A good story needs characters that connect with readers and pull the narrative forward. Interesting characters have multiple layers. They draw the reader in through a strategic blend of relatability and intrigue. Irresistible characters can make all the difference in an unputdownable novel. Here are ten creative writing tips for building better characters in your novel.
What Makes an Interesting Character?
The best characters feel authentic and pull your audience into the story with them. I believe there are 2 key aspects that make the difference between an interesting character versus a forgettable one. Those are relatability and growth.
Relatability refers to how easily your reader can see themselves in your character’s actions and reactions. Audiences connect with specific traits and experience the world in your book through sympathizing with the character. In order for your readers to relate to your characters, those characters have to feel like real people jumping off the page.
The second thing your character needs is growth. If there is no growth, the reader feels like they went on a journey for no reason. Sure, the plot may be interesting, but without character growth, the story will feel shallow. Your reader wants to go on a journey and come out of it feeling like they have made a change with the character. They want to experience a new idea or perspective.
So how do you bring relatability and growth to your characters? Use these ten strategies for character development to bring depth and authenticity to your creative writing.
Top 10 Character Development Tips:
1. Personality Over Appearance
Focus more attention on your character’s personality and quirks than their appearance.
Appearance is the easy part, so many authors start there when creating a new character and forget to fill in the deeper layers. But the appearance of the character is not nearly as important as their personality traits and thought processes.
Your readers want to visualize a piece of themselves in your character. That means your character’s appearance can be a little vague, but their motivations and how they handle situations should be clear and consistent throughout the narrative.
Decide on a few key details for physical appearance, but focus most your character development work on making them feel like a real person through their thoughts and actions.
2. Arc Early
Decide in advance what their character arc is going to be. Characters, especially main characters, need to experience internal change as your story progresses.
The most dynamic characters grow and evolve as their opinions, ideas, and maturity level change during the course of the narrative. No person can experience a major life event (like your plot) and come out the other side completely unchanged. Decide on that change in advance, because it’s often the thing that connects with your readers the most.
Ask yourself a few questions:
- What is the internal journey I want my character to make throughout the story?
- Do I want them to come out of this journey better or worse than when they went in?
- What will the reader learn about themselves as they watch the protagonist change?
Side note – it’s okay to change this arc later if you realize your book is heading in a different direction. Your initial character arc does not have to be set in stone or feel stifling. It just needs to give you an idea of where your story is going.
Establish clear motivations for each of your characters from the beginning. Every character in your story is making decisions for a reason that is unique to that character. What is that reason?
Nothing is more frustrating to a reader than not understanding why a protagonist is making decisions that feel ridiculous or unrealistic. If your character’s motivations are unclear, your reader will have a hard time relating to them.
Consider these questions when pinpointing character motivations:
- Why does your character do what they do?
- What is it that your character wants or thinks they want?
- Does that desire align with the growth your character will have to make along their character arc?
- How will this alignment or misalignment add to internal and external conflict?
- What are their short-term and long-term goals?
Once you have established your character’s motivations, use them as guidelines for directing your character’s actions and reactions to plot points and other characters.
4. Build the Backstory
Your character’s past will inevitably play a part in the goals and decisions they make throughout your story. Their past will always tie into their motivations and quirks. So, to understand your character’s motivations, you have to understand what the character’s life was like before the story begins.
Understanding the backstory will help you discover why they make the decisions they make now and help you stay consistent as you write. Build your character’s backstory with this “why” in mind.
Also, remember, your reader does not need to know all the information you build into the backstory. The reader should feel the effects of the backstory without needing every detail spelled out for them in the narrative. Write out the character’s backstory for your benefit, not the reader’s.
5. Use Tropes Responsibly
Tropes are not a bad thing in a book. In fact, many books sell more copies based on the included tropes that readers are in love with.
However, tropes fall flat when they are the only personality a character has. For example, the “chosen one” is a common trope in many excellent novels, but if that trait is the only thing that drives the character’s thoughts and decisions, then your character will feel bland and lazy.
When using tropes, layer them on top of each other and interconnect them to cause internal and external conflict. Building on the previous example, the “chosen one” who is also the “reluctant hero” creates an internal conflict that the character has to overcome. Now, add another trope such as having a “dark secret” and suddenly you have the beginnings of an interesting character who readers will want to know more about.
Also, you must explain your character tropes well if you want the audience to receive them well. If you give your readers a “chosen one” you have to explain WHY that character is the chosen one. At some point in the story, the reader must uncover why the reluctant hero is reluctant. And by the end of the book, the dark secret must be revealed.
The WHY behind your each of character tropes should be unique to your world, and make sense with the plot and theme that you develop as you write.
6. Relatable Flaws.
Give your characters relatable flaws. A character’s flaws should add to the story in some way and help you create the right scenarios that will facilitate change. These flaws are important to your reader because they make your character feel more authentic and give your character room for growth.
Do NOT fall into the trap of making a physical deformity or health condition a flaw!
You can use physical disabilities and conditions as added struggles that the character learns to overcome, but they are not flaws that the character is responsible for fixing.
A character’s flaws MUST be internal, and they should add sincerity and depth to their character arc.
As an example, let’s say you wrote a character who was missing a limb. The absence of that body part would, of course, cause complications in performing certain tasks and affect how they handled specific situations. However, it is not a flaw on their part, and it would be insulting to suggest it was.
Instead, if you want that complication to be a central part of your story, you can focus the flaw around the character’s attitude and assumptions towards that physical complication.
In the above example, the flaw might be the character’s belief that their missing limb makes them weaker or ineffective in achieving a certain outcome. Or the flaw could be how they handle criticism from others and their fear of judgement over their missing limb. However, throughout the course of the novel, every obstacle that your character overcomes and the support they receive proves these assumptions incorrect.
By the end of the book, they find they believe in themselves after all and no longer worry about the opinions of others. This type of character development is empowering and inspiring for your reader.
7. Passions and Biases.
We are all passionate about something, and we are all biased about something. Often, these passions and biases will affect your character’s view of the world and thus influence their choices.
Some of these internal leanings may require backstory, depending on how critical they are to the plotline, but some won’t. The writer should know what these biases are for each character and use them to color the world through that character’s eyes.
When used correctly, passions and biases can bring a character to life and give them deeper relatability. However, this is also where writers can fall into overusing tropes and cliches. If you randomly throw these traits into a story without a purpose, they will fall flat. Readers do not want to sift through laundry lists of character traits for no reason.
When you add these details to your narrative, make sure they tie in somehow and affect how the character experiences the world around them.
8. Embrace Inner Conflict
Have you ever felt an internal struggle for something that you were “supposed” to do versus what you wanted to do? Or have you ever felt like you needed to make an important decision, but neither of your choices seemed like the right choice?
This is “internal conflict.” And if you have ever been on a diet and walked past a donut shop, I’m going to assume you have experienced internal conflict before.
Your characters should experience internal struggles too and question their own responses from time to time. Not every decision is going to have a black and white answer. Your characters should occasionally struggle with making tough choices and second guess themselves, just like we all do.
9. Mistakes Are Encouraged
Let your characters make mistakes. Real people aren’t perfect and do not make perfect decisions.
Your character’s motivations, flaws, passions, and biases will play a role in the choices they make. And like people in real life, sometimes these motivations and biases will lead them to react to a situation in the wrong way.
This is actually helpful to you as a writer for multiple reasons. These mistakes humanize the character and build relatability for your reader. They also can create additional obstacles that the character has to overcome to move forward – cue reason to grow or change. And, finally, they can give your reader a clear distinction between your character’s choices at the beginning of their character arc versus their decisions after they have grown or changed towards the end of their arc.
When done well, these mistakes should play a key role in the overarching theme of your story. Plus, perfect characters who never make any mistakes or bad choices are just annoying.
10. Plan As You Go
Planning out your characters helps keep all the details organized and helps your writing stay consistent. There are many ways to do this, but one of my favorites is by creating written character profiles. Character profiles are excellent tools for keeping background information and details about your character from getting lost or confused.
How To Build Character Profiles
It’s easy to get caught up filling in all the details on your profile instead of writing your story. This habit can easily turn into a method for procrastination and leave you with a detailed character, but no journey for them to go on.
Instead, I recommend filling in only the major details about the character before you begin, and then adding the rest as you write your story. Start with a name, a few physical characteristics, and their character arc, then write.
The rest of your character’s profile will come as you flesh out your narrative. This process will help your character development come across organically and will prevent you from trying to force unnecessary details into your story. It will also help you avoid procrastination while still keeping your character traits consistent throughout the story.
Character development isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula. It’s a discovery process that each writer has to go through on their own. However, there are a few key aspects that can really make your characters feel authentic. The best characters are relatable to the audience and grow as the story progresses.
When written well, characters can pull the reader in and blur the line between reality and fiction. Use these ten creative writing tips to guide you as you create your next literary masterpiece.