How to Write Strong Characters

Lee McGowan
Jan 24 · 4 min read
Photo by Andrew Seaman on Unsplash

Conflict is everything in fiction. You can design complex magic systems, map whole family trees from the beginning of time and spend weeks on world-building ‘til you know the names and bowel functions of all avian species to fly your skies, but without conflict, no reader will care enough to venture beyond the first page. Those gripping battles and burning questions are what will transform your encyclopedia into a plot. But how do you create conflict? There’s only one way: write strong characters.

It’s a simple enough instruction and I’m sure most people understand. But it’s one thing to know what you have to do and another to know how to do it. I’m not an expert on this, and anyway it’s a constantly evolving process, but I have spent hours and hours watching videos, reading books and writing my own stories. I’ve collated a few pointers that I like to follow when creating characters and so I’m going to share those here, as much for myself as for anyone who takes the time to read this. So here they are.

Give your characters something to care about

This is the easiest one, but I often see stories where characters do things for no apparent reason. It’s jarring and there’s rarely a reader who doesn’t pick up on it. Why did you walk into that scary house? Why are you so desperate to find your lost ring? Without motivation, it’s hard to sympathize with a character. If they died whilst pointlessly shimmying along a crumbling ledge high above the ground then… well, why were you being such a damn idiot?

But, if they were shimmying along that ridge to save a trapped child or escape a raving lunatic, suddenly it all makes sense. Suddenly we care.

It couldn’t be easier to give a character something to care about. Just take a look at yourself. What if it was your son who was kidnapped? Your bakery that was robbed? Your house facing foreclosure? These are things you care about. Use them with your characters. And btw, when you work out what they care about, you’ve already got half your story.

Create a threat

This doubles up as a way to create a plot when you don’t have one. Take that interesting thing your character cares about and then take it away. Put it in danger. Conflict arises when you have two characters who want mutually exclusive things. The mother and father who both want custody. Two pirate factions and only one chest of gold. Your cockatoo who wants the millet but he's already had half of it and if he doesn’t stop he will get really fat and won’t be able to fly anymore, so please stop begging with those adorable eyes, Winston.

Uh… yeah. Create a threat.

Give them a unique skill

This one is a lot of fun and again can organically create a plot for you. Make your character unique and memorable by contriving some unusual talent. Are they an excellent magician? Do they have a photographic memory? Can they play the banjo with their eyeballs?

This not only helps your reader keep track of characters in a story where there might be hundreds, but it’s also a tool you can draw on to help them escape tricky situations later. If your protagonist is a great magician, then maybe he can use his card-control skills in a poker game. If she has a photographic memory, then perhaps she can recall that one map that shows the route out of the maze. If they can play the banjo with their eyeballs then… then… yeah, I got nothing.

Make them flawed

This is really important. Perfect characters aren’t interesting. You make them real by making them flawed. And by this, I don’t mean bad at ping-pong, but something more abstract. Eddard Stark from Game of Thrones was too honorable for that world. Arya was obsessed with revenge. Sansa was too innocent. All of these things got them into trouble and sometimes got them back out. Flaws aren’t good or bad, they just are. And they're essential for conflict.

And btw, your characters’ flaws don’t have to be as obvious as that, or as defined. Just make sure that they’re not always right. And be careful not to contradict those flaws unless your character has undergone growth.

Which takes me to my next point…

Make them grow

There’s nothing more satisfying than watching a character grow. And I don’t use grow in a good or bad sense; more like change. My favorite movie is The Godfather solely because Michael Corleone has one of the best character arcs ever. It’s the traditional ‘redemption arc’ (character goes from bad to good) but in reverse. He inherits his father’s Kingdom and slowly surrenders to the darkness that comes with running the mafia. It’s fascinating to watch.

Theon Greyjoy is another great example. He went from sacking Winterfell and subjugating its people to dying for Bran during the battle with the Night King. Other writing aside, this was my favourite moment of GOT’s final season.

If your character ends where they began, then they haven’t grown. And if they haven’t grown, you haven’t told a story. Conflict forces development.

I hope this post has been helpful to some of you. I’ll be updating it with more pointers in the future. I’m not an expert in this field but it is my passion and being able to write about writing is like some sort of thrilling inception. I love it.

Thank you so much for reading.

Lee McGowan

Written by

I write about programming, and I write about writing. I also might write about philosophy, if I ever get ‘round to engaging my tiny brain.

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