Creating Compelling Characters

Writers are fortunate when they encounter someone in real life who has “character potential,” someone who fills a page with story without effort. A man who has traveled the world hunting rare animals is such a character. A woman hiding with her children during a riot is another. For readers, these characters and their stories are immediately engaging. But writers can’t wait for these “characters” to fall into their laps.

Writers must learn to create such characters who elicit emotion from a variety of readers, without the godsend of such “real life” personalities. How do writers do this?

As Sol Stein (Stein on Writing) says, the writer must learn “the art of characterization, adding details and depth until he has created a character whom we may know better than all but our closest friends.”

Stein suggests that in real life, we writers are lazy. “We say the first thing that comes into our heads.” As an example, he describes a ticket-taker at a movie theater. That person interacts with a stream of people, and deals only in generalizations. That man is tall. That woman is skinny. But a writer must deal with such people differently.

“Frank is so tall, he entered the room as if he expected the lintel to hit him, conveying the image of a man with a perpetually stiff neck.”

That man is not just tall, as Stein writes him, but he is “being characterized through an action.”

As for the skinny woman,

“She always stood sideways so people could see how thin she was.”

Again, the character is described by action.

Characters are best individualized when we see them doing things and saying things, not by the author telling us about them.

One of the first pitfalls of most writers is telling our readers what the characters look like. Don’t ever stop your story to tell what a character looks like, or what a character is wearing (unless the clothing is vital to the scene or the characterization). Let the reader see your character talking and doing things.

Or, have another character describe that character:

I almost missed her at our meeting. She was lost in the crowd on 51st Street. Couldn’t even see her head, which is nuts considering that flaming red hair. I finally spotted her boots among all the other feet: polka-dotted rubber boots. I knew it had to be her.


I had trouble following what he was saying, ’cause I was so caught off guard by his lisp. What grown man lisps? Well-dressed in a nice suit with a nifty tie in a navy-and-green stripe, hair parted and combed to a gloss, and a lisp? How did drug dealers take him seriously?

Find the details that will embed the character in your reader’s mind’s eye and bring that character to life.

Generations: Know Your Characters’ Pasts

Old store in rural North Carolina

This is a post about generations, about how the lives of our parents were so much different from our own.

Visits to family roots are important, because it gives the younger generation a better understanding of where they have come from, who the folks were in  past generations. Many of us today take our advantages for granted: we have computers, smartphones, passports for travel, and the opportunity to move far beyond the confines of the city or town where we were born.

But it hasn’t always been that way. In the Middle Ages, people rarely left their villages, and there were no street signs pointing the way from village to village. If you left and went any great distance from home, you likely never found your way back. Those who traveled generally stayed wherever they landed.

It’s important to know your own family history if you are going to people your books with believable characters. Not that you have to include all of their history in the book, but that knowledge will help you to understand your character’s motivations.

My parents were poor, but they worked hard to give their children every opportunity for education and the social graces. We grew up not poor, on solid ground (I was unaware of how we struggled, thanks to Mom and Dad guarding us from that knowledge). And now, our children have grown up with the same opportunities and similar solid ground, but it’s important for them to know where the family started, and not that long ago. My father’s mother had to let two of her children leave the house and find their own ways as teenagers, because she couldn’t support four children on her own. She was married, but life circumstances forced her to raise the kids without her husband for a period in their life.

In turn, my father was the most devoted husband and father possible, even when life made separations inevitable, as it does when you’re in the U.S. Army. But his background made him who he is, and influenced my life and who I am, and my expectations of husband and family. I was molded by my parents’ lives and by the life they made for me as a child. I am who I am in large part because of them.

Look to your past. How were you raised? How were your parents raised? If you now live in the United States, there’s a real chance that your grandparents or great-grandparents emigrated to the United States. What were their lives like before and after? How did that affect who they became? Did that influence your parents’ lives, or yours?

None of us lives in isolation. We all come from somewhere, and we either embrace that past or run from it or try to ignore it. But the past exists, and it influences who we are. When you are creating your characters, keep that in mind. Let something in their past dictate who they are today. Use that knowledge to give substance to your main characters.

