How to Write Characters You (and Your Audience) Will Love
Interesting, likable characters will make or break a story, whether in literature, on stage, or on the screen. Humans have been telling stories for millennia, and though we’ve moved on from cave drawings to interactive shows, the basics have remained the same. What makes storytelling so compelling are the characters and what they tell us about ourselves.
So, what makes a remarkable character? Most readers love a great hero, but they also love a great villain. If your characters are one-dimensional or underdeveloped, readers will not have a reason to care about them. You want to make sure that all of your characters—even the supporting ones—have distinct personalities.
If you need some help figuring out how to write incredible characters, keep reading. Afterward, check out our big-picture editing services to learn more.
What’s in a name?
Well, according to Romeo, not much. Yet, what if Shakespeare had named them Mario and Francesca instead of Romeo and Juliet? Not as catchy.
You want to choose a name that fits your character naturally—consider what it says about their family, where and when they grew up, and how they see themselves. Do they use a nickname? Their middle name? All of this matters, but it has to be subtle. If you want a character to be a surprise villain, for example, don’t name them “Johnny Wicked.”
That said, have fun coming up with character names. Checking the meaning of particular names can add depth to your characters. Indeed, hidden meanings can be intriguing so long as you don’t go over the top with them. For instance, naming a character “Cerulean Blue” to emphasize that they like the color blue is overkill.
Also, make sure you don’t use names that are too similar so that each character stands out and is easy to remember. If you have characters named Willy and Wally, your readers will likely mix the two of them up. In general, it’s a good rule of thumb not to have names starting with the same letter, but this rule can be broken, particularly in books with large casts. Also, no one is likely to mix up the names Sarah and Stanislav, so as long as the names don’t look too similar, you should be fine.
Deeper than skin-deep
Unless something about your main character’s physical appearance is directly relevant to their story—like their skin color, ethnicity, a disability, or a distinctive tattoo that will matter to the plot—don’t waste effort describing their physical attributes in agonizing detail. Less is more, but at the same time, characters who are more important will likely be described in greater detail than those on the periphery.
In literature, your readers may want to form their own ideas of what some of your characters look like. For the screen and the stage, you want to give casting directors a wider range of choices so they can find the right actors. Thus, in some cases, if the way a character looks doesn’t necessarily add to or detract from the story, you don’t need to take the time to describe their appearance.
If you don’t want to get too bogged down in describing physical traits, there are other ways to help readers get a better idea of how a character looks. If it matters to who they are or what they do for a living, how they’re dressed describes them much better than the length of their hair or the color of their eyes.
However, as with all things, this depends on personal preference and context. For instance, if a character’s long hair is an important detail that reveals something about their personality, then feel free to mention it. Oftentimes, appearance can tell readers a lot about a character, so don’t feel like you have to shy away from physical descriptions. Instead, the idea is to be succinct and consistent with them. Readers don’t want to go through a whole paragraph about a character’s appearance, so highlight only key physical traits.
Using quick but vivid descriptions of supporting characters is a great way to paint a picture of your protagonist’s world and what they notice about others. Still, we want to know more than just what they see; they also have to smell and touch things, hear and taste them. A pungent smell can make our eyes water, and a whisper can make us stretch our necks. Those are the details that make characters human, so use them to your advantage. Tapping into your protagonist’s five senses is a great way to make your story more immersive.
What drives your characters to be who they are?
Motivation is everything. Why do we do the things we do? What drives us to be who we are? Only when you know your characters inside-out will you be able to answer these questions.
Understanding what and who they care about, what their values and morals are, and what lines they would or wouldn’t cross will reveal your characters’ motivation and drive the narrative. So, have a clear understanding of what they want in life, what they’re missing, and what their responsibilities are so you can write them with integrity and coherency. Before you put pen to paper (or rather, start clacking on your keyboard), it’s always a good idea to complete a profile for each of your characters so that you gain a better understanding of their personalities.
Action and reaction
How we act and react to our environment says more about us than descriptive words ever could, so do the same with your characters. The way they interact with the people and objects around them plays an essential role in how we see and understand them. How do they behave when they’re angry, scared, or happy?
However, be subtle with the ways they manifest those reactions. A furtive glance, an unfinished sentence retracted at the last second, a thousand-yard stare when caught up in a memory, and the way they move, kiss, or cry can all reveal facets of their personalities. Use every opportunity to explore how they relate to their world and the people in it.
Also, all characters have their own quirks, routines, and compulsions. For instance, does your character bite the tip of their pen when they are nervous? Do they always start their morning with a jog? Do they need their books to be organized in alphabetical order? Such details can reveal a lot about a character’s personality.
To err is human
No one is perfect, and your characters shouldn’t be, either. Your protagonist must be flawed to be believable, but you have to make those flaws their own. What are their quirks or shortcomings and why? (This is when their history comes into play.) What makes them them? What imperfections make them unique? Are they clumsy or prone to word vomit? Do they have a phobia or a bias? Explore their backgrounds to find out what makes them tick.
All about history
Our history is what makes us who we are, and your characters, even if they’re fictional, are no different. The more details you figure out about them (especially your protagonist and antagonist), the richer your story will be. The aim is to sprinkle details about them throughout the book, offering tidbits that will make them real, rounded, and flawed.
You also want to incorporate these details subtly. Don’t tell your readers outright that one of your characters is a jerk; instead, show them that he is a jerk through his actions and words.
A character study
Whatever you’re writing, your characters are the cornerstone of your story because even the most intricate, exciting plot in the world will bore audiences to sleep if the people on the page aren’t engaging. Think about reality TV—it’s not really about the story but about how people behave and why.
So, get to know your characters, understand them even when you don’t agree with them, and love them even when they’re not at their best. After all, that’s what your audience will connect to, and that is what will make your story memorable.
If you’re still feeling a bit lost with your characters or story, check out our big-picture editing to get help developing your project.