Author of 32 novels including the internationally bestselling Three Worlds epic fantasy sequence – over a million print copies sold.
This is the third of five articles on what I consider to be the essentials of successful storytelling – for popular fiction, at least. The essentials are external conflict, inner conflict, compelling characters and sustained suspense. The other articles are:
- The One-Page Guide to Storytelling
- 41 Ways to Create and Heighten Suspense
- 33 Ways to Create Inner Conflict in Fiction
- 60 Ways to Create and Heighten Conflict in Fiction
For this compilation I’ve read hundreds of books and articles, and drawn on dozens, including some fantastic books on writing. Key references are referred to in the text and listed at the end.
Why do we Read Stories?
Why do readers start reading a novel? Because they want to be entertained and the idea (the hook) interests them.
Why do readers keep reading? Before everything else, it’s because they care about the characters and what happens to them. In other worlds, they’re reading for the emotional experience:
- To share the hero’s experiences, feelings and emotions (hopes, fears, doubts, conflicts etc) as he struggles through the events of the story, trying to achieve a seemingly impossible goal;
- And also to experience reader emotions such as anticipation, curiosity, fascination, wonder, hope and fear, tension, anxiety and doubt, shock and dismay, joy and sadness.
Why do readers stop reading? More often than not, it’s because they’ve lost interest in the protagonist. If she’s boring, unbelievable or thoroughly unpleasant, readers won’t care what happens to her, no matter how exciting the plot is.
Therefore the most critical question for storytellers is, How do I create a captivating protagonist, one that readers will want to follow to the very end? A protagonist who will live in their memory afterwards, like Scarlett O’Hara, Bilbo Baggins or Harry Potter.
In general, readers are only going to worry about, and identify with, characters they care about – ones who are either sympathetic, display human virtues, or have desirable qualities.
- Sympathetic characters are people who are in trouble, or underdogs, or vulnerable, and deserving.
- Characters who display human virtues are appealing and inspirational because they exemplify humanity at its finest. Readers look up to them.
- Characters with desirable qualities, for instance those who are important, powerful, unusual or extraordinary, are attractive and fascinating to readers. One reason we love to read about characters so different to ourselves is wish-fulfilment – living their lives through the story, feeling the characters’ hopes and fears, and being awed by their achievements (eg Harry Potter, who is really good at magic).
Note that the character doesn’t necessarily have to be likeable, and readers don’t have to approve of his behaviour – if he’s compelling enough they’ll keep reading because they have to find out what happens.
What is a story?
There are many definitions. The simplest is, A character wants something badly and has to struggle to get it.
- The character is the protagonist, or hero.
- His struggle is the plot.
- What he wants is the story question that must be answered, one way or another, by the end.
Stories move us only when they allow us to feel how it would be to experience the hero’s struggle. Stories have to grab our attention immediately by showing that all is not as it seems, and making us feel that we’ve arrived at a crucial point in the hero’s life – when trouble is about to explode (see Cron, Wired for Story).
Once the beginning has grabbed your readers, their next question is, What is the book about? The three basic questions are:
- Whose story is it?
- What’s happening?
- What’s at stake?
A great story can show all the above in the first sentence. Eg (example from Cron), in Elizabeth George’s What Came Before He Shot Her:
“Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride.”
The fact that Joel is going to be involved in a murder provides the means by which readers measure the significance and emotional meaning of every event that comes after, and analyse why and how each twist drives Joel to murder. It also reveals all the scenes that don’t affect the hero’s quest, and must be cut.
Everything in a story must have a clear impact on what the reader is desperate to know:
- Will the hero achieve her goal?
- What will it cost her?
- How will it change her in the end – if it does.
A great story is designed from beginning to end to answer a single question, and readers expect every word, character, image and action to move them closer to the answer. Will Romeo and Juliet find lasting happiness? Will Frodo destroy the ring, and at what cost?
How Stories Captivate Us – The Fictive Dream
Most people read for pleasure, so you need to make your readers feel they’re actually living in the world of the story. This, which John Gardner called the fictive dream, is created by the power of suggestion. Reading fiction is like the experience of a dream working at the subconscious level, and goes through four stages – sympathy, empathy, identification, and the transported reader (for more information see Frey, How to Write Damn Good Fiction and Iglesias, Writing for Emotional Impact).
First, the writer creates a word picture with vivid, sensory detail that allows readers to feel the setting, then attempts to get them involved emotionally, by gaining their sympathy. To do so, make your readers feel sorry for the character. Any predicament that causes physical, mental or spiritual suffering will do – trauma, torment, horror, loneliness, lovelessness, humiliation, privation, repression, embarrassment, etc.
Now the writer brings readers further into the fictive dream by making them identify with the character. Identification occurs when readers not only sympathise with the character’s plight and understand her motivations, but also support her goals or aspirations and want her to achieve them. Readers don’t have to like the character to care about her, but they do have to be fascinated. Even if the character is a villain, the reader will take his side if he has a noble goal, eg a desire to reform, to do good or act on principle.
Next, through empathy, a much more powerful emotion than sympathy, the reader feels what the character is feeling. You gain empathy by using sensuous and emotion-provoking detail, which brings readers inside the character’s world to experience what she is experiencing, i.e. the sights, sounds, smells, feelings, aches and pains, etc, that trigger her emotions. When we’re shown a character in pain, we feel that pain. Sympathy, identification and empathy help to create an emotional bond between the reader and the characters. We can even empathise with animal characters, such as the fish in Finding Nemo, because we recognise our own attitudes, passions, beliefs, hopes, fears and motivations in them.
Finally you take your readers to a state of total absorption (i.e., they are transported) by showing the character’s inner conflict, the storm raging inside him: the doubts, misgivings, guilts, remorse, indecision, etc. Inner conflict occurs when the character must choose between two competing, equally desirable (or undesirable) courses of action, each supported by its own inner voice.
The reader now suffers the character’s inner storm and takes sides in the decisions she is forced to make. It is this participation in the decision-making process, when the reader feels the character’s conflicts and wants her to make one decision over another, that transports the reader – and makes the story memorable.
The Purpose of the Plot
As noted above, the key element in plotting your story is its intended effect on your readers. Readers read largely for the emotional experience – they want to be moved by the story. In crafting the plot, what you’re really doing is arranging the story events to evoke intense emotions in your readers, so they’ll be drawn out of their own mundane lives into the captivating world of your story.
The main emotional responses you’re trying to evoke, because they’re the very heart of the entertainment experience yet are rarely experienced intensely in real life, are (see Iglesias for details):
- Suspense (tension, anxiety, concern, doubt etc). Suspense is the most important reader response of all – if your story has it, readers will read on. If it lacks suspense, readers will lose interest. The heart of suspense is unpredictability – not knowing whether your hero will achieve her goal or fail. There are many ways of creating suspense, see Iglesias, and also my article, 41 Ways to Create and Heighten Suspense.
- Interest (fascination, insight, awe, etc). Readers have to be interested by what’s happening – on every page. If they lose interest, you’ve lost them.
- Curiosity (wonder, intrigue etc). What happens next? What’s the hero (or villain) going to do, and how will it turn out? Badly, one hopes. Never let it be predictable.
- Anticipation (hope, worry, fear etc). Your readers will look forward to some positive future event (a wedding or a triumph, say), and worry about a coming bad event. There are dozens of ways to create reader anticipation (see the references). Whenever you do this, make sure the anticipation is fulfilled – ideally in a surprising way – or your readers will feel let down. And annoyed.
- Surprise (dismay, amusement etc). The unexpected: shocks, twists, reversals, secrets, discoveries, revelations.
- Thrill (joy, laughter, sadness, triumph etc). Spectacles, sex, violence, escapes, separations and reunions, victories and losses, and so forth.
- Empathy (compassion, admiration, contempt etc). Discussed above. Many examples are set out in Sections A – C, below.
How to Build a Character
According to Iglesias, in Writing for Emotional Impact (a terrific book from which this section has largely been condensed, see references), five key questions have to be answered to build a character. These questions are explored in greater detail in the 55 methods set out below.
