The Write Stuff - Building Character

Updated: Mar 2, 2021

By David Flin

I’ve been asked a few times about how to write convincing characters. A lot of people seem to find it simple enough to build a convincing world, but have difficulty in creating convincing characters.

Developing characters is important. The plot is what gets readers to turn the page; characters are what they remember of the book.

When I started this essay, I looked at some of the advice given on-line about how to create characters. I was astonished at hard they made it sound. There are recommendations that you know every single detail of a character, their entire life history, know every nook and cranny of their psyche before putting pen to paper.

I guess I’m showing my age there, which is a little characterisation trick. No-one uses pen and paper for jotting notes down, unless they’re very old. Today it is all tablets and notepads and i-phones and other such electronic breakdowns waiting to happen.

But I looked at some of the advice given on-line about how to create convincing characters, and I was astonished at the amount of detail they said you needed to know about the character. Seriously, I’ve seen the suggestion that you need to know whether the character prefers tea or coffee before you can write about them. At that level, I don’t yet know myself well enough to be able to write me as a character; usually tea is my preference, but sometimes it’s coffee.

You need to understand the character, but that’s not the same thing as knowing all the little details. Once you understand the character, everything else falls into place.

First things first. There are essentially two types of character. There’s the ordinary person thrown into an extraordinary situation, and there’s the extraordinary character. The ordinary person thrown into an extraordinary situation will gradually become less ordinary as they are changed by the events going on around them.

Ordinary characters. Ordinary characters tend to have a number of features in common. Typically, they are reluctant to get involved in adventures, and typically tend to have the feel of the “everyman” about them, the boy/girl next door type. That doesn’t make them boring, but it does mean that there is often a conscious effort to get the reader to feel: “That could be me.”

The ordinary character will also learn and grow and develop as a result of the events, and they might find something extraordinary about themselves as a result.

How can we develop a strong, ordinary character? The key to remember is to start everything off on a small-scale. You build up to bigger concerns, but at the start, it’s all small-scale. The character is worried about school, or a party being thrown, or graduation. The idea is to make the character relateable to the reader, and that means keeping things in a scale that the reader is familiar with.

If you throw most ordinary people straight into the depths of an extraordinary situation, they will struggle. What typically happens is that they move into situations of steadily increasing seriousness; for example, Frodo in Lord of the Rings starts off with a simple trip to Bree. This is followed with a harder trip to Rivendell, and then steadily harder stages, until Mount Doom.

Extraordinary characters. These are characters who start off exceptional. They have extraordinary skills, and are used to leaping into adventures at a moment’s notice. These are characters like James Bond, Jack Ryan, or Sherlock Holmes.

The type of character they are will determine the type of story it is. If the story involves a Sherlock Holmes-like character, the story will involve solving crimes. The adventure needs to resonate with the character. A reader wouldn’t expect a story involving Sherlock Holmes to be a romantic fiction, and such a story might be hard to pull off.

Developing a character. I’m aware of the irony of the next piece of advice I’m about to give. I’ve looked at a lot of the on-line advice about developing a character, and they seem rather more concerned with persuading people to buy further instructions and character development sheets and goodness knows what else than in imparting useful advice. As far as I can see, 90% of on-line advice on how to write convincing characters is a sales-pitch.

All you need to know to develop a character is that the character has to be convincing. That’s it. Everything else is chrome.

OK, that’s easier said than done. The first step you need to do is observe real people. Whenever you got the chance, do a bit of people-watching. Everyone has a story, and I find it useful just to put together little stories about people I see. There’s a woman in a coffee shop constantly checking a watch, and glancing towards the door while she nurses a cup of coffee. She’s waiting for someone who’s late. From here, imagination can take wing, and you can come up with explanations as to why she seems nervous.

Talk to people and – just as important – listen to what they say. One of the waitresses in my local coffee shop is a striking young woman, significantly over six feet tall, and with hair dyed blue, and she has a tattoo of a treble clef on her. I asked her if she was a musician. She told me that she was a drummer, and got quite animated about the band. They do a few gigs (I think that’s the modern term for a live performance), mainly at local festivals. Already, there’s a thumbnail for a background to a character.

Understand what motivates a character. It might be wanting a comfortable life, or providing for a family, it might be a desire for power or recognition, avoidance of boredom, seeking money or adventure or clearing a name.

You’ve got a story to tell, and the character needs to fit into that story. The character may very well not want to be involved; Bilbo Baggins had to be persuaded to go on an adventure in The Hobbit, for example. It brings you to a crucial question: why is this character involved in this story?

It might be that the character is a soldier, and his unit has been sent to do this particular job; it’s possible that they’re looking for a lost relative or loved one; maybe they are escaping a situation at home; possibly it is something as mundane as needing to earn money to send home.

Whatever the reason for the character to be there, it needs to convince the reader. The presence of a character in a story needs to fulfil two criteria: the story needs a reason for the character to be there, and the character needs a reason to be there.

If you don’t have the first, the character is just getting in the way of the story. If you don’t have the second, the reader will have difficulty emphasising with the character.

The latter point is crucial. The most common reason given by literary agents for rejecting a piece goes along the lines of:

“While we liked your book a lot, we didn’t quite love it. We didn’t quite feel empathy with your main character, but wish you the best of luck in finding representation elsewhere.”

Actually, as a digression, that’s from a remarkably polite literary agent. More typically, they are more robust in rejections, assuming they deign to inform you of the rejection. An example of the more robust rejections might be:

“I hated your insipid central character, who grated and I despised within seconds. I hope they met a well-deserved death later in the book, but quite frankly, I couldn’t be bothered to read more than a few pages of that tosh before giving up. My life is better now that I have stopped reading. It’s customary to wish rejected authors the best of luck elsewhere, but I truly hope you don’t inflict that drivel on any other living person.”

That’s a genuine rejection letter. Have I mentioned that if you plan to be a published author, you’ll need a thick skin?

Make your reader empathise with the character. That doesn’t mean making the character nicer, or more like someone everyone would want as a best friend. It’s a matter of making sure that the character wants something, and that the reader really understands why it matters to the character. That’s the first step on getting the reader involved with the character.

Before you can convincingly convey a character, you need to understand the character. Some advice suggests that you should devise complete back-stories and know every facet of the character, including whether they prefer cats to dogs, and what their favourite colour is.

Going down that route means you’ll never start writing. It also means that the character will never surprise the author. Indeed, that’s the key for when you’ve got a convincing character, when you can write something that is totally in character for them, but which takes you by surprise. That’s when you know you’ve got a good character.

As for how to get to that point, there’s a simple one-word answer. Practise. Simply write little vignettes involving the character in a variety of scenes. It might just be a little 400-word thing, without a great deal happening, but it can help firm up the characterisation.

There’s one more piece of advice I’ll give in this article. Make sure that your character cares about what is happening in the story. If they don’t, you can be absolutely sure that the reader won’t.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow