Let’s Talk About Creating Compelling Characters

Learn how to master the mechanics of character creation

Credit: Adobe Stock // olly

Characters are delicious. When I was small, I didn’t have many friends, so I surrounded myself with books and my imagination. It’s a strange, magical thing to live your life inside your head, but this is what I did. Long, sultry summers formed a backdrop for one of the many worlds I’d created, complete with a cast of characters who felt so real you could touch them. This was more than inventing an imaginary friend or anthropomorphizing a stuffed bear; my characters were fully-formed people who had their own personalities, a particular way of talk, and facial features I’d cobbled together from television shows and magazines. They clasped pearls around their thin necks and wore sweaters and shoes made of silk and dyed blue. They were carriers of credit cards, plastic rectangular shapes I’d only seen on TV — a far cry from the crumpled bills and pennies we hoarded. My characters were breathing Frankensteins, only far less frightening. What made them real was they refused to follow a script — they rarely behaved the way I wanted them to.

Since I was six, characters helmed my stories — they told me who they were and where they wanted to go. The writing was only as exciting as the extent to which I allowed them to run wild. Where was the fun in creating people you could manipulate and control? Who wants to open a book to read the last page? Whenever I write — and this is the case still after two books and hundreds of short stories and essays — I have a general sense of the story, but the characters, if designed well, serve as my aurora borealis, my own northern lights. If the characters are compelling enough, they’ll take the story where it needs to go.

Characters Don’t Have to Play Nice to Be Complex

The most critical lesson I’ve learned about crafting characters is to create without judgment. My job isn’t to act as their moral compass; instead, my role is to present them as complex, multi-dimensional people and then let the reader be their judge, jury, and executioner. The moment my judgment inserts itself into the narrative is the moment that my characters fall flat because now they’re under a microscope, forced into examination and vivisection, and when someone shines a light in your face, you tend to be on your best behavior. The greatest gifts a writer can give their characters are agency and breathing room. If you’ve created a psychopathic character, don’t force them to feel empathetic about the people they’ve murdered with cold calculation and malice. You can give narrative context to their actions and insight to what’s beneath the surface or demonstrate that a psychopath’s greatest performance is feigning normalcy like it’s their day job, but you can’t force them to break character because they offend, hurt, and malign.

You don’t have to relate or love a psychopath to enjoy a story. Your characters don’t have to be likable to be successful on the page, but they do have to be fully-formed and well-drawn.

When people talk about the books they love, they think about characters who are likable or relatable — stories that comfort and feel like home. Great stories are a fakir: They’re charming and seek to draw you in, so much so that you feel like you’re a part of the world to which you’ve been given temporary trespass. And much like traveling to a foreign country, you bring your passport and six-piece luggage set, the contents of which include your language, personal history, values, belief system, and your vision for how society should function. You navigate, with some difficulty, the new language, cars that drive on the other side of the road, and the exotic food, but there comes a moment when discomfort morphs into disbelief because you’ve seen or experienced something that wholly challenges what you believe at your core.

If you don’t want your world altered, you reject the story, set aside the book, and leave a one-star review with the comment: “Oh, please, so not relatable. Who does this?” Then the world presses on, ad infinitum, until you find a story that cuts closer to home — one where you’re temporarily challenged, but not altered.

In “The Scourge of Relatability,” Rebecca Mead writes about our desire to identify with a character and how that metaphorical mirror allows the reader to forge a deeper, more committed relationship with the work. However, Mead takes this desire to task when identification dovetails into an intense need to relate to a character or elements of their world:

But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

Do we need to see ourselves in a man like Patrick Bateman, a nihilistic psychopath, to find American Psycho a compelling satire of 1980s excess and privilege classism? Do we rid literature of the likes of Medea, Kitty Finch, Ingrid Magnussen, Iago, Lady Macbeth, Corrine Dollanganger, Svidrigailov, Cathy Ames, Norman Bates, Hannibal Lecter, Annie Wilkes, or Humbert Humbert because we can’t relate to the unspeakable, horrific acts they commit or the pain they inflict on others? Should we dismiss Lolita as a great work of fiction because Humbert is a pathetic pedophile? Would Medea have been more palatable, relatable, had she not exacted her revenge against Jason by going on a murderous rampage?