- Who is my protagonist? Type, traits, values and flaws.
A. Type – Hero, Mr Average, Underdog or Lost Soul.
- Hero. Superior to the reader. Confident, generally acts without hesitation or self-doubt. Readers admire heroes and fantasise about being one, eg James Bond, Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes.
- Mr Average. Equal to the reader and therefore arouses sympathy. We see ourselves in such characters and identify with their desires, needs and doubts, and their struggle to overcome all the obstacles in their path, eg McClane in Die Hard.
- The Underdog. Inferior to the reader. An unlikely hero, outmatched and overwhelmed by the opposition. We want to help, protect and console them. We feel compassion because of all their handicaps, admiration for their determination, and suspense because it’s so unlikely that they’ll succeed, eg Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins (see Victims and Underdogs, below).
- The Lost Soul (or anti-hero). Opposite to the reader, a morally defective character who represents the dark side of human nature. We may not like such characters, but when we understand what makes them the way they are, and their motives, we admire something about them. We’re also fascinated by what anti-heroes show us of the dark side, and may feel a guilty admiration for the way they defy normal laws and social mores, eg The Godfather.
B. Traits. A mixture of positive, negative and neutral traits, habits, likes and dislikes, talents, hobbies, quirks and mannerisms, enough to make the character three-dimensional. Many books provide detailed information on character traits and character creation (see McCutcheon, Edelstein and Schmidt in the references).
C. Values. To differentiate your characters, give each an individual point of view, beliefs, attitudes, values and passions.
D. Flaws. These can include negative traits, fears, resentments, psychological wounds and other emotional issues. They make characters more human and three-dimensional. They also make readers wonder how the character can succeed, given these flaws.
2. What does he want? Desire and goals.
The hero’s desire (for a goal) forms the spine of the story. Any obstacle to this goal results in conflict, which evokes emotion in the character and creates reader empathy. The goal can be anything important to the character, such as to resolve a conflict, make a decision, meet a challenge, solve a mystery or overcome an obstacle. A character in a story will have a number of goals but one has to predominate – the story goal (see Goals in Part B, below).
3. Why does he want it? Need and motivation.
All behaviour is motivated, and your readers want to know what the hero’s motives are in order to understand why he acts the way he does. His motives must be understandable, compelling and worthy of our empathy. If the hero commits a crime, we can only empathise and identify with him if we know he’s done it for a good or important reason.
Note that a character’s need (which may be unknown to her) is different to her desire or goal, which drives the plot. Stories become more compelling when the inner need is in conflict with the outer goal – as when a character is torn between what she feels and what she wants to do (see Motivations, and Universal Need, below).
4. What happens if he fails? High stakes.
Stakes are what the hero stands to gain or lose – and usually, the consequences of losing should be dire. High stakes raise questions such as, How badly does the hero want the goal? and What is he prepared to do – and risk – to get it? A writer who loses sight of what’s at stake is likely to lose his readers.
Stakes need to escalate through the story and reach a peak at the climax (see #5 and #10 in (B), below). Stakes can be global (i.e. affecting a community, country or the world) or personal (affecting someone the hero knows and cares about). Many stories have both, though stakes are more compelling when there is a personal element, such as the fate of another character the hero cares about. The more emotional the stakes, the more your readers will care about the outcome.
5. How does he change – if he does. Character arc.
Writing teachers are fond of lecturing writers about the character arc, and that to be engaging, the protagonist must have changed by the end of the story. But not all characters change, or need to.
- In many bestselling series the hero never changes, and readers don’t want him to because they like him just as he is. Classic examples include James Bond, Stephanie Plum, Hercule Poirot and Mr Bean.
- Some characters can’t change, eg Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby – which is the point of the story. In tragedies, it’s common for the protagonist to be incapable of change.
However in many stories protagonists do need to change by the end, and it will be more engaging if they do. Why? Because (Iglesias):
A. People generally resist change where possible. A need to change creates stress and conflict, and generates interest and sympathy;
B. Change is more interesting than constancy. It creates variety and stimulates reader curiosity. Can the hero change? If so, how? What will the consequences be?
C. It also gives the story a sense of significance – it’s worth reading because its events transform the hero (and he often becomes a better person);
D. It provides readers, who all have flaws, with useful insights into human nature, and a model for their own lives.
The transformation is often about fulfilling an inner need or conquering a self-defeating flaw, and can be physical, behavioural, mental or emotional. It generally involves either: healing a psychological or emotional wound (see Prior Wound, below); realising that the hero’s actions have hurt others; fulfilling his potential; or learning a lesson that improves his life. His struggle adds power, significance and an uplifting emotional experience to the story.
Know What Your Story Promises the Reader – and Deliver It
The beginning of your novel makes a promise to your readers about the sort of story they’re getting for their money – the kinds of characters they’ll meet, how they’ll behave and what will happen to them. Fulfil this promise and your readers will be happy. Break the promise and you’ll infuriate them … and they’ll never pick up another of your books.
Know what your readers will expect from the beginning of your novel and the characters you introduce. An epic fantasy makes a very different promise to your readers than does a blood-soaked serial killer story, a sensual romance or a police procedural. Make sure the rest of the story, particularly the ending, fulfils this promise.
How To Keep your Readers Reading (after Iglesias)
To keep your readers reading to the end, you must continually heighten the emotional bond you’ve created between them and your main characters. How is this done?
- Through recognition (understanding, empathy and transportation – see The Fictive Dream, above, and the individual points in A to C, below).
- Through fascination. As readers, we’re attracted to characters who are different, but how do we create fascinating characters on the page?
- Create unique characters by giving them:
- A unique combination of major and minor traits (see # 21, Real People – Details);
- And values and beliefs – the things they really care about, eg security, family, freedom (see # 16);
- And attitudes – their opinions and point of view about everything in their world (see # 16, below).
- A ruling passion – an issue, a compulsion or an intense dedication (eg Beethoven and music)(see #17, below);
- Details – the little things that make a character unique and bring him to life.
- Create contradictions or paradoxes (see #29, Contrasts and #35, Contradictions). You can do this by giving your character:
- Conflicting traits and values.
- Contrasting needs and desires.
- Use flaws, problems, fears and phobias (see #14, Flaws, #19, Strengths and #41, Weaknesses).
- A character’s weaknesses are always more important than his strengths, because the weaknesses create problems.
- Fears are extremely compelling flaws, especially emotional fears – such as fear of commitment, or of not being good enough, or unlovable.
- An unlikeable protagonist (anti-hero) needs to be the most fascinating character in the story (see #26).
- Use backstory and wound.
- Backstory. The character’s life before the story begins is backstory, and it affects his attitudes, values and personality.
- Wound (see Prior Wound, #12, below). Some past trauma created an emotional wound that still haunts the hero in the story because it’s never been healed.
3. Through mystery (curiosity and anticipation).
This means mystery in the emotional sense – i.e., What will this character do next? – and evokes the reader’s curiosity and anticipation (see Mystery, #20).
How to Create Compelling Characters
A. START WITH CHARACTER TYPES THAT ARE APPEALING TO READERS
As noted above, readers only worry about, and identify with, characters they care about – ones who are either sympathetic, display human virtues, or have desirable qualities.
- We feel sympathy and compassion for victims and underdogs.
Readers identify powerfully with underdog characters, innocent victims who face a far more powerful foe yet are determined and never give up, and characters who are vulnerable because of their size, age, sex, health, mental or emotional state, an injury, etc. For instance a young woman hunted by a serial killer, a lost child in danger, a sick man caught in a flood or fire. We want to see them looked after; we want them safe.
However such characters also need to be deserving because of their positive character traits (optimism, courage, steadfastness, selflessness, compassion, generosity, etc). A character can be in trouble, an underdog and vulnerable, but if he’s also lazy, selfish or a whining liar readers won’t care what happens to him.
There are an enormous number of ways to victimise your characters and thus create empathy with them. Here’s a summary (adapted from Brown and Iglesias):
- Undeserved mistreatment, injustice and contempt. Teasing, humiliation, mockery, embarrassment, being snubbed or passed over, prejudice, false accusation, physical brutality and violence. These are heightened if a defenceless character is abused, exploited or made to suffer. Also abandonment, loneliness or neglect.
- Undeserved misfortune. Death of a loved one, loss of someone or something important or valuable, someone down on his luck, someone who has had an accident, or sheer bad luck.
- Physical, mental, health or financial handicaps – underdogs. Characters with a physical deformity, handicap, mental illness, who are trapped by their situation or by a fear or phobia, are ugly, burdened by an addiction or disease, or enduring extreme poverty or hardship.
- Suffering an injury. We empathise for any character who is injured or wounded and in pain or danger. Also emotionally haunted or wounded characters.
- Fear of a secret being found out, or a desperate need to achieve a certain goal. If the need is too great, the protagonist may be crushed if he fails to achieve his goal.
- Revealing weakness or vulnerability – any weakness will do, when a character is suffering pain, grief, self-doubt, fear etc, but especially when the character has reached rock bottom and lost all hope.
- Betrayal or deception (but we applaud when the hero does it to a villain).
- Disbelieved when telling the truth.
- Exclusion and rejection. Because the need for love and belonging is universal, exclusion or rejection creates instant empathy. Also, unrequited love, and involuntary outcasts, loners and misfits.
- Regret for mistakes made. Readers feel sorry for the character and identify with him because it shows he’s human.
- Jeopardy. Whenever a character is put in danger, readers empathise, and the greater the danger (eg of being captured, maimed, killed, arrested, caught out or exposed) the greater the empathy.
- Vulnerability, i.e. they can be killed, trapped, enslaved, destroyed politically or professionally, or ruined financially or socially. Vulnerability can come from the character’s own physical, mental or emotional shortcomings and conflicts as well as from the machinations of the adversary; and
2. We admire and look up to good characters.
Readers are attracted to good or decent characters, people who exemplify humanity at its finest. They have strength of character – they fight for their rights, and what they believe in, and for others weaker than themselves. They show courage in the face of overwhelming opposition, and despite their own fear, eg (adapted from Iglesias):
- Those who help others, especially those less fortunate. George Bailey from It’s a Wonderful Life exemplifies this. Characters from the service professions – doctor, teacher, nurse, fire-fighter, police officer, etc – are attractive for this reason.
- Acting in any nurturing way creates a bond with the reader, such as characters who relate to or are liked by children or animals. If an animal comes to like a dark character, it’s appealing because it suggests that the animal senses his true nature.
- Characters who have a change of heart (eg accepting someone he previously disliked) or show forgiveness.
- Characters who risk their life for others, or sacrifice something important to help another person. Fighting or dying for a just cause, or any other courageous or selfless act.
- Attributes such as being ethical, moral, dependable, loyal and responsible are highly appealing. Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird.
- Mattering to others. A character becomes appealing if the people around him like him, respect his skills or consider him an expert in something useful. Atticus Finch, Forrest Gump.
- Showing humanity in private moments, such as a character who reveals her true self when she thinks no one is looking. If this is combined with undeserved mistreatment, such as ridicule or humiliation, readers will engage even more strongly with the character.
Early on, have your protagonist do something to reveal his true, good character (a Save the Cat moment). Katniss in The Hunger Games is a tough survivor, but she’s also the mainstay of her family and cares about the little things – like the stray cat her sister begs her to save.
3. We’re attracted to characters who are interesting, unusual or exceptional.
Characters who are strong, important, unusual or extraordinary are attractive and fascinating, partly because of reader wish-fulfilment, and partly because such characters provide glimpses into a life ordinary people never experience. Readers admire characters who are really good at something, whatever it is – and it’s especially interesting if it’s something they would not be expected to know (see Brown & Iglesias).
The character’s expertise – and the passion that’s behind it – can provide insights into a fascinating world the reader knows nothing about. This can be any kind of world at all – crime, policing, professional sport or dance, the life of a gladiator or a poisoner.
Fascinating characters may have:
- Power – because of noble birth, wealth, high office, rank or position, intelligence or physical strength, leadership or charisma;
- Physical or mental courage; or sheer persistence;
- Natural gifts, great skills or expertise at something important or useful; or a glamorous profession.
- Physical attractiveness, charm, wit or wisdom; or are funny, dangerous or mysterious; or have sex appeal. If you show, early on, that other characters are drawn to the protagonist, readers will also find him more interesting;
- Passion; childlike innocence or enthusiasm;
- Are unusual (in appearance, a rare ability or an amazing life experience), extraordinary, strange, eccentric or downright weird – “If you look at the fiction that survived the 20th century, you’ll find that almost all the main characters are eccentric.” Sol Stein;
- Are surprising (they don’t fit the stereotype of their character type). A warrior who’s also a poet; a nun who excels in poisons. The contradiction makes them more interesting;
- Or are misfits, rebels or eccentrics.
B. KEY WAYS TO MAKE YOUR CHARACTERS COMPELLING
To get the desired emotional reaction from your readers – empathy and transportation – they have to connect with the characters. You do this by revealing your hero’s goals, motivations, stakes, conflicts and emotional reactions on the page. The following points set out the most important ways to create compelling and memorable characters, and keep your readers reading to the end.
4. Give your hero a specific goal that will be difficult to obtain.
Readers love characters who have a dream, or a goal they’re determined to achieve. The stronger the character’s desire to achieve their goal, the more compelling the drama and the story, because it creates reader anticipation. The goal itself doesn’t have to be earth-shaking – but the protagonist must want it desperately. As soon as he forms a goal, and takes the first step after it, your readers will form a pair of story questions: What if he succeeds? and What if he fails?
The goal must be concrete and measurable, so the reader knows if it’s been achieved. Goals could include:
- Resolving a conflict within a relationship, between other people, or within or between communities, organisations or countries;
- Making a difficult decision;
- Meeting a challenge: climbing the mountain, escaping the bushfire, freeing the slaves, killing the alien, arresting the murderer, saving the world;
- Gaining a prize: winning the girl or the battle or the contest;
- Solving a mystery;
- Overcoming an obstacle (physical, mental, emotional, a disability etc).
The protagonist’s main goal is the story goal, which drives her all the way to the end and tells the reader where she’s going. However she must also form a specific goal for each section and scene of the book – otherwise your readers won’t understand why she’s acting the way she does. What readers feel in each scene is based on their understanding of her goal. If you can’t say, clearly and simply, what your protagonist’s goal is in every scene, you either:
- Don’t know your protagonist and her quest well enough; or
- The scene is a distraction and needs to be cut.
Rarely, the story goal will change during the story. The hero may initially be seeking a false goal, but as he is transformed during the story, his goal changes when he realises what he really wants.
The protagonist is often struggling with an inner issue that blocks her from achieving her story goal, because of the emotional cost of doing so (see Prior Wound and Universal Need, below).
5. Create heroes who are strongly motivated to achieve their goals – i.e., the stakes are high.
Why does your hero want his goal so desperately? Motivation is the key to your entire story, so make his motivation clear, strong, direct and personal (see Kress for details). When it’s personal, it creates a powerful emotional link between the protagonist and your readers – they understand why he’s giving everything he has to achieve the goal. It also helps readers to relate to and identify with your hero – to worry about him achieving his goal, and what will happen if he does not.
Above all, make the motivation primal – about vital things like hunger, sex, fear of death (physically, psychologically or professionally), protection of loved ones, rejection, etc. This also applies to scene goals. Your readers need to know what your protagonist’s motive is for each scene goal – and why it matters so much to her.
Make clear, early in the story, what the outer stakes are: what will be gained if the hero achieves his story goal, and what will be lost if he fails. Make the stakes high, clear and visceral. The greater the stakes, the more your readers will worry about your hero succeeding or failing.
Also make clear what the hero’s inner stakes are: i.e., success or failure at meeting his emotional need or inner yearning (the ‘hole in the soul’, see Need or Yearning, below) that has its origin in a past event (usually a trauma – see Prior Wound, below), and is preventing the character from moving on and growing.
6. Create a strong, determined opponent who pushes the protagonist to the limits.
Nothing can come easily to the hero. She must face an opponent determined to thwart her, and the opponent must be as strong, or preferably stronger, than she is. Why? Because opposition causes conflict, and conflict creates the human drama that makes the story compelling.
True character is revealed by how the hero deals with adversity. The worse things get for her, and the more she reveals her true character under adversity, the more strongly your readers will bond with her. A strong opposition will:
- Force the hero to face her darkest fear;
- And her deepest pain.
- Overcome her greatest weakness; and
- Drive her to the limits of what she can take, physically, mentally and emotionally.
Constantly ask, How can I make my hero’s quest more difficult, agonising and seemingly impossible? And, What’s the worst time for things to get worse? Then make it happen. Heroes who are forced to go all the way and give everything they have will etch themselves into your readers’ hearts, and they will never forget them. One trouble must always lead to another, and trouble must escalate all the way to the end, so your hero can never relax.
Avoid ‘evil’ opponents; they’re done to death and rarely interesting. The opponent doesn’t even have to be a villain – strong opposition can come from an ally with a different agenda, or someone who has serious doubts about what the protagonist is doing – or his ability to succeed at it.
Where the opponent is a villain or enemy, if you make him human and his motives both powerful and understandable, he’ll be much more credible and worrying. Give the villain some good, warm or likeable qualities, and worthy objectives. Make him face obstacles, doubts and setbacks, and overcome them, and he’ll seem far more real and threatening. The antagonist may be tailored to be the opposite of the hero (see Lyon and Truby), so as to heighten the hero via contrast.
Above all, make the opponent active, always working to defeat the hero and often fighting him in person. Too many opponents lurk in the background, as if they only work part-time.
If the identity of the villain has to remain hidden to the end (in a mystery or thriller, for instance), build him up by building up the hero’s fear of him, and by showing him knocking down obstacles one by one.
7. Make your hero act, not just react.
Action reveals character, and the deeper the hero is forced to dig, the more his true character is revealed, which is highly engaging to the reader. Wimpy characters – characters who whine but never do anything, or characters so beaten down that they are unable to fight back – turn readers off. At an early stage in the story, even shy, quiet or physically weak protagonists must actively try to get what they want.
This means taking direct action. A character who merely reacts to what the opposition does (such as a character hunted by a killer, and who only runs and hides) will rarely be sufficiently engaging for a whole novel. At some point, the character has to take action to defeat the opponent. In The Fugitive, it’s not enough for Dr Richard Kimble to merely outwit and stay ahead of the cop, Gerard, who’s pursuing him for his wife’s murder. Kimble has to actively clear his name by finding out who killed her.
If a conflict is repeated it loses impact. Make sure every difficulty your hero faces is different.
8. Show how your hero feels about everything that happens.
As noted earlier, stories are unputdownable when the reader strongly empathises with the hero’s troubles, feelings and emotions, shares her inner torment and takes sides in the choices she’s forced to make.
In every scene, on every page, the hero must react to the encounters she has and the conflicts she faces in a way the reader can see and understand. This reaction must be specific, personal, and affect whether or not she achieves her goal. Readers don’t just see what she sees – they also see how she makes sense of it, and the personal spin her point of view, expectations and attitudes causes her to put on everything (see Cron). Your hero will have attitudes to, and make judgements (right or wrong), about everyone she meets. And everything that happens.
Your readers must relate to the protagonist at every moment of the story, and the way you make this happen is by showing them how she feels, eg, frustrated, guilt-ridden, terrified, anxious, embarrassed, ashamed, delighted, resentful, triumphant, in love. Sometimes the protagonist will be overcome by these feelings; at other times she may fight them, eg by refusing to express her fear, which may be more engaging than giving in to it.
To deepen flat characters, make sure they react to every event. Show their feelings through their thoughts, what they say, what they do, and their body language. Show their reactions to being bullied, misunderstood or thwarted; reveal their suffering.
To show your hero’s feelings and emotions deeply and powerfully, you can use Deep Point of View, for instance when she’s wracked by a strong inner conflict (see #9, Inner Conflict and #22, Deep Point of View, below).
9. Profoundly engage your readers by giving your characters strong inner conflicts.
Real people often vacillate, are wracked by indecision, have guilt pangs, fears, misgivings, doubts and second thoughts, and such inner conflicts make these characters highly memorable because they show what the character has to lose. Inner conflict makes the character’s choices more difficult, and therefore more engaging for the reader. Inner conflict can make even quiet scenes powerful. Whenever a reader experiences profound empathy for a character, it is because the character is in the throes of intense inner conflict.
Inner conflicts can come from:
- The hero’s prior wound, a troubling secret, a moral dilemma, an inner need that clashes with an outer goal, or an impossible choice that has to be made.
- Or from the character’s greatest fear, which provides strong motivation for her actions – initially to avoid what she fears, ultimately to try and overcome it.
- You can also create a strong inner conflict by linking the protagonist’s darkest secret to her greatest desire.
- It can also come from religious, cultural or racial differences, class, ethnicity, temptations, sexual desires or fantasies, duty, patriotism, loyalty, laziness etc. Note that the opposing forces don’t have to be great; just great in the mind of the character.
You have impaled your character on the horns of a dilemma when your character must have or must do something, and yet can’t have or do it for equally powerful and compelling reasons (see Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Novel). At such times, it may be useful to use Deep Point of View (below).
A powerful dilemma or Sophie’s Choice moment – a choice that has monumental consequences – can profoundly engage your readers because they suffer the agony of the hero’s choice. Note that this may be a choice between two goods, and a choice between two evils, but not a choice between good and evil. That may be a difficult choice but it’s not a painful one.
10. Raise the stakes, scene by scene.
Through cause and effect, each scene must raise the stakes and bring the hero closer to her goals (both the story goal and her personal need), otherwise there’s no point to the scene. A scene consists of a stimulus followed a response, repeated over and over. In detail it goes like this for the hero: stimulus leads to emotion leads to thought leads to decision leads to action. The hero’s action soon leads to a reaction from her opponent, which is the stimulus that begins the next sequence.
In other words, in every scene the hero analyses her predicament and makes a decision she believes will help her – and this decision is always tested by the opponent’s reaction in the next scene. At the beginning of each scene, ask yourself:
- What’s her goal now;
- What’s at stake now; and
- What will it cost her to get what she wants?
After drafting the scene, ask yourself:
- How has she changed, or how have her feelings changed, perhaps to the opposite?
- Having assessed her problem and made a decision that she hopes will fix it, does she see things differently now?
- Do we know why she made that particular decision (especially if her reasoning was flawed)?
This matters because if the reader doesn’t know how an event effects the protagonist, or what she makes of it, it has no emotional impact (see Cron for details). In other words, the scene is a failure.
11. Create characters who have clearly defined strengths.
Your main characters need at least one clearly defined strength (i.e., their most prominent good quality), otherwise readers won’t bond to them. Readers (unless they’re fans of the ‘slice of life’ genre) rarely want to read about someone who is utterly ordinary.
If your protagonist is an ordinary person, give your readers a reason to care about her by revealing some kind of strength or positive attribute, eg caring for others, hope that things will get better, quiet determination. Demonstrate this strength in the first few pages, and reinforce it later on. If your protagonist has a dark side, demonstrating a strength is even more important (see #25, Anti-heroes).
Don’t give the character too many strengths or he won’t seem real. Make one strength stand out above the others. It can be derived from the character’s Prior Wound (see below). Ideally, avoid the strengths that every hero has (such as courage and determination).
Strengths can be physical, mental, creative, social or moral. Strengths determine:
- How your protagonist will handle conflict;
- What kind of conflict will test her to her limits;
- How these strengths can be used against her.
12. Give your hero a prior wound or troubling life before the story starts.
Memorable characters are often dealing with something from their past which has created a psychological or emotional scar (the prior wound – see Lyon for details). For Harry Potter, it’s the murder of his parents when he was a baby. He has to find out exactly what happened to them, and defeat Voldemort, before he can move on.
The hero’s wound may come from:
- A traumatic event, eg a serious injury, an attack, abuse, bullying or neglect, a tragic loss or deep shame);
- Or her life and upbringing (eg a poverty-stricken existence, a rigidly religious or intolerant community).
This wound may be the reason why she’s so driven to achieve her goal. It may also cause the hero to:
- Live in a fantasy world;
- Fear intimacy or relationships;
- Avoid conflict or troubling areas of life;
- Be embittered and angry at the world;
- Become an attention seeker;
- Or avoid conflict.
The emotional wound drives the character’s arc as she struggles to overcome its legacy. Until she can deal with her past it must always control her, and this provides a powerful motivation for the hero’s actions.
13. Give your hero a need or yearning.
The prior wound creates a hole in the soul (see Lyon), which the hero is constantly trying to heal by fulfilling her need or yearning (for love, justice, revenge, respect, trust, faith, identity, etc). Her quest to fill this hole then creates the internal, psychological story, which often drives the hero’s actions in the external story. Thus the story has two sets of stakes: the outer stakes of her plot goal, and the inner stakes of her personal need. The protagonist is often unaware of this inner need at the beginning, and it will often be in conflict with her story goal.
The hero can’t meet this need because her wound has given her a blind spot – she can’t let the past go. The wound keeps fulfilment of her need just out of reach, and she suffers for it. Her yearning consumes her, yet at the same time she is driven by her powerful outer goal. This creates strong conflict, which heightens the drama and makes the hero a more compelling character – and it’s what the reader wants to experience.
Sometimes this need or yearning will actively impede her drive to achieve her outer goals (see Lyon and Cron for details; also, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). In Die Hard, McClane’s goal, while he’s fighting the terrorists and Hans Gruber, is to win back his estranged wife, Holly. Everything that happens in the movie forces him to confront the reasons she left him, and to overcome them.
Identify the hero’s need and show it, strongly or subtly, in every scene, on every page, in both action and reflection. Some common wounds, with associated needs or yearnings:
- A recent death – grief and a need for healing.
- A death long ago – a need for understanding.
- Murder of a loved one – a need for justice … or revenge.
- A terrible mistake – a need for redemption or self-forgiveness.
14. Give your hero a significant flaw.
A flaw is a weakness in the character that is his fault, and stands in the way of him achieving his goal. Readers identify with characters who have flaws; they make them seem more human and relatable. It can be derived from the character’s prior wound, in which case the flaw must be overcome before the wound can be healed and his inner need fulfilled.
If the protagonist is strong, powerful, or a hero type, it’s even more important to give him a flaw that brings him down to the level of ordinary people (an inner conflict, prior wound, blind spot, bad habit, etc). Demonstrate this flaw soon after the character is introduced. But soften the flaw with self-awareness, or self-deprecating humour (see Maass, The Fire in Fiction). We like Dr House because he’s such a brilliant doctor, and despite some all too human flaws: his sarcastic nature and unpleasant behaviour.
We also like to read about flawed characters in the hope that they will overcome their flaws during the journey and become better people. The hero’s flaw should constantly get him in trouble; indeed, his flaw plays a large part in driving the story. For instance, Walter White in Breaking Bad – his flaw is pride and it’s behind many of the choices he makes in the story, including the choice to become a criminal at the beginning.
Don’t give a character too many flaws or he may seem comic. Make one flaw stand out. In some cases, the antagonist may be tailored to be the opposite of the hero, so as to throw his character into sharp relief (see Truby, The Anatomy of Story).
Knowing your protagonist’s flaw (whether physical, mental, creative, social or moral) also shows you how best to test him to his limits.
- What temptations will he find hardest to resist?
- What weaknesses can be used to try and break him?
- What weaknesses must he overcome in order to succeed?
Some flaws are beyond the pale, but others are relative. A character can be dishonest, a liar, a criminal or even a killer if the bad behaviour is necessary for his own survival, to protect someone else, to gain justice in an unjust world, or for some other generally good or noble reason.
15. Know your theme.
The theme is the story’s message; it sets out the hero’s personal growth that completes her inner story arc. Translate your hero’s personal need into a statement of theme and use it to focus the story.
For instance, the hero yearns for love and family but can’t fulfil that need until she deals with the past trauma that’s made her feel unworthy of love. The story’s theme is self-worth, and the reward for claiming self-worth is love and family (see Lyon for details).
16. Give all your characters an attitude.
Two critical features for creating memorable characters are their attitudes and their passions, because these go to the heart of their individuality. A protagonist who has both, sharply defined, will be memorable (see Lyon for details).
Attitude often has a negative slant, as being against something. Out of attitudes will come moral codes and behaviour, political and religious beliefs, personal and lifestyle habits and choices, job choices, opinions, values, biases, judgements, prejudices, superstitions and pet peeves.
Attitudes are formed by beliefs, upbringing and past life experiences. Having a point of view expressed through an attitude makes characters unique because they see the world, and life, through a particular lens. This colours how they react to everything: events, situations, crises and relationships.
A character can have attitudes about a myriad of things: eg, life, love, religion, politics, race, the opposite sex, death or dying, weather, sex, feeling inferior or superior to others, resentful of others’ successes, or believing the world is out to get them.
17. Give each of your main characters a passion.
Passion is infectious and readers love to experience it in fiction. Your heroes and heroines should be passionate about their lives, jobs, pursuits, their story goal, and what achieving it will do both for themselves and the people they care for. Passion is single-minded and leads characters to give all they have. Scarlett will save Tara; Frodo will see the One Ring destroyed (see Lyon for details).
Every major character should have a dominant or ruling passion which determines what he will do when faced with the dilemmas he must overcome during the story. It defines the character for the writer and can change during the story. The switch from one ruling passion to another can force dramatic decisions on the character and make him even more sympathetic. After the story climax, the character may not return to the original ruling passion because of growth, or return to it with a different outlook or understanding (Frey, How to Write Damn Good Fiction).
18. Create characters who are larger than life.
Most characters in most stories are dull and ordinary. They’re not interesting enough to be memorable or compelling. Readers are attracted to larger-than-life characters out of wish-fulfilment – though we live ordinary lives, we’d like to be heroes like these characters (and secretly believe we would be, in the same situation). But we also want to experience, through these characters, things we can never experience in real life.
Larger-than-life characters need to be put into larger-than-life situations, and be given greater goals and conflicts, as soon as possible. And they should only get out of one trouble to get into a worse one. But the character doesn’t have to be larger than the rest of the world. His actions just have to seem impossibly large and difficult to him – like a small, quiet kid having to fight a bully.
One way to create larger-than-life characters is by using hyperbole, which can heighten characters and description regardless of the type of novel (see Maass, The Fire in Fiction).
- Choose anything that a character says or thinks or does.
- Exaggerate it wildly. Go over the top and out of bounds. Bring out his strongly held attitudes and beliefs. Have him rage, rant, sneer, harangue, mock, scream, be sarcastic, etc.
- Have him say and do things that ordinary people never That’s why we love to read about extraordinary characters.
- Find at least twenty other places in your manuscript to hyperbolise. The story and the characters will come alive.
19. Give your hero something to fear.
The most important question you can ask about a character is What are they afraid of?
All heroes should have at least one big fear, one that readers share, such as fear of failure or public humiliation, fear of snakes (like Indiana Jones), fear of heights or drowning or intimacy, etc. The moment this fear is revealed, the story becomes more compelling because your readers feel sure the hero will have to face her fear. Readers then anticipate how this might occur, and how it will turn out.
The antagonist should force the hero to face her fear. If your hero is afraid of heights, force him to climb a cliff and you will create intense reader interest.
To make the story more compelling, you can also give the hero a secret fear, one that isn’t revealed until later. In Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling’s initial fear is that she’s not up to the job of being an FBI agent, while her secret fear is that her poverty stricken background will be revealed. Her secret fear influences her behaviour because she’s constantly trying to protect this secret – and Lecter uses it against her.
