Great characters will make (or break) your story.
Great characters are the real reason we read stories. This is true. They're addicting, and the right one will take a story from "pretty good" to "Everyone needs to read this."
So how do you craft a living, breathing person from scratch? And how do you write a great character?
I've compiled 19 separate tools to help you start writing addicting characters.
These tools cover everything you need to improve on:
Why Should You Focus on Character?
On a sunny day, in a gently rolling village where nothing of consequence ever happened, a grey wizard came to town on a cart filled with fireworks… and broke the peace.
For this, we love that wizard.
From the moment Gandalf the Grey rides into Hobbiton, his presence heralds a new beginning. We can tell a great story is about to unfold.
It’s almost impossible for a great character to live in a boring story. They engage us. They keep us invested in completely fictional events. Compelling plot points seem to “write themselves” around great characters.
Your novel could be a mess of stilted prose, generic plotlines, and weak writing… and sell millions of copies because of your characters. It’s so easy to get invested in a good character.
The 19 Best Tools to Write Great Characters
The more of these tools you use to craft your characters, the more fleshed-out they will feel.
Not all characters need to use all 19 tools, so focus on your main characters the first time you read through this.
1. Motivate Your Characters … the Right Way
If you get nothing else from this article, at least take this:
To unlock any character’s potential, you need to give them a strong motivation. Give them the will to move forward, even if they have to drag the whole world behind them.
What does your character need more than anything else? What will they do to get it?
Every character - even the most tangential side characters - need to have motivation.
2. Push Their Internal Conflict
Internal conflict is the easiest way to make a character more emotionally complex.
Once you’ve figured out your character’s driving goal, fold in some contradictions.
Find ways that your character doesn’t measure up to their main goal--or better yet, give them secondary goals that will tempt them away from their true desire.
Brandon Sanderson adds layers of motivation to his characters. Kaladin Stormblessed, an underdog warrior, seeks righteousness and justice. But his hatred of the Lighteyes constantly gets in his way...
Layered motivations will live inside your characters until an external event forces these motivations to clash - ramping up the tension of your story.
Here’s a fantastic video on the difference between what your characters wants… and needs:
3. Craft an Emotional Backstory
Your character was not born on the first page.
Make sure you know what happened in your character’s past. Focus on these three questions to nail your character’s backstory:
- Does your character have a defining moment?
- What details in their backstory are truly relevant to this story?
- How can you show “the tip of the Iceberg?”
Picture an Iceberg floating in a still, arctic sea. Only 10% of its white bulk crests the water, leaving the vast 90% unseen. You don’t have to see the whole iceberg. You know it’s there, hanging suspended in the blue-black of the frozen ocean.
Readers don’t want to know every moment of your character’s past. They want to feel that your character is real. Your job is to create an illusion and let their imaginations do the rest.
4. Describe Characters that Stick
Burn the checklist. Tear up that drawing of your character.
Nobody cares about how your character looks.
We only care about who your character is… and it just so happens that “looks” can reveal a lot about your character’s personality.
There are two techniques I rely on to describe characters.
This first, stolen from J. K. Rowling, hinges on describing just a few, key physical elements of your character. The more exaggerated and unique the feature, the better:
- A vicious, lightning-bolt shaped scar
- A shock of red hair, red freckles, and hand-me-down robes
- Greasy black hair, a hooked nose, and a perpetual sneer
This technique is perfect for writing extremely memorable character descriptions.
...the best way to paint an image of your character is to avoid the physical descriptions.
How do they act? What do they do? What do other characters say about them?
These questions, and more, will help you tap into your readers’ imaginations… and help them create their own, brilliant image of your character.
5. Write Compelling Dialogue
Dialogue is easy.
The key to good dialogue is motivation.
In every conversation, at least one character should have an immediate desire, otherwise, you are wasting space on the page.
But good dialogue alone will only carry you so far...
To make your characters feel real… give them a unique voice. You would be surprised how a few vocal tics, common phrases, or unusual sentence structures will make a character stand out.
Or, as Yoda might say: “Surprised, would you be.”
