Capturing Characters


Most stories are remembered for their characters, not specific plot points. If you want to write a memorable story, create memorable characters. They do not need to be believable — they need to be dramatic.

It Takes Two

Often, the best stories are deceptively simple: there are two main characters for the reader to follow. There is a central character and an opposition character. Many writers try too hard to follow what they were taught in school, with the central character cast as the heroic protagonist and the opposition character as the villainous antagonist.

The central character is the character a reader or viewer “follows” through the story. The narrator is telling the story of the central character. Do not assume you need to show the central character first. Some crime stories and films begin with the murder, not the detective who will be the main character.

The opposition character can be “good” or “evil” depending on the role of the central character. What matters is that the opponent does not want the central character to succeed.

Grand Central Characters

A grand central character is a complete character. Readers want a character with depth — emotions, actions, and flaws. Especially flaws. Creating a grand central character takes planning. We have four simple questions, the answers to which will create a solid character:

  1. What is the character’s active goal?
  2. What is the character’s emotional need?
  3. What is the character’s major flaw?
  4. What is the backstory to be revealed?

An active goal is a specific, measurable goal. Is cannot be easy, or there is no reason to tell the story. A difficult goal creates the first conflict in your story. There must also be a reason for the goal. Why does it matter to the central character? This reason is a primary motivation throughout the story.

While the goal is known to the character, his or her emotional need seldom is. The reader can detect the need within a few chapters, but the character doesn’t seem to be aware of the need. The need is what results in the character being content or even happy. Common needs include love and self-confidence.

The reason the character fails to see a need is usually a character flaw. The character might be too proud, or might have been emotionally injured. Regardless, the flaw is glaring, even if the reader only suspects the cause.

Finally, as the story progresses you should reveal the backstory of the central character. How did he or she get to the point at which the story starts? Every story has a “history” the reader has to learn. As the character has to deal with emotions, the backstory is revealed to explain the deeper secondary motivation for the goal.

Creating Characters

Character creation — and development — requires the hubris of Dr. Frankenstein. Do you really think you can create a person? An alien? You, a mere writer, need to create characters with “souls” if you want to keep readers and audiences. What amazes us is that some writers do it so well.

Memorable Traits

When creating characters, even ones based upon real people, it is necessary to emphasize some traits and ignore others. It is impossible to completely and accurately describe any person; don’t get lost while trying the impossible. Decide what makes this person interesting. What are the traits one notices when first encountering the individual?

It is easy to concentrate too much on the physical appearance of a character. Remember to offer insights into the personality of a character. How does he or she speak? Is this person quick to make a joke or somber? Let your readers know your characters.

Write Bios

Many writers forget that every character has a past and future, even if the writer does not explicitly address these in the text. Some writers create “mini-bios” — character sketches — for main characters: one-page summaries of the life of each character. This process is ideal for characters you might use again in another work. Knowing your characters allows you to write about them with greater empathy; you understand their motives.

Within the Story

A lot of what you know about a character might not appear within a story. Deciding what is essential to the plot and story is sometimes difficult. The primary reason to reveal facts about a character is to drive the plot. If the traits do not advance events, you probably can keep them to yourself — and save them for a sequel.

Guiding Readers

Always allow readers some freedom to be creative, but not too much. You do not want a reader to imagine a beautiful young woman as the soft-spoken, but determined lawyer in your crime novel when later we learn the lawyer has a grandson. Give enough details to guide readers and insure there are no surprises — unless you want a few along the way.

Show the Character

As a work progresses, use a mix of dialogue and actions to reinforce the basic traits of a character. Effective dialogue reveals the biases of a character toward events and other characters. Action remains the most important tool for writers; it is easier to show what most characters do than what they think. In most cases, you should only reveal the thoughts of your protagonist.

Character Sketch

The following table helps create a character sketch. Some characters require more information to understand them, while others require minimal information. Having this background in mind, even if not used in the story, helps an author create realistic characters.

A characters might have more than one profile, reflecting changes to the character throughout the story. Main characters evolve, like people. Profiles are snapshots, not meant to replace any biography you might develop for the characters.

Name/Nicknames:  
Role in Story:  
Conflict/Challenge:  
Opponent(s):  
Supporter(s):  
Social Standing Traits
Approximate Age:  
Profession:  
Education:  
Social Class:  
Relationships
Spouse:  
Lover(s):  
Friends:  
Children:  
Parents:  
Others:  
Observable Traits
Physical:  
Identifying Trait:  
Clothing:  
Scents:  
Habits:  
Mannerisms:  
Personality
Emotional Style:  
Fear(s):  
Personality:  

 

Some suggestions to consider when completing a profile:

Name/Nicknames: Does the name “fit” the character? If not, does a nickname?
Role in Story: Roles include narrator, protagonist, antagonist, contrast, etc.
Conflict/Challenge: Every major character faces a challenge.
Opponent(s): What character or situation opposes this character?
Supporter(s): Allies against the conflict or opponent.
Social Standing Traits
Approximate Age: No need to be precise, but age affects actions and personality.
Profession: A teacher’s behavior differs from that of a lawyer — usually.
Education: Education affects dialogue, some mannerisms.
Social Class: Social standings can create tension. Rich:poor, Master:apprentice, etc.
Relationships
Spouse: Most important in romance and non-fiction writing.
Lover(s): If not a lover, a love interest. Passion motivates people.
Friends: Most effective characters have a friend or two along the way.
Others: Professional relationships and other bonds shape characters.
Observable Traits
Physical: How does the character look?
Identifying Trait: What is the one physical trait others would notice?
Clothing: Appearance matters — illustrates how much a character worries about appearances.
Scents: Perfumes and colognes, as well as smoking and other factors.
Habits: Any nervous habits?
Mannerisms: Does the character raise eyebrows? Frown a lot? Smile easily?
Personality
Emotional Style: How does the character approach life? Calm, passionate, angry?
Fear(s): Effective characters have flaws and weaknesses; not always a phobia, either.
Personality: Is the character a leader? A follower? Maybe a natural salesman? Too curious?

 



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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 27-May-2014
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach