How to Create a Character in 6 Simple Steps
If you’re wondering how to create a character that is relatable and memorable, you’re on the right track to writing a good story. There are millions of novels out there, but most of the ones that stick with us feature strong, complex, memorable characters. For example, Lizzy Bennet and Mr. Darcy are such interesting characters that Hollywood can’t seem to stop making film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. Harry, Hermione, and Ron are household names almost everywhere, partly because their characters are so believable and relatable.
If you’re writing a novel, you have to be sure you create a character that is true to life and interesting. A well-developed character will make readers want to keep reading to find out what happens next. If a character is boring, or if they are not believable, your readers might lose interest. So even if you have an idea for a great story, it won’t pan out if you don’t spend time thinking about your characters.
Everyone’s process is different, but there are common threads between them. Here are some of the most popular methods to create a character.
Last Updated October 2022
Proven methods to unleash your creativity and brainstorm bestselling, high concept book and movie ideas | By Jessica Brody, Writing MasteryExplore Course
1. Observe the people around you
Real people are complicated. They have different backgrounds and histories. They like and dislike different things for different reasons. They have specific goals. Sometimes they do things you might find baffling, but that makes complete sense to them. Your job as a writer is to observe people without judging them to see what they’re like.
There are lots of ways to observe people: You can follow them on social media or hang out in the places they hang out. You can interview people who fit your character’s profile to get more information about their motivations. Just make sure people know what you’re doing and that you have their permission!
Everyone lives inside their own head. Sometimes it’s difficult to imagine what it must be like to be inside someone else’s head, but that’s exactly what good writers do! If you want to write a believable character, you have to make sure they sound realistic. You can do that by understanding what motivates them. Most importantly, you have to make sure they don’t all sound the same and that they don’t all sound like you.
When selecting who to observe, you need to pay special attention to people who are different from you in social class, sex, and age. While you’re observing someone, use the opportunity if you catch yourself thinking, “I don’t get it! Why are they doing that?” What don’t you get? Try to put yourself in that person’s shoes. What is that person’s reason for doing what they do? In short, you need to learn what it’s like to live inside someone else’s head because you’re going to be writing from that place.
2. Pay close attention to the characters in the books you read
If you want to write a book, chances are, you love to read. In the course of your reading, some books likely stayed with you and changed how you see the world, while others were so bad it was a slog to finish them.
For the books that stayed with you, there’s a good chance it was because the characters were so well written and suited the story so perfectly. And for the books that weren’t, flat, unbelievable, or simply unlikeable characters were likely an issue.
To help you create great characters, go back and think about the characters in the books you’ve read. Pick a character from one book you love and another character from a book you didn’t like. Try writing a character sketch (see the next section) for both. If you can quickly and easily write a character sketch, that tells you that the character is well developed: You have a very good idea in your mind of what they’re like.
If, on the other hand, you struggle with your sketch, it’s probably because the character is lacking in complexity. You can’t tell what they’re like by reading the story. Or it could just be that the character is not interesting, and you’ve simply forgotten what they’re like.
This simple exercise is great practice to give you an idea of what a great character is like and what a poorly written character is like.
3. Write a fictional character sketch for every character in your book
A character sketch is a piece of writing to describe your character. Writers create a character profile to flesh out their characters. What you write in the sketch won’t necessarily make it into the novel. A character sketch typically includes the following:
- A physical description, including their style
- A backstory (parts of the character’s story that don’t make it into the book but that shape who they are). If it’s important, you can write about their childhood, major life events, or past relationships.
- Their likes and dislikes
- What makes your character unique
- Your character’s flaws, which you can tie into…
- How they change over the course of the story (for main characters mostly, but sometimes applies to secondary characters)
- What their voice is like (if you plan on writing the story in the first person)
Here is an example of a character sketch:
Stella is a young college student attending a large state school on the West Coast. She is not conventionally pretty, but she is very stylish and carries herself with a great deal of confidence, which makes her attractive. She is the kind of person that draws attention to her without trying. While she does fine in her college classes, she is more interested in the social aspects of attending college; she loves going to large parties and clubs. She loves to dance and finds a certain freedom in it. Perhaps because her parents were a little distant, Stella finds it difficult to form friendships. She has no close friends, and she’s never had a boyfriend for longer than a couple of months, preferring casual relationships. Over the course of the book, Stella learns that opening up to people can lead to rewarding relationships.
If you are a visual thinker, you might benefit from drawing a character map: a graphic organizer that includes everything in a character sketch. Spatial organization can sometimes help to see relationships between things that aren’t always obvious when you’re just looking at words on a page.
4. Understand the role of each character in your book
When writing your characters, beyond knowing what they’re like, you have to have a good idea of what their job is in the story. Are they there to move the story forward? Do they create obstacles for the main character? Here is a list of the most common types of characters in novels:
- Protagonist (usually the main character). The protagonist drives and transforms the story and is usually at the central point.
- Antagonist. The antagonist drives the conflict and pushes the protagonist toward their ultimate transformation.
- Foil. A foil is a character whose traits highlight the personality of the main character through difference and contrast. For example, Draco Malfoy is a foil in the Harry Potter series. As a believer in the importance of pure blood in the wizarding world, his personality traits help readers see all the ways in which Harry Potter is not that way.
- Guardian. This is someone who opposes the protagonist’s opinions and ideas when they want to change them.
- Mentor. A mentor assists the protagonist in reaching their goal of transformation.
- Minion. The minion complements the major characters and helps move the plot forward.
- Ficelle. Usually a friend of the main character. Dialogue between the ficelle and the protagonist helps the reader get information about the main character’s background and personality. This character helps you avoid any info dumps. In Jane Austen’s Emma, Mrs. Weston is a ficelle.
Remember that characters sometimes have more than one role in the story. You can adapt the roles above to suit your characters.
5. Make your main character likable, believable, and flawed
The three qualities that most main characters in literature share are that they are likable, believable, and flawed.
- Likable. A likable character isn’t necessarily nice or friendly. In fact, there are lots of characters that are neither. But it’s your job as the author to show the character in a light that makes the reader care about them and want to read what happens next. You can do that by being inside their head or by showing the basic humanity of your character.
- Believable. If your character behaves in such a way that is unrealistic, your readers are going to know, and they will lose interest. For example, you wouldn’t expect a mom of four working two jobs to take off for a week-long ski vacation. If it sounds unlikely in real life, then it won’t work in your story (unless the unbelievable action is at the center of the plot).
- Flawed. Nobody’s perfect. In fact, people love to hate those who seem perfect. (And they’re really not!) We all have flaws, and our flaws are part of what makes us interesting. Make sure you know what your character’s flaws are.
6. Avoid stereotyping
If you choose to write a character who is different from you in nationality, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, or in any other way, be extra careful not to rely on stereotypes to describe that person. Not only is it offensive, but it will make for a flat and lifeless character, and your readers will see right through them. For the same reason, it’s usually a good idea to avoid writing accents and vernaculars using alternate spellings.
If you follow the six steps listed above, you should end up with complicated and varied characters who have strong voices and many facets. Having well-developed characters will help you move your story forward. When you’re ready to publish, check out this blog entry on how to publish a book.
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