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There’s a theory out there (that I think, really, is more of a myth.)
The theory is that genre stories (think mystery, romance, science fiction, fantasy) are all about plot and literary stories are all about characters.
And it’s true that sometimes very, very literary stories are so character-based that there seems to be almost no plot. (I’m looking at you Virginia Woolf.)
And it’s true that sometimes genre stories are so plot-based that the characters are easy to forget. (Hello, Harlequin romance books.)
But the real truth is that character development is absolutely key to just about any memorable story that stands the test of time.
Here’s a sad-but-true story for you: My husband has never watched The Wizard of Oz.
I know. I know. I’m as flabbergasted by that as you are.
But the reason I bring is it up is to tell you that even though he’s never seen the movie, or read the book for that matter, he knows who Dorothy Gale is. He knows who the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow and the Tin Man are. And the Wizard of Oz himself. And the Wicked Witch of the West. And Munchkins.
He knows who those characters are without ever actually taking in their story.
Think about that for a minute. That’s some kind of character development wizardry, right?
There are characters who become such a huge part of the human experience that they make an impact on people who never read or watch their stories.
- Harry Potter
- Mary Poppins
- Alice in the Wonderland
- Peter Pan
- Robin Hood
- Alex Cross
- Jason Bourne
- Jack Reacher
- Scarlett O’Hara
- Ponyboy Curtis
How many people do you think know what the name Lolita refers to, without ever having read the book?
Show the list above to just about anyone and chances are very high that they’ll recognize most, if not all, of them. That’s regardless of whether or not they’ve read the books or watched the movies.
You don’t have to have read (or watched) Gone With the Wind to recognize this woman:
Just like you don’t have to have read anything J.K. Rowling has ever written to know who this boy is:
Stephen King said “Books are uniquely portable magic.” And I really think that is the most magic of all the magic between the covers.
(We could add Pennywise the Clown to the list, don’t you think?)
Creating that kind of magic character, of course, is probably mostly outside of our control.
We have no way of knowing whether or not readers en masse are going to fall in love with our characters to the point that they tip over into iconic. And I’m not here to tell you that I can teach you how to create the next Harry Potter.
You wouldn’t believe me, even if I did.
I wouldn’t believe me. If I knew how to do that, I’d have done it myself already.
But, we can still do the work of creating amazing characters for our stories.
And we should.
I have one little secret that I think will take your character development to the next level.
You have to put your character in their ordinary world, before you can let them really shine in your story.
Because you know what your story is about, it can be super easy to want to just dive right into the meat of it, head first.
But imagine if Margaret Mitchell let us read about Scarlet O’Hara meeting Rhett Butler without first showing her fiddle-dee-dee-ing her way through all the other boys and swooning over Ashley.
Or if J.K. Rowling just started with Harry Potter at Hogwarts, without first showing him living in the closet under the stairs.
The key to developing believable characters your readers feel like they really know is showing us what happens before the inciting incident (aka the call to action.) It’s important that Harry gets to Hogwarts, after all, but we care way more about what happens to him because we know that in his ordinary world he’s got an imperfect life.
Try taking out your notebook and just making a list of all the things that had to happen in your character’s life to get them to the inciting incident of your story.
For instance: Scarlett O’Hara had to be born to indulgent parents in the antebellum south. She had to be spoiled and used to getting her own way. She fell in love with Ashley. She was raised with certain manners that sometimes guide her behavior, even when it doesn’t come naturally for her to think of others first. She has a history of selfishness.
I was talking to one of my students the other day and I had a kind of epiphany.
We both write middle grade novels and she told me that she was surprised by how easy writing in a young boy’s voice was.
Maybe because she was always deep in boy world, she said. (She has sons.)
Maybe, I said. Makes sense. My main characters usually have some basis in reality. Someone real is on my mind, as I’m writing.
My older kids for my first two books, which feature a brother and sister.
My younger daughter was the inspiration for the girl at the center of my most recent release — but the boy who is the point of view character? I couldn’t stop thinking about what my husband must have been like when he was twelve.
Gideon isn’t Kevin — but thinking about Kevin made it easier for me to make Giddy real.
I’ve just finished the copyedits on my next book and while I wrote this one, for whatever reason, my sister Jill was on my mind. I thought about her so much that I started seeing her everywhere.
I posted photographs of The Pioneer Woman and Zelda Fitzgerald to our family Facebook Group. I pointed out strangers on the street. Doesn’t she remind you of Jill? My dad finally said that everyone reminds me of my sister, and for a while, he was right.
Here are five of my favorite exercises for creating characters that your readers will fall in love with.
Use them for your protagonist — but consider using them for your antagonist as well. Your story’s villain is important and making them fully-developed and giving them a real personality (including virtues to go along with their vices) will make your writing stronger.
Some of them, like choosing the right name, you can use for every character in your book.
Spend a few minutes creating a single sentence, or elevator pitch, for your story’s main character.
Here are a few examples:
- Scarlett O’Hara is a spoiled Southern Belle in Antebellum Georgia who is in love with the wrong man and will do anything to save her home.
- Harry Potter is a neglected boy who is unexpectedly invited to wizarding school.
- Dorothy Gale is a Kansas farm girl whose house is taken up by a tornado and put down in a magical world.
If you need some practice, try creating a logline for some of your favorite book or movie characters. Then create one for your own character.
Choose the Right Name
Check out this website. It’s a fantastic resource for creating character names.
One of the biggest mistakes I see new writers make is choosing a name that they like. And that’s nice, of course. But it’s important to think about who might have actually named your character. (Probably their parents?)
Use that website to research what kind of trends were happening around the time your character was named. If you choose a name outside the normal for that period, make sure that you have a reason that’s more than ‘because I really like it.’
Virtue and Vice
This is one of my favorite exercises.
Consider your main characters biggest virtue. The thing that makes them heroic.
Now take that virtue too far.
Courage taken too far becomes recklessness, for instance. A courageous hero could put themselves or someone they love in danger.
Humility taken too far becomes shame. A humble hero is at risk for having a low self-esteem.
This list of Aristotle’s virtues and vices is a good starting place for thinking about your heroes virtues and how they contribute to their flaws.
Don’t forget to look at it the other way, too. Your villain’s biggest vice might also be the thing that makes them human. A character who is cruel in general might care very deeply about one other person. Love taken too far, for instance.
Try answering these questions:
- My hero’s biggest virtue is ________. When that virtue goes too far, it becomes __________.
- My villain’s biggest vice is ________. When I follow that vice back to its root virtue, there is ____________.
Pick a Theme Song for Your Character
This is a fun little exercise.
For me, it started with my first published book. While I was working on revisions for my editor, I got into the habit of listening to Alicia Keys’ Girl on Fire as I got started. It put me in my main character’s head space.
Clover was a girl on fire and I found that listening to that song helped me to shift out of my own brain and into hers.
Choose a song that feels like it might be a theme song for your main character and try listening to it as you sit down to write.
The Proust Questionnaire
The Proust Questionnaire is a parlor game, popular during the Victorian period, that involves answering a series of questions designed to your true nature.
And Proust’s answers from the late 1800s on the Wikipedia page. They’re fascinating.
The whole thing reminds me a little of what we used to call Slam Books when I was girl in the 1980s. Little books full of questions that we’d ask our friends to fill out. (Sometimes they were terrifying.)
Answering the Proust Questionnaire for your story’s hero (and maybe villain) is a great way to get into them so that you can understand them better.
Everything you need to create great characters is out there.
It’s a skill, just like anything else. You just need to be willing to learn how to do it.
I scoured the internet, looking for the best resources I could find. Tools, worksheets, advice from authors, information about creating all kinds of different characters.
I came up with 52 links. If you take one a week and really dive into it — read it, follow the links inside it, do the exercises, spend some time with the information — in a year, you’ll create better characters. I promise.
Here’s what I came up with:
Resources and Tools
- Aristotle’s Vices and Virtues
- Baby Name Wizard
- Fantasy Name Generator
- Character Quirks (Worksheet)
- The Ultimate List of the Top 100 Phobias
- How to Create a Character Sketch Using Scrivener
- Character Sketch (Worksheet)
- Proust Character Questionnaire
- 12 Character Archetypes
- 99 Character Archetypes and Stock Characters
Advice From Authors
- Chuck Wendig’s (slightly NSFW) guide to character creation.
- Also from Wendig, 25 Things a Great Character Needs
- Robert McKee on Creating Empathy for Your Characters (Video)
- Andrew Miller on Creating Characters
- Malcolm Gladwell’s 6 Tips for Creating Characters
- Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
- Neil Gaiman’s Advice for Writing Strong Female Characters (Bustle)
- Sarai Walker on Writing Characters Who Tackle Queerness and Body Image Issues
- Writing Advice from Anton Chekov: Part Two, Characters
- Interview With Anne Rice: ‘Vampire’ Writer Talks About Creating Characters
How To + General
- 8 Ways to Write Better Characters (Writer’s Digest)
- 5 Questions to Help You Write Compelling Characters (Story Grid)
- When People — And Characters — Surprise You (The Atlantic)
- How to Develop the Voice of Your Character
- 5 Things Rocky Taught Me About Writing Knock-Out Main Characters
- Swords and Shotguns: Writing Characters in Epic and Urban Fantasy
- How to Successfully Kill a Character: The Checklist
- Tracking Characters with Scrivener Keywords
- How to Avoid Writing Cliched Characters
- Describing Characters of Color in Writing by N.K. Jemisin
- Ten Tips on Writing Characters with Accents
- Writing Autistic Characters
- How Do Transpeople Talk? Writing Characters Beyond a Gender Binary
- Writing Characters: Go Beyond Stereotypes
- A Chat with Cat Sebastian About Writing Queer Characters in Historical Romance
- Writing About Muslim Women Characters
- How to Treat Mentally Ill Characters When Writing a Novel
- Heroes and Heroin: Writing a Character Who Has an Addiction
- Writing a Psychotic Viewpoint Character
- Amy Spalding on Writing the Fat Character Who’s Not the ‘Before’
- 4 Tips About Writing a Character With a Chronic Illness
Types of Characters
- Writing Characters Readers Trust, but Shouldn’t
- Tips on Writing Believable Military Characters
- Writing Funny Characters That Actually Make People Laugh
- A Guide to Writing Pregnant Characters
- Writing Villain Characters Who Feel Human
- 6 Tips For Writing Minor Characters
- The Antihero: Writing a Dark Character Readers Will Love
- How to Write an Epic Story WIthout Any Proper Villains (Tor)
- How to Write Complex Female Villains
- How to Write Borderline Villains
- How to Write Scary Monsters
Whew, right? That’s a lot of information.
I can’t wait to see what you do with it. Go on now. Create some characters and write a story for them. This is going to be fun.
Shaunta Grimes is a writer and teacher. She is an out-of-place Nevadan living in Northwestern PA with her husband, three superstar kids, two dementia patients, a good friend, Alfred the cat, and a yellow rescue dog named Maybelline Scout. She’s on Twitter @shauntagrimes and is the author of Viral Nation and Rebel Nation and the upcoming novel The Astonishing Maybe. She is the original Ninja Writer.