Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and the Unusual

A Half Dozen Hints for Creating Realistic Characters

The best plot in the world won’t sell a story unless readers care what happens to the characters. People care about people, so here’s how to make fictional characters seem human:

1. Know them inside and out. Make a chart for each major character, with headings like Eye Color, Mannerisms, Favorite Foods, and Deepest Fears. Whether these traits appear in the story is irrelevant; the main purpose is to help you see a real person with human attributes. Once you know characters yourself, it’s easier to make them real for readers.

2. Pick one to four “viewpoint” characters—the fewer the better—through whose eyes readers will experience the story. Any direct thoughts or feelings in the text must belong to viewpoint characters.

If you tell your story in first person (as an “I”), a single viewpoint character is almost required. Speaking as a character experiencing the action does make it easier to stay in one viewpoint. (Not always easy, though. No fair describing the narrator unless he has reason to consider his appearance.) The alternative is third person (an invisible narrator does the talking), which can be used with a single viewpoint character or several.

With several, it’s tempting to jump back and forth between their heads. Don’t. Readers go crazy trying to decide whom to empathize with. Not:

“I don’t know what to do.” Ted felt miserable. How could he explain?

LaDonna didn’t understand why he was so upset.


“I don’t know what to do.” Ted felt miserable. How could he explain?

LaDonna shook her head. “I don’t understand why you’re so upset.”


“I don’t know what to do.” Ted buried his face in his hands.

LaDonna didn’t understand why he was so upset.

If you’re in Ted’s viewpoint and want to show LaDonna’s internal reaction, give her a separate scene after this conversation is over.

Another advantage of third person is that you can start by describing the viewpoint character from outside, before dropping fully into her head. However:

3. You needn’t go into extensive detail when describing characters. One or two notable physical traits (his height, her brilliant blue eyes), plus anything that will affect the story directly, should be sufficient. Don’t get so thorough that readers wonder if you honed your writing skills on missing-person reports.

4. Actually, descriptions of any kind are better shown than told—and “showing” does a better job of establishing character. Don’t say, “He was angry”; have him pound the table, slam the door, or—if he’s the passive-aggressive type—hunch his shoulders and glare at the ground. The way someone shows anger says a lot about his personality.

5. Dialogue is another useful tool. You can establish a character as a bore by having him go on and on about his triumphs (don’t overdo it, or readers will get bored too!), or indicate someone’s education through her vocabulary. Do think twice before using slang (soon dated) or “spell it like it’s said” dialect (offensive to many, and quickly becomes boring). In a first-person story, speech patterns should show in the narrative as well.

6. Don’t make your characters perfect; there’s nothing less human. Give everyone a fault or shortcoming. And though it’s not as universal a rule, consider giving the “bad guy” a sympathetic trait; a total sociopath is hard to portray convincingly.

However good or bad the characters, every story (whether the writer knows it or not) has a theme, e.g.: "Love conquers all"; "Crime does not pay"; "It's no use fighting fate." 

Katherine Swarts, Spread the Word's founder, owner, and head copywriter, has been writing professionally for more than ten years—and reading voraciously for as long as she can remember.

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Besides having over 100 article  credits, Katherine is a writer of Christian and inspirational poetry. Visit her blog.


  1. "...honed your writing skills on missing-person reports." LOL! Well said. I like description but it can get wearisome when overdone. Thanks for the reminder that just a couple "notable" traits can build an adequate picture... a detailed description can sometimes end up taking us out of the story.

  2. I'm currently reading Description and Setting by Ron Rozelle, and he says too much description can often be found in literary novels. That is so true. Can't tell you how often I skip over that part. You're right, Carol, too much is wearisome.

  3. I love, love, love these tips. I particularly love the one about NOT making the characters perfect. That is truly what makes them human, so readers can relate to them.

    Thanks for sharing!

  4. Thanks so much, Carol. Yeah, I like my characters a little gray too. Have a safe weekend.

  5. Hi Joylene,
    Once again, some excellent advice and suggestions submitted by Katherine. I'm sure that any serious aspiring writer will find this information of great value.
    Hope you have a very nice weekend, eh.
    Kind wishes, Gary.

  6. This is a great post. Interesting--"Don't make your characters perfect." I happen to find flawed characters so much more fun to work with. Don't you?

  7. Hi Gary. Were your ears ringing this weekend? I was telling some writers at a retreat about your blog. Hopefully they'll stop by and pay you a visit. LOL, yes, joke, but it's already out that you're a seriously talented writer. Have a great week..

  8. Hi Laura. I love that part too because my characters usually are a little on the gray side. Just got back from a writer's retreat. I told them about your blog too. Hope they have the good sense to stop by.

  9. Greetings Joylene,
    Ah no, my ears weren't 'ringing':-) However, I did manage to 'laugh my socks off'. Now, that took some hearty laughing.
    That's a very nice compliment. Coming from a great author, such as your good self, has really made my day.
    That would be really neat if some actual writers from the retreat, checked me out. One look at my stuff and they probably would retreat. lol
    Have a great week, also.


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