20. Make your character mysterious.
You create mystery by holding back information your readers want to know. Mystery can be heightened to intrigue by hinting at some illicit activity, such as a crime, dangerous secret, cover up, conspiracy, covert operation or assassination attempt.
A character may have a mysterious past, be mysterious now, or his future actions may be mysterious or unknowable (see Iglesias for details).
- Mysterious past.
- Hint about the character’s past life but have him avoid answering questions about it, which fascinates and intrigues readers (eg Rick in Casablanca).
- Mysterious origin of a character’s abilities, gradually revealed (Jason Bourne in The Bourne Identity; Harry Potter’s magical gift).
- Secrets that are embarrassing, hurtful or dangerous if revealed, and must be protected at all costs (see Secrets, below).
- Mysterious present.
- Why is the character behaving strangely, avoiding an issue, or overreacting? What’s he hiding?
- Why do other characters react mysteriously to this character? What do they know that the reader doesn’t?
- Mysterious future.
- Knowing the character’s personality and attitudes, how will he behave and react to some foreshadowed future situation, or a destiny? The reader feels curiosity, anticipation and uncertainty.
- Surprising behaviour or reactions.
- Faced with a major dilemma (see Dilemma), such as an excruciating choice, what will the character do? When the character must have or do something for strong reasons, but can’t have or do it for equally strong reasons, the reader will empathise strongly.
21. Create funny or witty characters.
Readers love characters who are funny or witty. The tools for creating humorous characters and situations are described clearly and simply in Vorhaus, The Comic Toolbox. Witty repartee can be added as needed during editing. Maass, in The Fire in Fiction, sets out some common humour tools and advises authors to use them vigorously and often, whatever genre they’re writing in:
- Biting comment (& insults);
- Ironic juxtaposition and reversal;
- Escalation of the mildly ridiculous;
- Being extremely literal;
- Funny name and word choices;
- Deadpan delivery of dumb remarks;
- Deliberate misunderstanding;
- Unlikely points of view;
- Extreme personas or voices; and
22. Use Deep Point of View.
To show your hero’s feelings and emotions deeply and powerfully, you may choose to use Deep Point of View. Here the writer goes so deeply into the character’s head that the narrator’s voice disappears and readers only experience the character through her personal senses, thoughts, emotions, actions and reactions. It’s most useful where the hero’s feelings need to be shown at high intensity, for instance when she’s wracked by a strong inner conflict.
Don’t use deep point of view all the time, because long stretches can be exhausting or irritating for the reader. It may also be unreliable – the protagonist may have misunderstood or misjudged what she perceived. And it won’t be right for every story. Plot-driven books, where the main character only experiences part of the action, and epics with a lot of world-building or description of setting, and mysteries, may be better told using mainly third-person omniscient or limited viewpoint, with Deep Point of View reserved for moments of emotional intensity.
In Deep Point of View the hero is telling the story exactly how she experiences it, with no intrusion from or filtering by the author:
- Get rid of tags like he felt, he saw, he heard, she thought, she noticed, she tasted, she remembered, he knew, he decided, he wondered;
- Show what’s happening to your hero in real time – that is, as it happens. Don’t generalise, condense, or skip, as a narrator would;
- Use all the senses to show what the character sees, hears, feels and smells at that moment. Only describe things she can actually perceive from where she is.
- Filter everything she perceives through the goal she’s after in that particular scene, at that particular moment – does it help her reach her goal, or does it block her?
- In real life, we constantly react to what’s happening in front of us, eg, a character thinking, Why is she telling me this? What does she really want? Show your hero’s reactions to everyone she meets, and everything she sees and hears, in strong, active language that comes from her current emotion, eg, loving, hurt, angry, disappointed, enraged, sympathetic, afraid. He hates me – really hates me. But what did I ever do to him?
- A scene consists of a series of beats, each a stimulus followed a response, repeated over and over. In detail it goes like this: stimulus leads to emotion leads to thought leads to decision leads to action. This soon causes a reaction from the hero’s opponent, which is the stimulus that begins the next beat.
- Show your hero’s sequential thought and decision processes as she:
- Analyses what’s happening;
- Thinks of various options to escape her predicament, or achieve her current goal;
- Assesses the risks and benefits of each, and her ability to carry them out;
- Makes a decision for reasons that seem good to her at the time; and
- Takes action.
- If the decision turns out to be a bad one, later on she should analyse why it went wrong and resolve to do things differently next time.
- Where appropriate, show the hero’s emotions rapidly escalating, eg from irritation to annoyance to anger to fury to apoplectic rage;
- Don’t describe her emotions, eg, She was terrified. Show the physical reactions and sensory details that evoke the emotion – Her hand shook so badly that she couldn’t get the key in the lock;
- The protagonist doesn’t normally think about or name her feelings – I was so angry. She thinks about what caused those feelings – He forgot to pick up the kids again!
- Use the protagonist’s unique voice, and bring out his point of view and attitudes in his thoughts, reactions and the way he sees and interprets what’s in front of him – an uncouth street brawler will see things differently to a naïve girl, a hopeless drunk, a disillusioned priest, a forgotten ex-soldier or an lonely old lady.
23. Use unique combinations of traits to create your characters.
Many books provide listings and analysis of a vast range of character traits, human behaviours and personality types (see Edelstein, Ackerman & Puglisi, and McCutcheon). Distinguish your protagonist by physical description and personality, by the way he speaks and thinks, his attitudes, passions, beliefs, goals and needs, by how he sees the world and himself, and also by his unique body language.
Every character has a default personality trait: self-serving, sarcastic, optimistic, jovial, silly, sycophantic, crude, meek, gloomy … This will shine through no matter what the character’s current emotional state.
24. No stereotypes – make your characters real people.
This means showing details of your characters’ real life, warts and all – both externally and from the inside. Ideally, make your characters’ inner lives contrast with or contradict their outer lives (also see Contrasts, above, and Contradictions, below). If you find that your characters are clichéd or stereotypical, twist them in some way, or chain some of their traits, their attitude, passion, goal or greatest fear.
To bond readers to your protagonist, show an aspect of her true character – then have another character make false assumptions about her, or assign false motives to her good actions. Readers will be angry on the protagonist’s behalf.
25. Readers can only experience the story through specifics.
Abstract ideas and generalisations don’t give the reader a clear picture, which is why news articles about disasters always focus on the impact on specific people. Sophie’s Choice illuminates the Holocaust through the eyes of one woman and her personal, agonising choice.
Every character, incident and setting in the story should be specific and personal. Can you close your eyes and see the character, incident or setting clearly? If you can’t, it’s too general and the reader won’t take it in. Translate everything vague, abstract or general into the specific, tangible and visceral.
In particular, show (see Cron):
- The specific reason why your protagonist does something;
- Her specific reactions to any particular event;
- Her specific thought processes, and evaluation of doubts and possibilities, after something important happens;
- The specific rationale behind any decision or change of mind.
26. The anti-hero or dark protagonist.
An unlikeable protagonist or anti-hero needs to be the most fascinating character in the story. His flaws and immoral traits have to be balanced with positive traits. For instance, Hannibal Lecter is a psychopath and cannibal but he’s treated badly, which creates reader sympathy. He also has many human qualities – he’s helpful, witty, charming, clever etc. His virtues and contradictions make him a fascinating character.
Show that dark protagonists live by a code of conduct just like ordinary people. In The Godfather, the Corleone family believe in loyalty and justice, and a dark kind of honour, and though they make their money from all manner of terrible crimes, they don’t sell drugs. Loving other people, especially family and friends, is another of the ways dark or criminal characters are humanised, eg in The Godfather, The Sopranos.
Save the cat moments are especially important if the protagonist has a dark side. One or two small good, kind, generous, honourable or decent acts show your readers that he cares about someone or something other than himself, and deserves their sympathy, understanding and forgiveness for other sins (see Snyder).
Another way to make dark protagonists engaging is by contrasting them with people who are much worse.
