Writing Elements: Writing Characters


Disclaimer: there is so much I could say about characters, so expect a (potential) series about characters.

Writing characters is very much like getting to know a human being: no matter how well you think you know someone, they’ll always surprise you. Characters are the same. No matter how well you think you’ve written your character, they will always surprise you, which is why some writers don’t like to create characters beforehand. They much prefer to let the story shape what type of character they will be. However, other writers like to at least know the basics about their characters beforehand, while others like to know a lot of details about their characters. It really varies depending what type of writer you are.

However, there is one writing no-no that every writer tries to avoid: the dreaded Mary Sue. A Mary Sue is an unfulfilling character that either is a self insert of the author, an idealised version of the author or wish fulfilment. To an extent, all characters will have aspects of the writer in them. But if your character resembles Bella Swann from Twilight, you might have an issue. To see if your character is a Mary Sue, or in danger of becoming one, fill out this quiz and see what your result is.

How do you create complex characters?

For starters, take a look at your favourite characters and figure out why they’re your favourite characters. Usually, your favourite characters are representative of either who you are as a person or the type of person you’re drawn to. Whether it’s the humble librarian, the overconfident lawyer, the loud theatre performer, each have their own personality that perhaps resembles someone you know or perhaps reminds you of you or perhaps you’ve secretly wanted to be. Regardless, figure out what drew you to them in the first place (even if it took half a season to convince you – again, figure out why you didn’t like them initially).

Don’t be concerned if you’re drawn to villains though. I’m drawn to villains in a fictional sense, but would immediately leave if that type of person manifested in my life. Characters are fictional and typically exaggerated to fit the story. For example, a villain is typically the polar opposite to the hero as a way to throw the hero off. However, the hero and villain usually have something in common so their paths cross in the first place.

Secondly, look at the people around you. From your family to your classmates/colleagues, figure out what you like or dislike about them. You might not get to choose who is in your school or workplace, nor who you’re related to, but you can at least figure out why you feel the way you do about them. Perhaps you don’t have an opinion on them, but you’ve noticed little things about them. Jot it down. Characters with little quirks are always better than flawless characters. Additionally, with family, see how you’re alike or different to them. Is there a family trait you share? Is there a genetic trait you share?

To add to this, look at why you chose your friends, regardless of whether they’re only online, your adorable pet(s) or imaginary (we’ve all been there). Why did you choose them to be your friends? What was it about them that drew you to them? Then look at maybe a trait or two you might not like, and maybe consider adding it to a character or two. As I mentioned above, a flawless character isn’t realistic, so add flaws in.

Thirdly, look at the people around you in a more general sense. Sit down with a notebook (or the note section on your phone) and observe the people you see. Sure, you won’t get an in depth analysis like you do with your loved ones, or even a brief overview like those at school/work, but you can see things that might say a lot about them. For example, if you see someone disrespect a waitress, you can probably gauge a little about them. Or use stereotypes and consider why they’re stereotypes, or perhaps why they don’t fit this stereotype. I promise, you’ll learn more about a person when you see why they don’t fit a certain stereotype/label than how they do.

Lastly, if all else fails, fill out some character questionnaires or interviews. Even better, grab a friend and get them to ask you questions about your character and you answer as if you are your character (also known as hot seating). It’s a good way of figuring out how well you know your character and how to develop them further. Plus, it’s a good way to see what types of questions the interviewer asks you, because you might not have ever thought about it and they might bring up an interesting point.

Basically, the main key to writing a good character is to see if they’re complex or not. If you could tell me tons of detail about your loved one but next to nothing about your character, you might want to flesh out your character a bit more (depending what type of writer you are).

What’s your best advice for writing characters?

Is there anything you want me to cover about characters? Let me know!