6. How Do Others See Your Character?
These are, possibly, the most devastating words in the English language:
“Do I know you?”
A small dose of perception can tell us far more about your character than a dozen pages of backstory. Here are a few simple questions to ask that will help you formulate a strong image of your character:
Reputation with Strangers:
- Do strangers know your character by reputation?
- What is the first impression a stranger gets from your character?
- How long would it take for another character to understand your character’s history and motivations?
Familiarity with Acquaintances:
- How do their friends & allies see your character? How strong is their bond?
- How do their old enemies see them? How deep is their rivalry?
- What secrets do their friends know… or not know ... about your character?
- How much do they know about how others see them?
- Does their self-awareness hurt their confidence, or does this give them an edge?
But perception is only the first step in building a character who has truly emotional relationships. Let’s explore the next part of this concept:
7. Grow Your Character’s Relationships
All books have one thing in common:
We read books because we want to witness a change - either in our own emotional state (bored —> excited), or to watch how another person (or character) changes.
Biographies tend to focus on the turmoil and upheavals and changes that molded a person. Same with fiction. Even self-help books are about changing yourself.
The beauty... and sometimes the horror… of life is that nothing ever remains the same. To make your characters feel lifelike, they too must change.
One of the easiest ways to do this is to focus on how your character’s relationships change over time.
- Will your character’s actions improve their reputation?
- Do they make new enemies, or turn old enemies into new allies?
- Does your character reach a new level of loyalty after going through trying times together?
A straightforward “yes” or “no” to these questions is boring. Like with most arcs, your character’s path to the finish line should be unpredictable, rocky, and filled with agonizing failures, near successes, and a satisfying conclusion.
Easier said than done. But keep reading. I’ll show you how to map this out in a few more tips.
8. Make Us Like Your Characters
Heroes and even most Villains thrive with likable traits.
Give your characters at least one likable moment. When characters are imbued with likable traits, it’s easy for readers to get addicted to them.
- Show them trying to eliminate their flaws
- Let your character tell a riveting story… or two.
- Give them a “pet the dog” moment (especially when they don’t have to)
- Make them fail, again and again, only to get back up and try once more.
Try the tips in the post above, and you’ll have everything you need to write characters readers love to read about.
9. Give Them the Power to Keep Our Attention
There are two kinds of power. We’ll discuss the second type in the next tip, but for now, let’s focus on a few types of raw power:
- Strength or physical prowess
- Wealth or influence
- Charisma (which may or may not come from likability)
- Access to Limited Knowledge (i.e. how to open a secret door)
All forms of power live on a spectrum. Characters may slide up and down this spectrum - growing in strength or watching their influence shrink.
Power will create tense dynamics between heroes and villains… and even their allies.
Remember: even the weakest characters must hold some power advantage in certain situations… otherwise, readers will hate them for being useless and weak.
10. Give Them Agency
Take the plainest, most ordinary character…
...grant them this one gift…
...and they will become a devastatingly interesting, magnetic power-house.
Character agency is when a character chooses to act. It turns out, that’s really what readers want to see - characters making active choices.
Not all characters need a high amount of agency. It may be hard for readers to follow the actions of 8+ characters.
However, your main characters will be so much more interesting if, instead of reacting to everything that comes their way, they make decisions based on their strengths, their history, and their ultimate motivations.
How many times have you fallen in love with a side character, because they always want to get stuff done while the hero wallows in passive, self-pitying misery? Don’t make this mistake, and grant your main characters a high agency.
11. Reveal Character through Action
Another bonus to high character agency: actions always reveal inner thoughts.
For example, say there are two cops chasing a known serial killer. They’re about to shoot him when they notice an innocent bystander gets in the line of fire.
One cop pulls up short and doesn’t shoot. The other, filled with a reckless thirst for revenge, decides to shoot anyway.
In one, single action you can paint a character in a dark, bloody light. This is a huge piece of the “Show, Don’t Tell” advice you always hear, and it’s especially useful for making first impressions of characters.
How do you reveal character through action?
