauma, drama, and tension are necessary in some measure for a story to create and hold reader interest.

    Fiction has always been quite dramatic. Greek tragedies? Now, they really piled it on.

  4. Wanda, that’s another great character refiner–put them to the test. (I know that’s not what you had in mind, but it works.)

    Glad you found something you could use.

  5. Vivian A says:

    Ah, torturing the one you love. Very nice. It’s hard to be mean, but necessary. Trial by fire only makes them stronger, of course, I don’t think they see it that way.

  6. Beth says:

    Vivian, the bad thing is that I don’t find it too hard to be mean. Not when I’m really working at it.

    I admit that with a first pass, I’m tempted to go easy on my characters, but when I remember this is fiction…

    Anything goes.

  7. Cille says:

    This is such a wonderful compilation. Thank you!

  8. Beth says:

    Cille, I’m glad you like the list. I hope it proves useful to you.

  9. Beth, another outstanding post. I immediately clipped it for my OneNote files to help in one of those moments when inspiration runs dry. The reader wants the characters to feel real, to be people we can connect to in some way. Yet you remind writers that characters often need to be larger than life and may be subject to extreme treatment. This article is a fine addition to your notes on the writer’s craft. Thank you.

  10. Beth says:

    James, I’m so glad you can make use of the info. There’s nothing better than reading a great story, plot and characters both doing their part. Isn’t it fun to know people will be reading our characters one day? And remembering them because they’re unique.

  11. Dana says:

    I think my favorite bit of advice above is to combine characters if you have too many bit parts. I found myself swimming in characters in my first mystery because many were based on real people and ended up combining to make the story manageable.

  12. Beth says:

    Dana, that’s a hard one for me when I’m writing my own stuff, easy when I’m editing someone else’s. When creating, I often take the characters as they come. Only with a reader’s eye can I see when a character’s unnecessary.

  13. Caroline says:

    Excellent post. I especially like the point about throwing in a betrayal. Shakespeare used it a lot.

    I also agree that some minor characters can usually be cut out of a first draft. I’ve already got rid of about three in my story. Thanks for the advice.

  14. Beth says:

    Caroline, I’m glad you stopped by.

    Betrayal is great for shaking up a character. He can respond in so many different ways that your story can go off in a new direction.

  15. Liz says:

    What a great post! Easy to read, easy to digest, easy to apply. I think treating fictional characters cruelly, in my case, might make not only for interesting reading, but also for some passive-aggressive satisfaction of my frustrations with actual human beings! :)

  16. Liz, I’ve heard that many who come to bad ends in fiction were based on real people. It’s pretty cheap therapy if it works.

    I’m glad the article was helpful.

  17. Patrick Null says:

    This is such a great article and very informative. I read the other article on character motions, and that was a good one, too. So, in my WIP, I’ve had my main character be tortured by a fire in his past that burned down his house, killed his son’s babysitter and almost killed his son, witness a teen he was mentoring kill herself, be suspected in her death, lose his job, his wife leaves him, taking the kids with her, and ends up getting beat up and left out in the rain where he develops pneumonia. Is this enough cruelty for him? :-)