The most potent books examine all aspects of human nature, including the odious and profane, and because a character doesn’t behave in ways that reflect our firmly held beliefs doesn’t make the work any less profound or the character any less meaningful. A book isn’t bad simply because it’s not an account of how we would have lived our lives had we walked in the character’s proverbial shoes.

“There’s much to be learned from beasts,” says the villain in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

We like to believe that we’re infallible, that we would always be our best selves and that our actions would be held to the highest moral standard. We would never cheat on our spouses. We would never resent our children. We would never scheme, connive, or manipulate to get the things we want. And we apply that moral code to the characters we encounter, and then reduce their importance or relevance if they don’t rise to that standard.

While the vast majority of us wouldn’t embark on a serial killing spree or feast on the remains of others à la the census taker’s liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti, we live in a world where people murder and maim, rob and rape. Great stories hold up a mirror to this world, and we’re often faced with things we don’t want to see. But they do exist.

Great characters don’t have to be your friend or share a beer with you — they’re great because they’re memorable. Like a car wreck you can’t look away from, well-drawn characters leave their mark. They challenge or change the way you think and see the world. They compel you. They make you ask more questions than form answers. They linger.

Let’s Get Physical

Before I start a story or a book, I create a basic sketch that allows me to visualize my character. I create mood boards that help me create the shape of their face and figure, where I can pencil in the details. Master the physical because it’s the simplest place to start. Are their eyes black or blue? Does their hair curl in a certain way? Do their toes turn outward or do they walk with a swagger or a limp? Consider how we encounter people in our waking life. We scan them, categorize, take inventory and make judgments. We remember how fast they spoke or didn’t. We recall how they moved vowels over their tongue — how do they pronounce words? Do they have an accent? Is it regional? Do they have a dialect, a local vernacular that places them in their geography or point of origin? Do they have a way of speaking, but disguise it?

When I create a physical character sketch, I print out the human anatomy and make annotations on every body part. Then, I design their relationship to senses. How do they smell, taste, touch, hear, and see? Are their senses sharpened or impaired? Are they sensitive to touch or sunlight? Do they have allergies? How do they handle their body? How do they use it or abuse it? Do they have any irregularities, deformities, or physical characteristics that make them unique or different? Bullet the reasons, but you don’t have to go into detail just yet.

Before you stress out and create a 45-page sketch, stop. Create enough physical details that bring someone to life, specifically their experiences in this story. You can’t create all the physical details you want to help you conceive of a real person on the page, but what you put on the page has to connect to their interior and serve a purpose in the story. Physical attributes and tics can be a compelling narrative tell, lending psychological and emotional layers (complexity or dichotomy) to a story.

Imagine fashioning a small-boned, diminutive character who’s a violent serial killer. That gives the reader pause and interest, and it allows you as the writer to get creative. How can a freckled-face girl of five feet attack, maim, and murder adult men? Picture a confident, swaggering man who falls into a stutter when he’s confined in small spaces.

Define the physical make of your character and the reasons for the choices you’ve made.

Map Out Their Demographics

You’ve molded different attributes and characteristics to form a living, breathing person on the page, but they don’t move in a vacuum. You have to establish the external circumstances or demographics (look at my marketing experience playing house with the creative side of my brain) of the world (s) they inhabit within the confines of your book. Consider how you answer these questions for the creation of a specific character in this specific story:

  1. Age: How old are they? Do they embody the characteristics of their generation? Is that important or irrelevant to the story? Do they look, feel, and think their age? Is their age an issue or non-issue for them and the story?
  2. Gender: Are they male, female, or consider their gender identity fluid? Are they a “they,” “he,” or “she”? What role does their gender play into their identity? Or does it?
  3. Race/Ethnicity: What are their race, religion, and ethnicity? Does that factor into their character and in the story? If so, are there particular cultural or social norms, rituals, or routines that are critical to creating a believable character? What is their relationship to their racial, ethnic, or religious identity? Are there any tensions that exist because of it? What are they, and are they relevant to this particular character in this particular story?
  4. Geography: Where do they live? What kind of home do they own? What do they consider home? Do they define home as a place or group of people or point of origin? Does geography play a role in their life or does it merely serve as a backdrop for the story, a place in which to orient and root the reader? I say this because geography can often be a character in its own right.
  5. Income: What’s their social and economic background, status, and lifestyle? Are they defined by money or social status? If so, how? If not, how?
  6. Profession: Do they work, not work? If so, what do they do? If not, what do they do?
  7. Marital Status: What’s their marital or parenting status? Consider your choices here. Is their being single or married or a parent important to them or the story? Are these roles core elements of their character? If so, how and why? Is family important to the character and the story? If so, how and why/why not?
  8. Education: What’s their level of education, and how does that play into the story and shape of the character?

Be surgical in your answers. Define and reveal that which is elemental to the character and movement of the story. Remember, you can create a single page, 45-page, or 1,221-page character sketch and study for context and reference, but you only need to include the elements that construct, define, differentiate, and move your character through the narrative world you’ve designed. So, if they’re a Mormon mom, that has to mean something to the character and story. Don’t bloat your character for the sake of adding fat. It’s harder to write lean than it is to incur page bloat.

Get in Their Head and Burrow Deep

You’ve navigated all facets of their exterior, so let’s climb under the hood and beneath the surface of the character’s skin. First, you want to create connections (if any) between the physical and circumstantial with their emotional and psychological state. Then, you want to create the unique characteristics that make them real. For example:

  1. How do they navigate and manage the rage of emotions they’ll experience in the story? If they love, how do they love? How they express it or not? Is their expression physical or emotional? Do they touch or recede from touch?
  2. Do they wear masks? Do they have one face they display in a group of people or circumstance that changes when the variables shift?
  3. What are their habits? Do they have notable patterns or routines? Are they a smoker? Are they prone to always being late? Are they methodical about cleanliness? Do they fish or hunt or tinker with their cars? Define their habits and the emotional state or resolution the habits five them.
  4. What is their psychological state and does it shift, amplify, or change throughout the story? Do they have addictions or illnesses (physical and mental) and how do they manifest in this particular character?
  5. What are their personality traits? Are they nervous, or a bold and confident problem solver? How do their qualities help them (or don’t) navigate the world you’ve created for them?

Think about the people in your life. If someone were to ask you to talk about your best friend, lover, boss, or relative — how would you describe them? What words would you use? Would there be a reason to linger on a set of traits or physical attributes?

Then, you want to architect their value and belief system. What is their code of conduct, their construct of order, right, and wrong? What are the ideologies or beliefs they cleave to that make them a whole person? For example, the way a serial killer would view right and wrong would be markedly different than a pastor or preacher. (Or, depending on your story, maybe not.) Values and belief systems are core to a person and rarely change. Ask yourself: who is my character? What kind of person are they?

Make the Connections

The beauty in crafting a character is that they momentarily exist in a vacuum before you’ve released them on the page. In my opinion, the release is thrilling because you get to see how they embody your human design in the world. How they apply it in their relationships and interactions with people, places, and things. Because you can render the most detailed of character sketches and still see your character fall flat on the page.

Why? Because the magic is in how they put their character to work. How they express themselves makes them unique. Think about handing two different people the same recipe and ingredients. The result will always come out a little different. The dishes won’t taste the same. Maybe one of the cooks let the food cook a second longer. Maybe another added a large instead of small pinch of salt. How they interpret and perform their task makes for two distinct end results.

You can make the argument that every story has been told and every character drawn, but humans are endlessly fascinating in how they exhibit and express their humanity. It’s the difference between Hannibal Lecter, Patrick Bateman or Lizzy Borden. The characters share certain elements and characteristics (they’re all constrained by social order, they come from wealth and means and are well-educated and reared), yet how they act on them (their modus operandi, if you will) is wholly unique and individual. No two mothers are alike. No two accident victims are alike. No two kings or kingdoms are alike. Your characters should be as unique as the people one encounters in life — it may not be your life (that’s what research is for), but it’s someone's life.

Who they are scratches the surface, but how and why they act slips beneath it.


Sign up for my newsletter to score weekly tips, how-tos, as well as get access to free 6-day email course on writing mechanics starting later this month!

And who am I? I’ve published two books (a memoir with Algonquin/HarperCollins in 2008 and a novel with Feminist Press in 2017). My books have been featured in Elle, Vanity Fair, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, etc. I was the founder and editor of a literary journal that was featured in the New York Times, Poets & Writers, New Yorker, and more. I’ve my MFA from Columbia (if that matters), and I’ve published hundreds of stories, essays, and articles in the past 20 years. I’ve also taught at USC and in writing groups in NY.