Let us see how their emotions manifest in their actions.
Be as specific as possible.
Show us the minute details of their interesting habits. Show us how he always fidgets with the trigger of the gun before shooting, or how her left eye always twitches when she disagrees.
We want to grow familiar with this person. Action is the perfect way to show us the tip of your character and make us want more.
12. Give Your Character the Perfect Flaw
Sherlock Holmes has almost god-like powers of observation and reasoning. But the thing that makes him most compelling is how his flaws play into his character:
- Extremely disrespectful
- All around anti-social, to the point that he indulges in destructive activities to stave off his loneliness
Character flaws make readers more likely to care about a character… as long as they’re not too egregious. We’re extremely interested in Sherlock, not just because he helps, but because he helps and eschews social norms.
Now imagine if he was really smart… and a really nice guy. How boring would it be for him to show up at a crime scene, politely greet the other detectives, solve the crime, and go home?
There are so many flaws you can give your character. Have fun exploring your characters’ weaknesses and blindspots.
How can you balance their strengths out with flaws that your readers will empathize with?
13. Flesh Out Your Character’s Shadow
Every character has a shadow… some just don’t know it yet.
For some, the shadow is a villain who is trying to destroy their lives (or already has).
Other characters are their own worst enemies. Something in their past haunts them daily.
A shadow is a problem that you ignore at your own risk… To make matters worse, the harder you fight it, the stronger it grows.
It may even be a lie they can’t let go of, as K. M. Weiland puts it. Something that makes their life harder and harder until they are explosively frustrated.
Your character’s shadow is their biggest weakness, their Achilles heel, and the most satisfying stories will resolve only once the character deals with their shadow… or dies trying.
14. Give Your Character a Satisfying Arc
Character Arcs are a vastly complicated, and delicate part of writing. Much of the craft of storytelling is about concealing the end of your character’s arc while keeping the line of tension so taut we can’t help but keep reading.
While there are many formulas for character arcs, the general outline will usually look like this:
- A character decides to break out of their current status, leading them down a road of failure and hardship...
- ...until they uncover a crucial revelation or find new strength
- This road leads to either Total Victory (if they deal with their shadow) or Utter Defeat (if they fail to overcome their mortal flaw)
New Writer Tip: character arcs are about how your character’s progress… but they’re also about how their stakes grow ever higher and more vital. More to gain, more to lose.
Raise the stakes on your character, and you’re all but guaranteed to keep us hooked.
15. Give Your Character a Name
I know. This is pretty late in the list.
Names have always been a struggle for me. Sometimes, they just fall into my brain. Other times, I have to do a lot of digging, tinkering, and sculpting...
There are many ways to come up with names, so allow me to list a few of my favorites here:
- Test sounds until you find one that “fits your character”
- Steal names from movie credits, phone books, or other name repositories
- Play around with syllables and letter combinations until you come up with a loose naming scheme
Whatever you do, I recommend you pick a name that is good enough and stick with it. The more you toy with a name, the stranger it will start to sound - even if it’s quite a good name.
16. Find Better Inspiration for Your Characters
The best characters do not have a single source - they are inspired by many different sources:
- Real-life experiences
- Borrowed from your favorites stories
But the question you should be asking is this: where do you get inspiration to start creating a character?
Because you will build your character over time, it’s important to start with a good seed idea. Find a moment that captures and holds your attention - that’s where your character inspiration starts.
Some of these seed ideas happen without your intent, like the character who walks into your head - fully formed, and ready to start their story.
But that doesn’t always happen. In fact, that rarely happens until you’ve been dreaming about your story for a long time.
Where Do You Find Inspiration for Characters?
Here are seven easy places to find the "seed idea" of your character:
- Google images and stock photos - you’d be surprised how a simple face can conjure up a whole character
- Random name generators
- Recreate a person you know in real life, then make something about them incongruous
- Think of a strange interaction you had with a new person. What might their character be like?
