So we’re trying to get back on the 2nd and 4th Sunday of the month story posting schedule, so you get a new set of writing tips this week and a story by Gwen Cosmos next week. So, without further ado, here are our tips to writing interesting characters.
Leandra and Gwen
How to Write Well-Developed Characters
- Avoid/subvert stock characters. There are characters people have seen a million times. Everyone knows the innocent princess, the stoic warrior women, and the drunken berserker. Because they are so familiar, you readers will likely find them boring unless they are used very sparingly and only in supporting roles. For your main characters, make sure to either expand on these stock characters so that they are their own, interesting personalities or avoid them entirely. (Obviously, avoid sexist and racist stereotypes as well).
- Figure out motives (for everything). Your characters should drive the plot; the plot shouldn’t drive the characters. To keep this true, check that their motives for doing whatever they need to move the plot forward make sense with their personality. If they don’t (or if there is no good/clear motive), either change your plot or introduce/find a character who does have a good motive for accomplishing what’s needed. DON”T change that character’s personality unless you are very confident that the new personality is as interesting and well-thought out as the old and not just an excuse for lazy writing. On the other end of it all, check that character has multiple motives and goals which underlie and drive their actions and decisions.
- Keep character development logical and well-paced. Interesting main characters are dynamic. If your main character is the same person at the end of your story as they were at the beginning, change something! Let your readers watch the character they love develop and grow. That being said, also keep your character development realistic. Unless they run into a major event, people don’t change overnight. Growing up, losing a loved one, gaining a terminal/chronic disease/disability, having children, embarking on a lasting romantic relationship for the first time, and either having to give up on or reaching a goal-all this changes people (and not in the same way or at the same pace for each person). If your characters experience one of these events, figure out how they will change based on who they are. For example, a very stubborn character may, after one company refuses to hire them as an editor, become committed to working for their rival, while a self-doubting character might decide to go into another field (as an addendum, being yelled at or lectured by someone somebody dislikes without any other consequences probably won’t change your character at all, though this often pops up in fiction anyway). After you know how your character will change, take your time with it to make sure it develops naturally.
- Give your characters flaws. Real people aren’t perfect. If you want your reader to identify with your characters, give them impactful flaws. Make sure to show, not tell here. If other characters tell us that Lucy is blunt, but she never is tactless on the page OR her poor social skills never have any negative consequences, that is not a flaw (and your readers aren’t fooled into thinking it is!) Additionally, flaws should be actual flaws and not merely virtues with bad PR. For example: Bob being so naive that he is often taken advantage of is a flaw; Bob caring too much is not.
- Keep characters active. You’ve followed instruction two and you know what your characters want. Now, they should do stuff to get it. If your main character and their friends are often merely reacting to stuff the plot throws at them and are not making decisions themselves that impact the plot, then they are too passive. There are some exceptions to this rule (for example, if you want to show how weakening certain social institutions can be), however, you should find a way to work some active main characters in no matter what and be very sure that your reason is good (and, “that’s just how they are,” isn’t good-write a more interesting character!)
To summarize all the above points: our favorite question for developing interesting characters is “why?” Why does he want that? Why is she like this? Why do they do that? If you can answer this question easily and realistically for everything, you probably have a good grasp on your characters. If not, it’s a good place to start going deeper into their personalities.