How to not suck at crafting compelling characters
A no-bullshit guide on writing compelling characters that stick in your readers' minds for decades.
I am a firm believer that character driven plots are the only stories worth telling, and that lore, plot, and world-building take a back seat to compelling characters.
No one has time to care about what your airship is called, or what language those “totally-not-elven” aliens are using. They want to be invested in the "people" they read about.
Good characters can absolutely carry an absurdist narrative (Hannibal, anyone?).
One dimensional characters can absolutely destroy a well-written universe.
Every story has been told a million times before; your idea is not unique
What is unique are the characters that occupy your idea
Your intent as a writer is to engage, provoke emotions/thoughts, entertain, and challenge.
This can be done with world mechanics, plots, and concepts, but without vehicles for the narrative to live within, these are abstract philosophies and not concrete concepts to attach to.
Characters are necessary.
So now that you know — and really should have always known — that your characters are what drives people to keep reading — how do you deal with it?
I’m going to give you some helpful tips on how to “get into the zone” (the autozone) and make characters that kick actual ass.
1.) Start with a song
Does this sound like weird advice? It is weird advice. But it works.
Imagery and music are both amazing on their own. They elicit responses in the human brain that craft moods, make you think, and delight/terrify the senses.
Adding them together means you get an aural painting of who a character might be, in terms of emotions.
Have you ever been down in the dumps and blasted a song on repeat?
Take that power and weave the idea of a character. Listen to tracks on repeat if you have to.
Take all you hear and make a character that sings (metaphorically speaking).
Music can get your emotional juices flowing when you're stuck on writing compelling characters.
2.) Make a mood board on Pinterest
Stuck on what a character looks like, who they are, or what they like?
Use Pinterest to gather together settings, scenery, objects, and something known in the RP world as “faceclaims”.
And make a damned mood board.
I’m about to get really nerdy on you, so please forgive me:
I started writing in roleplaying games in college. You know, the forum ones where you write scenes, and someone else writes the next part.
That’s where I first heard the phrase “faceclaim." A faceclaim is an actor, illustrated character, musician, model — whatever — that embodies what your character looks like.
By holding their image in your mind, and crafting a Pinterest board around their interests, it’s easier to refer back to your character when you get lost.
Employ Pinterest as a visual representation of what you're aiming for.
3.) Write from what you know, or at least write from what you can understand
I personally think that in order to understand a character, you need a bit of “method actor” in you, insofar as to sit in their shoes.
Sit in their shoes, stew in their thoughts, and try to articulate why they do what they do, how they do it, and how it makes them feel.
Just don’t sit in it for too long. Method writing can go too far, just like method acting.
In order to write characters like people you have to understand their motivations, and that can require you to understand your own, too.
4.) Research how different people speak
Bad/unrealistic dialog kills immersion
You need to sit with your muse and let them talk to you. I don't mean this in a mystical sense, I mean getting outside of your own head-voice, and adopting another's, for the sake of figuring out how the fake person you made...speaks.
Watch Youtube videos on people speaking in accents. Listen to people talk. Understand local vernacular. Do research on common words used in certain time periods.
The thing to keep in mind is to write dialog that refers to the setting, vocation, and type of person the character you're writing embodies.
A blue collar worker—even in a fantasy setting—will probably talk differently than a princess who lived in courts all her life. Though this could be a stereotype, it could also be accurate for what you're trying to write.
Listen to your muses. Speak for them, because without us, they have no voice.
5.) Giant front-loaded backstories are limiting
Stop doing it
I see this on Reddit all the time. Writers of r/Writing get so very excited about sharing each and every tiny detail of their character and they end up writing themselves into a corner.
By not giving wiggle-room to the cerebral or emotive qualities of your character, and by staunchly lodging them in a dry timeline of events, with copious amounts of technical and world-related references, you lose something.
You lose the ability to have them evolve over time. Or your perceptions of them. Or your readers' perceptions, for that matter.
Your character may evolve from your initial intent, and it's important to recognize that rigidity can stifle their stories.
6.) Not everyone is the hero of their own story
Try to offer nuance to your heroes
Let’s talk character motivation for a second.
The naïve but driven protagonist who saves the world through sheer force of ‘special kid’ or ‘impossible optimism’ is a trope done to death.
Tropes may not always be bad, but we need to be realistic about how humans actually operate, to write something that operates outside of what everyone else is doing.