- Take characters from your favorite stories, and put them in your world
- Focus on a strong emotion you felt recently, and try to let a character “be born” from that emotion
- Get a list of character archetypes, choose one, and then twist it into something new so it’s not a simple cliche
Once you’ve got the seed for your character, the rest is easy. And fun. We’ll get to some character development exercises in a moment. But first, one final note on characters...
17. Don’t Create Too Many Characters
More characters do not necessarily make a better story. Many new writers make this mistake, especially with the rise of Epic Fantasy and Science Fiction with 9+ books.
For a single book, you would be surprised by how few characters you really need. The recent Star Wars trilogy suffered immensely because it had too many characters, and they’re still paying for it (they had to cancel the immediate follow-up trilogy, and the head of Disney lost his job in early 2020).
The real question is not “how many characters does your story need?”
It’s “how few characters can I use to tell the complete story?”
Too many characters will make it harder to tell your story… and harder for the reader to keep track.
The goal is not necessarily to remove as many characters as possible. Some characters give a distinct flavor and feel to the story, like Legolas from Lord of the Rings, or Hedwig from Harry Potter. Not every character needs a complete arc.
3 questions to ask if you have too many characters:
- How many main characters do you have?
- Will they all have a complete arc? Why or why not?
- What happens when I remove this character entirely from my story?
Cut down on excessive characters, and you will find your story is easier to write, easier to finish, and better at holding your readers’ attention.
18. Respect Characters from "Other Groups"
I can’t tell you how many classic, beloved, even world-renowned authors have mishandled writing about “other characters.” There’s an entire subreddit (with 300,000+ subscribers) dedicated to how badly men write women.
Learning how to write about characters who are different from you is a touchy subject. Some people don’t even like the term “other.”
So let me define it in the most neutral way possible:
“Other” characters are characters that are different from you. They may belong to a different group, have different life experiences, or face different prejudices than you do.
You may want to write about tribal life in South America while sitting in your hill-top house in Switzerland. You may be heterosexual, and want to write about characters who question their sexual identities. You may be wealthy, and you may want to write about the suffering of people in low-income families. And you should, as long as you do it right:
3 Simple Rules to Write About People from Other Groups
- Characters are individuals. No one person represents an entire group.
- People in “other” groups probably have to deal with stereotypes, but that doesn’t mean you should stereotype your characters.
- Always write about “other” groups with the respect they deserve. Since you don’t have a lifetime of experience living in their world, remember that there is a lot you can’t possibly know about being part of that group.
When in doubt, find beta readers who might fit into the demographic you’re trying to write about. Ask them how comfortable they feel with your representation. Ask them how you can represent them better.
These beta readers can be instrumental in helping you connect with your diverse cast of characters.
19. Practice with These Character Writing Exercises
Ideas are cheap. Execution is everything.
You must put your character ideas into practice. Here are a few character writing exercises to get you started…
7 Writing Exercises for Amazing Characters
Here are seven easy character exercises to help you start writing:
- Create a character logline: sum up your character and their quest in a single sentence
- Write a two-page monologue from your character’s point of view. Focus on what matters most to them.
- Dialogue with two characters without dialogue tags. Make them both want something, and explore how they interact with each other. Can you tell who is who?
- Use two characters to talk about a third. What do we discover about them in this dialogue in 100 words or fewer?
- Write a scene where your character must take action. Keep the stakes as high as possible.
- Create a moment of dialogue between your hero and your villain. How do they try to convince each other that the other is wrong?
- Explore your character’s virtues and vices. What happens if their virtues go too far? Or their vices?
The beautiful thing about fiction is there is never one way to do anything.
These character writing tips are modeled on the advice and strategies used by professional authors.
As you explore your characters, you will cultivate your own process. Once you start to use these tips, you will internalize them - and the craft of characterization will become second-nature to you.
Yet, your character writing process will always evolve - changing from book to book, or even character to character.
Don’t force it. Don’t look for perfection.
Start working through these tips and these writing exercises, and you will notice an immediate improvement in your characters.
And I can’t wait to read about them. =)
Thanks for reading!
What is your favorite character writing tip? Let me know in the comments below!