Know who the characters are now, but also be aware of their past, and of generations before them. This will enrich your characterizations, and give you unexpected food for story. Try not to simply create the characters you need, but allow them to become. Nourish their past, and you’ll see amazing results as you write.

Put Away the Phone and People Watch

I’m headed for the airport in a couple of hours and am looking forward to the wait for my plane. Well, okay, that’s a bit of a stretch. Let’s just say that I will put that time to good use, by people watching.

As a writer, you must make time to people watch, to observe the pantheon of characters within your orbit, wherever you are. Keep a notebook handy and jot down little notes about the folks who drift past you on the tide of humanity. (If you don’t write these down, at least store them in your long-term memory until you have the chance to record them.)

Note clothing, postures, relationships, unspoken communication, facial expressions, accents, attitudes — all of which are elements to put into your characterization tool box. How do young lovers stand, walk, or sit by each other? How do middle-aged couples do the same? And the elderly? What do you see in the elderly that is also in the young couple in love? Why might those elements have lasted into old age? What do they tell you about the people, the relationships, the quality of love?

How do you get a sense of personality or mood from a person’s posture or gait? What assessment do you make of a woman who wears a lot of makeup? of a woman who wears little or none? Of a man who plucks his eyebrows? Now, think. WHY do you make those assessments? Write down your answer.

Listen for accents or turns of phrase, but be aware that writing in an accent is a challenge, both to the writer and to the reader. What you want is a “taste” of the accent, a saying or phrase that gives you the sense of “Other,” of foreignness or dialect.

My favorite are the eyes. I like to watch how people use their eyes, and what their eyes say about them. Wide open, half-cocked, drowsy, side-darting — all of these can say something about the person, beyond just physiognomy.

So, put away your phone, your iPad, and your other electronic devices and people watch. It’s what will make your fiction come alive!

What Makes a Character Tick?

During the class I recently finished teaching at UCSD Extension, I emphasized the fact that authors can’t simply have their characters act and react as the story and plot require, but that they must create the characters in such a way that the characters have no choice but to act or react as they do.

This was brought home to me by John Morgan Wilson when he reviewed a chapter of my book. (In fact, he was repeating something that Meg Gardiner had pointed out to me during one of her critiques.) Both said that I was having my main character react as I needed her to react to further the story, not as she might have reacted on her own. Okay, I know that sounds ridiculous, since I am the author and I can make my characters act any way I choose, but the truth was, I hadn’t given proper consideration to how she might have acted on her own. She simply reacted as I deemed necessary.

My students were confused by this idea, but eventually saw the logic, and how taking a character’s true reactions into consideration could quickly strengthen their writing. An example: one student had a conversation between two older adults who had reentered the dating scene, meeting after connecting on During the dialogue, the man asks the woman if she is married. She says she is a widow, but was separated from her husband at the time of his death. The writer went on with the conversation, never stopping (as an author) to consider the ramifications of that statement. Why had she and her husband separated after so many years? What had finally caused her to walk away? Knowing that, the author has new cards to deal into the game…will she be wary of the same things in a new relationship? For instance, what if she had found out that her husband, while being a wonderful husband and father in all other ways, was a conniving bastard at work who had cheated his way to position and wealth? Wouldn’t she then be concerned about anyone else she chose to date…to make sure that they were honest and wouldn’t cheat at anything? Given that, what difficulties would that create for a man who wants to get close to her, to get to know her? Suddenly, there is plenty of fodder for the story that the author hadn’t considered, and all because the author listened to his characters, rather than just put words in their mouths and accepted them.

Motivation is vital. Not just the motivation of the author, the requirements for the story, but the inner promptings of the characters. Get to know your characters. Let them tell you who you are. They will surprise you, and greatly strengthen your writing. One of the characters I wrote was supposed to be a minor character, the wife of a murdered man. But Mamie came into the story with such gusto that she demanded a larger role, and the story benefited from her enlarged presence.

While you have to plan your story, be open to surprises from your characters. After all, you’ve created them. Let them grow as necessary.