Everyone thinks they’re the hero of their own story. Literally everyone. But that doesn’t mean they are.
Write some assholes. Write some douchebags. Write some unlikable ladies. Write some people who are totally inept.
Those are characters that mimic people.
As we are trying to create nuanced, complex, compelling characters, it may behoove you to write someone who is flawed, like all people are.
7.) Include a diverse cast, but don’t be ham-fisted about it
Readers can tell when you're not being authentic
This point might ruffle a few jimmies, but I need to say it:
There are a shitload of other people in this world unlike yourself. Your readers are not all going to be exactly like you. It’s just a fact.
Knowing the above, if you want the world your characters operate within to be relateable to more people, you should probably not have everyone be a pleasant shade of mayonnaise.
To shove an anecdote in here: I was given criticism on a story idea a while back on Reddit, the very story idea that ended up becoming the blueprint for CONSTELIS VOSS, itself.
They warned me not to make my novel so diverse it was like a “packet of skittles”.
They gave me this warning because the main character is a bisexual male, and I talked vaguely about representation.
When I read this crit, something happened to my body.
I eye-rolled so hard my eyes fell out of my face, became magnetic ball-bearings and ripped the silverware out of the sink and smashed me in the head, causing me to blackout for a couple of hours.
When I came to, I had the distinct feeling that it was now my duty to make my novel a packet of fucking skittles. But antagonistic skittles, angry at tropes, because I can't just create candy, or whatever.
It's important to branch out and tell stories about people who aren't just the 'default'. They live in our world, and in other written worlds, too.
On the flipside of the diversity in literature issue: be earnest about it.
If you’re going to include other cultures in your story that you’re not a part of, people who have other sexual orientations or identities, speak other languages, or anything like that — do your research.
Nobody can be perfect, but I firmly think if you're earnest and try your hardest, you can get somewhere meaningful.
For example, a big misstep I see is having a character with a mental illness that misunderstands the illness, so the writer can feel like they did something quirky. That’s harmful.
Please, bring the diversity in a meaningful way.
This also means giving your diverse characters the ability to be flawed, wrong, problematic, make mistakes, succeed, fail, be awesome, and everything in between.
That's how we write characters as people.
8.) Don’t be lazy with love interests
Writing a female character that gets killed off to further the growth of a more important male character is misogynistic and lazy.
If a female character has to die to get your male protagonist to take action, you should probably not be allowed to write female characters.
That sounded really mean. It did. I know.
But I don’t care
Death is something that happens. Death is emotional. Death can be dramatic. Death of a loved one is many a story’s bread and butter.
But a character shouldn’t be so one-dimensional that their dead wife was just an excuse to get someone off their ass, better themselves, take action, or save the world.
Please, if you're going to have death be a launching pad for growth, at least treat the character that died as more than just a cardboard cut-out.
9.) Include a well-adjusted character
Even better, include a skeptic
Not everyone needs to be a magical warlord alien fire-breathing mecha magical girl. There has to be some average person, somewhere, that has realistic reactions, like:
“Oh shit, that’s a fucking werewolf.”
“Holy crap, everyone is on fire?”
“I am totally not going into that abandoned demon-house, sorry.”
Fantastical things are really fun. I know, I get it.
However, there has to be some hapless character, somewhere, that isn’t an amazing super-beast.
If everyone on the cast is an overpowered Godling, there isn’t really a barometer for exactly how powerful they are. This makes your stakes feel less impactful.
Skeptical characters are also lovely. If your characters never question what's going on, what's happening to them, or what other characters are doing, that's not very realistic...is it?
Logically, there should be at least one character in your story "calling bullshit".
Skeptics also serve as a great marker for skeptical readers to feel heard in your story.
To conclude this gigantic writing-rant you probably bailed on half-way through:
Your story isn’t unique
How a character experiences the story you put them in, is
Characters are what drives stories. How they interact. How they operate and function within their world. The challenges they face. Their victories, their failures, their flaws and their virtues.
Characters are the lifeblood of stories.
Our job, as writers, is to entertain, engage and challenge our audience. And in 2021, our audience is more keyed-in and easily-distracted than ever.
So make your characters truly, truly count.
Happy writing, nerds.
K. Leigh is an ex-freelancer, full-time author, and weirdo artist. Read their lgbt+ sci-fi books, connect on Twitter, visit their site, or send them an email if you’d like to work together. 🌈 🏳️⚧️