C. ADDITIONAL WAYS TO MAKE YOUR CHARACTERS COMPELLING
27. The Two-Column Trick.
Create a table with two columns. Title the first column What I know about my character and list the character’s main traits. Title the second column How I’ll show it in a scene, and work out dramatic and original ways to dramatize each trait through the character’s actions.
28. Naming and description.
When naming a cast of characters, it’s easy to fall into the trap of doing it mechanically, or by rote. This is a mistake – names matter, and by giving a character a dull name, or a random one, you’re missing a chance to create reader interest, and to reveal character. The same applies to your character descriptions. Check the way great storytellers (eg JK Rowling) name and describe their characters and you’ll see how much can be added in a few words (see Iglesias for details).
Show how the protagonist’s physical make-up affects his life and personality. Physical aspects like size, shape, figure, beauty or ugliness, physical and mental health, and disability profoundly affect the way a character lives and interacts with others. These features also reveal character and make the protagonist more interesting.
Whatever their attributes, no two people will react the same way. One small man may be timid, another feisty or aggressive. One buxom woman may revel in her physical assets while another will dress to conceal them. One disabled man may be crushed by disability while another will be determined to succeed despite it.
Give your characters unusual but memorable physical characteristics, such as Harry Potter’s scar, Captain Hook’s hook, Tyrion the dwarf in Game of Thrones. A peculiarly shaped head; an albino; different coloured eyes; sweating profusely – the possibilities are infinite.
One of the clearest ways to reveal character is via contrast. For instance, if the character is miserable, the best way to bring this out is by surrounding her with people who are happy – the contrast makes her feelings more obvious. There are three ways of contrasting character (see Iglesias for details):
- Within the character. Create inner conflict by contrasting traits, flaws, desires, needs and feelings. The conflict and contradictions (See #34, Contradictions, below) make the character more engaging.
- With other characters. By contrasting one character with another, you make both clearer (eg, in Thelma and Louise; Harry, Ron and Hermione in Harry Potter). This can be heightened by putting two contrasting characters into a relationship from which they can’t escape (eg, The Odd Couple).
One way to make your protagonist stand out is to design characters to be her opposite in one way or another – for instance, in agenda, personality, attitude, moral standpoint etc. This automatically creates conflict between the two and makes the protagonist a more vivid character (see Truby, The Anatomy of Story).
- With the world. By putting your protagonist anywhere he doesn’t belong, you create conflict and reveal his character. Eg a man who lacks self-confidence at a Toastmasters meeting, a pacifist in the middle of a battle.
30. Through other characters who know him.
This can be done in two ways (see Iglesias for details):
- By what others say about him. In the Harry Potter books, Lord Voldemort is built up by the awed and fearful way many characters talk about him, and are afraid to speak his name. In The Silence of the Lambs, trainee FBI agent Clarice is warned about Hannibal Lecter before she meets him, and schooled on all the safety precautions she must take. In Frasier, we never meet Niles Crane’s ex-wife Maris, but we know all about her character from others.
- Through his relationships. How do other characters react to him – with joy, respect, awe, irritation, unease, disgust, fear, terror? Every character who knows the hero will have a different relationship with him, and a different attitude to him, and each relationship reveals something new about the character. Think about the manifold ways the people you know react to you.
31. Through dialogue and voice.
Dialogue is one of the most effective ways of revealing character because it shows the character in her own words. In a few lines of dialogue, in the character’s distinctive voice, you can reveal a character’s background, education, occupation, personality, attitude, mood and emotions (see Iglesias for details).
Give every character in the book a clear, consistent and unique voice. We’ve all read books with a large cast of characters where we’ve forgotten who some characters were and what they wanted, because the characters weren’t clearly drawn, and acted and spoke in the same way. Every character brings a different motivation, agenda, attitude, passions, beliefs, upbringing and life experience to their encounters with the hero, and every character should speak and act in their own unique way. Authors who are masters in drawing and distinguishing all their characters include Stephen King and JK Rowling (see Lyon).
32. Through actions, reactions, choices and decisions.
One of the best ways to reveal your hero’s character is by putting him under pressure and seeing how he acts and reacts – what he does or fails to do, what he feels (or fails to feel), what he reveals and what he chooses to hide. If Conan the Barbarian discovers he’s being hunted, he’ll immediately go after the hunter. A little old lady would be more likely to lock the doors, ring the police and hide (see Iglesias for details).
To reveal deep character, push your hero to the limit where everything he cares about is on the line, and see what emerges. You can use the same technique with your antagonist or villain. At the climax of your story, both your hero and villain should be at this point.
Character is also revealed by the little things a character chooses to do, or not do. Also through dilemmas or impossible choices (see Painful Dilemmas, below), and by how a character protects a vital secret (see Secrets, below).
33. Through mannerisms, symbols and props.
Little details can be very revealing of character. They can include mannerisms, quirks and habits, such as Blofeld with his cat in the James Bond films, Mr Dursley’s facial tic and moustache pulling in Harry Potter, and Kramer’s dramatic entrances to Jerry’s apartment in Seinfeld. Also hobbies and interests – Hannibal Lecter’s cannibalism, Nero Wolfe’s orchids. And props – Indiana Jones’s whip, Groucho Marx’s cigar. Symbols and images, trophies etc.
34. Give your hero a secret.
This could be a history of (or disposition to) some kind of criminal activity, a drink or drugs or gambling addiction, an affair, sexual excess, or some other shameful incident in the protagonist’s past. Such a secret could greatly damage your hero in the eyes of others, or even send him to prison or the gallows, and must be protected at all costs.
Other secrets may be kept because of their value, or danger – in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo keeps the ring secret because it’s so powerful and perilous. A character might also keep secret that they have a weakness or vulnerability, for fear that it will be exploited against them.
Secrets reveal character because the protagonist’s fear that the secret will be revealed, and the lengths he goes to protect it, changes the way he behaves and relates to others. Character is also revealed if the hero eventually finds the courage to reveal it and accept the consequences.
35. Give your hero a contradiction, or make her unpredictable.
Characters who are contradictions (eg Batman: playboy and fighter for justice; Dracula: erotic monster; Rick Blaine in Casablanca – everything about him is a contradiction) are far more compelling than characters who are exactly what they seem to be. They’re compelling because they’re unpredictable and surprising – readers are constantly wondering how they’ll react, and what they’ll do next.
Contradictions often manifest in times of great stress, when the face normally presented to the world breaks down, eg, the shy character who becomes aggressive when pushed too far. But the contradiction must be explainable.
Characters may also display contradictions in ideals or values – for example, a man who believes strongly in right and wrong, but sees a crime being committed and doesn’t report it out of fear of reprisal, or because it will get a friend into trouble. Or bring down the company they work for. Or because the criminal is a fellow policeman and they never rat on their mates.
Or a conventional character who suddenly begins to act in a highly unconventional way: eg Walter White in Breaking Bad, a high school teacher who discovers he has a terminal illness, begins manufacturing amphetamines and turns to a life of crime.
36. Make your hero resourceful.
Readers love heroes who are clever and resourceful, and want to see them in action, solving every problem the antagonist throws at them. If you prove your hero’s quality by having her do several clever or resourceful little things early on (based on her goals at the time), readers will bond to her.
37. Give your hero pre-existing, difficult relationships with many other characters.
Your hero doesn’t start from scratch at the beginning of the story. He already has relationships with many relatives, friends, work mates, acquaintances, and perhaps enemies. Some of these relationships are freighted with hostility, disagreement, pain, misunderstanding and other emotions. By showing such relationships you deepen your character, make him more human and relatable, and help to makes his motivations clearer.
By increasing the relatedness of the characters to each other, you also increase the potential for conflict between them and make their lives more compelling.
38. Give your characters strong self-concepts (i.e. the way they see themselves).
One character might see himself as disadvantaged, or a loser. Another, as unattractive, awkward, charming, a winner or a brilliant singer. The way a character sees himself reveals his character and influences the way he behaves, how he goes after goals and how he reacts and interacts with others.
A protagonist who knows his weak points and is able to gently make fun of them, or use self-deprecating humour to deflate himself, is especially appealing.