The Interview Process: Open Yourself to Surprises

I gave an assignment this week that sent my students into a most unexpected spiral. Their task was to conduct character interviews, one with each of two characters they were creating. This turned out to be much more challenging for them than I had imagined. In the past, students have caught on quickly to the idea; not so this week.

The idea of the interview is for the author to get to know a character. When we create characters and decide who they are, what they look like, and what they will do in the story, we leave no room for surprise. We are dictating everything about the characters, and risk making those characters flat and predictable.

But through the process of interviewing our characters, we can open ourselves to surprise. We can learn things about our characters that might be useful in the story, facets that will add depth and color to our characters.

Interview your characters and make them answer your questions. You’ll know the answers, of course, but in the process of interviewing, you may come up with some questions about aspects of that character that you had never considered. Perhaps you have a character who is a photographer. She is a photographer because you need her to be so for the story. But after interviewing, you may find out that she became a photographer because she was cripplingly shy as a child and finally discovered, in high school, that she could participate in activities if she hid behind a camera, present but unseen. This insight might come in handy later in your story when this character has to step forward and make a stand (as you had already planned). It would give both you and the reader insight into the inner struggle before she acts, giving greater depth to the action and greater interest for the reader.

That is just one example of how sitting down and interviewing your characters can lead to bits of character knowledge that can strengthen your story and your writing. If you simply say that characters “just are,” you lose the chance to be surprised. Talk to your characters, and never let them off the hook with the difficult questions. You’ll grow as a writer and your characters will live.

Make Characters Believable

In my class this semester, I am working with students on making their characters believable. One of the first “obstacles” to overcome is their tendency to want to describe each character in detail: hair color, height, weight, perfection of teeth, etc.

My task is to have them develop the characters fully in their mind’s eye, and then choose those elements of character that must be used, and those that must be set aside, for their knowledge alone, and perhaps to be used later as the story develops. It isn’t necessary for each character to be described exactly as the author sees them. Leave something to the reader’s imagination. If it isn’t vital that the woman is wearing a daffodil-yellow dress, simply mention the dress. And wouldn’t it be more interesting if a woman who dresses in the highest of fashions and has her face and body sculpted annually still smiles with crooked teeth? What does that say about her? It certainly makes her instantly more interesting than if she had perfect teeth.

I also spoke about the importance of names in character development, and how the name can create an immediate, if unconscious, expectation in the reader’s mind. A woman named Wonderly manifests a different expectation than does a woman named Malificent. And a villain named Mordred is much more menacing than one named Tubby.

Names can begin the expectations of character that will be further developed by physical and psychological description.

Character Descriptions (pt. 2)

When you describe a character (age, height, weight, hair color, ethnicity, clothing, etc.), you are creating a characterization. The characterization is all the surface information that is know about a person (in addition to the above: schooling, social class, employment, etc.).

But the True Character is defined by the choices the character makes under pressure. For example, you can describe a successful businessman who is happily married, has children who are doing well in school and in sports, and who has a world of opportunity still opening before him. You describe him as the kind of guy any team would want on their side, the man you would choose for a neighbor, the fellow who would be selected as the jury foreman.

But what happens to this man when his world falls apart: one of his children is kidnapped, for example. Will he remain calm, focused, in control? or will he fall apart? make rash decisions? put others in harm’s way to help the one?

It is moments like these that define True Character.

When you are creating the characters for your book, start with plot…know who must do what in the story to give it drama, or humor, or suspense. Then people the book, but don’t create cookie-cutter characters, stereotypes…unless you plan to stand those stereotypes on their heads.

Do the unexpected with your characters. Remember the mother-in-law who lives with the successful businessman? The character you may have thought was just filler, rounding out the background for this stand-up guy who even lets his wife’s mother live with them? What if, as he begins to fall apart, she steps forward to lead the way, providing the strong shoulder and clear thinking required in the circumstances?

By the end of the story, we should know the True Character of each of your cast, and none of the primary characters should remain as they started. All must change. That is story. That is character development.