39. Give your main characters a blind spot about themselves.
What do other people know about the character that he doesn’t realise about himself? An inveterate womaniser might think of himself as charming and attractive, whereas others know him to be a creepy sleazebag.
40. Make your hero hopeless at something.
Even the most exceptional people are bad at some things – and a protagonist who is good at everything would be insufferable. By making your protagonist a complete duffer at something, you make him seem more human and real. You can also make his goal more difficult to achieve by using this weakness against him.
41. Make your hero obsessed about something.
Obsessed characters are driven. This creates conflict and urgency, and reveals character. The obsession can also be used against your hero.
42. Establish a deadline.
Heroes are more sympathetic if their backs are against the wall and they’re forced to fight before they’re ready. Give them a deadline, then shorten it. Foreshadow the confrontation to come.
43. Give your characters handicaps.
Handicaps are weaknesses in the character that aren’t his fault, that prevent him from reaching his goal. Weaknesses can include physical, mental or psychological handicaps, fears and phobias.
44. And a life that extends beyond the story.
To make your characters seem broader and more real, provide hints and tiny glimpses of their life and relationships beyond the pages of the story.
45. And a destiny.
Characters who have a destiny (eg to become king, president of the company, leader of the revolution, or sporting legend) are interesting because readers want to know if the character will achieve his destiny, or fail – and either way, what the consequences will be for him and others. A destiny can be positive, or an unbearable burden, or a terrible threat.
46. Occasionally, have your hero do something bad (and the antagonist, something good).
This helps to broaden these characters and make them seem more real, because readers can relate to their real problems and failings.
47. Have your hero make a terrible mistake, or refuse to listen to reason.
Allow your characters to be as flawed as you and me. Show their reasoning before a big decision is made, using all their experience and weighing all the evidence in front of them, then making a decision that they believe is the right one, but turns out to be a disaster. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry insists on going to the Ministry of Magic to save his godfather, Sirius, despite many arguments to the contrary. But he was never in danger and Harry’s intervention leads to Sirius’s death.
48. Explore your character’s most emotional moments (via your own).
Imagining your protagonist’s most emotional moments (ref Writer’s Digest article) via such moments in your own life allows you to see his feelings more clearly, and portray them more vividly. Some great emotional moments include the times of:
- Greatest fear;
- Greatest courage;
- Greatest sorrow;
- Greatest joy;
- Deepest shame;
- Most profound guilt;
- Most redemptive forgiveness.
49. Have your hero state her personal philosophy up front.
This is common in movies, less so in books. Early on, the hero sets out their personal philosophy, eg in Casablanca, Bogie says, “I stick my neck out for no one.” This raises the emotional stakes, because the audience probably doesn’t believe it and wonders what’s really going to happen when he’s put to the test. At the end of Casablanca Bogie reverses this philosophy, demonstrating how far he’s gone on his personal journey.
50. Give your characters rules that they live by.
To really get inside your characters’ heads, and distinguish them from each other, ask each of them what are the three rules they live by. Eg:
- There’s always a way out.
- Do whatever it takes to survive.
- Don’t take shit from anyone.
Which rules will they be forced to break during the story? And which rules don’t they actually follow?
51. Make the incredible seem real.
Some genres (especially fantasy, SF, horror, paranormal, and thrillers where the fate of the world is at stake) are inherently improbable. To get your readers to suspend disbelief and become totally immersed in the story, make sure that:
- The hero and her allies are utterly convinced of, and deeply afraid of, the dangers they’re facing;
- Every rational objection to these improbable things happening is overcome;
- The antagonist’s motives and convictions are strong and clear;
- All the hero’s help is taken away, and the villain has overcome every obstacle in his way.
52. Breaking point.
Every character has a breaking point (Kress). To exploit it, dramatise the pressures on her and her previous self-control, which is now beginning to crack.
How does your hero respond when he’s continually thwarted or frustrated – with renewed determination, rage, fear, depression or feelings of hopelessness? Can he successfully modify his dark or unhelpful impulses. Express his frustration in action (Kress).
54. Add depth to your characters.
This can be done in many ways (see Aslanis-Nystrom for details), eg by giving your characters:
- Psychological depth – how they think, how and why they react to their world;
- Behavioural depth – how and why they behave the way they do. For instance, Snape in Harry Potter is a thoroughly unpleasant character in almost every respect, yet he’s moderated by his eternal love for Lily Potter.
- Emotional depth – how and why they feel the way they do, and how their feelings change.
- Sensory depth – how do they use their senses? Do they have unusual tastes? Do any of their senses limit them, or make them extraordinary?
- Communication depth – how do they communicate with others? Standoffish? Touchy-feely? Mainly verbal or mainly in writing, or also use a variety of body language. Or ESP?
- Social depth – we relate to the people around us (children, parents, lovers, enemies, bosses, the powerful etc) in very different ways. How do your character relate?
- Relationship depth – what are your character’s main relationships? Does he have a wide circle of relationships, or no friends. Can he only form relationships to animals?
55. To create compelling and memorable supporting characters:
- Identify key stereotypes attached to each character type, then work out ways that your supporting character is very different to the stereotype;
- Give them at least one defining characteristic, such as unusual appearance or dress, or an odd quirk or habit. If the character is eccentric, heighten this. Make his behaviour extreme or even bizarre. Have him do ordinary things in strange ways. Show that his view of life is peculiar;
- Highlight supporting characters by their impact on the protagonist. What do they agree on; what constantly causes conflict; what does the protagonist not understand about them;
- Outline how they came to be the people they are;
- Give them a powerful inner conflict – and show it in action;
- Give them distinctive ways of speaking;
- Give each character a flaw, foible or bad habit;
- Show how they relate to the protagonist, and what the protagonist thinks of them; and
- Give them a mini arc – at a minimum, an opinion or attitude that’s changed by the end of the story.
Ackerman, A and Puglisi, B (2012). The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression.
Ackerman, A and Puglisi, B (2013). The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes.
Ackerman, A and Puglisi, B (2013). The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes.
Bell, James Scott (2004). Plot and Structure. Writer’s Digest. Probably the best book on the topic of plot and structure.
Bell, James Scott (2008). Revision and Self-Editing. Writer’s Digest. Also a great book; a wealth of practical info and examples.
John D Brown (2011). Key Conditions for Reader Suspense (27-part article). http://www.sfwa.org/2010/12/key-conditions-for-suspense/ An excellent series of articles.
Cleaver, Jerry (2002). Immediate Fiction. St Martin’s Griffin. No one has ever explained the craft of storytelling more clearly or simply.
Cron, Lisa (2012). Wired for Story.
Edelstein, Linda. Writer’s Guide to Character Traits. Contains a vast array of traits, plus profiles of human behaviours and personality types.
Iglesias, Karl (2005). Writing for Emotional Impact. A fantastically useful book on the emotional impact of stories on the reader, by far the best I’ve ever read, though directed at screenwriters rather than novelists.
Kress, Nancy (2005). Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint. Writer’s Digest. Excellent book on these topics.
Lukeman, Noah (2002). The Plot Thickens. St Martin’s Griffin, New York. Terrific chapters on characterisation, suspense and conflict, a lot of stuff I’ve never thought of before.
Lyon, Elizabeth (2008). Manuscript Makeover, Revision Techniques no Fiction Writer can Afford to Ignore. Perigee Trade. In my view, the best book on revision and self-editing.
McCutcheon, Mark (1996). Building Believable Characters. Writer’s Digest. Contains a thesaurus of human characteristics.
Maass, Donald (2009). The Fire in Fiction. Writer’s Digest. He identifies the problems his agency sees over and over again in manuscripts and tells you how to fix them. A fantastic book.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow’s_hierarchy_of_needs
Snyder, Blake (2005. Save the Cat. A useful book on screenwriting and story.
Truby, John (2007). The Anatomy of Story – 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller. Faber and Faber. A fascinating and insightful book.
Vorhaus, John (1994). The Comic Toolbox. Silman James Press. Not just the best book on comic writing, but better than all the others put together.