How to Write Great Characters

Sophie Playle

Think about your favourite book. What specifically do you love about it? I bet one of the things you love most is a particular character. Am I right?

As a novelist, paying close attention to the creation of your main character should be one of your priorities. But how do you create great characters? Here are seven traits to consider.

Trait 1: Flaws

There’s nothing more boring (or unrealistic) than a saintly character with absolutely no flaws. It’s tempting to think that heroes should be perfect, that they should be what people aspire to. That they should be clever and strong and kind and always right …

But no one will believe in a character like that. And if you can’t believe in them, you can’t empathise with them, and you can’t align your experience with theirs … and so your whole story falls flat.

Not only are flaws interesting and make characters feel more authentic, they’re great for creating story.

If your character has a couple of flaws in their personality, these will undoubtedly lead them into trouble. And trouble and conflict are at the heart of great stories.

The best flaws are often the shadow of a positive trait – the negative side of something seemingly good.

Is your character kind-hearted? Perhaps this makes them easy to take advantage of. Is your character brave? Perhaps this makes them prone to making rash decisions. Is your character intelligent? Perhaps they easily lose sight of the emotional picture. You get the idea.

I highly recommend The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi if you want to read more about this idea and discover lots of example flaws.

EXAMPLE: Lyra Belacqua from the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman is a flawed protagonist. Though only twelve years old, she’s brave and determined, but she’s also stubborn and selfish. Her selfishness repeatedly gets her into trouble, which drives the plot forwards. But her flaws match the naivety of her age, and ultimately make her a well-rounded character. Her flaws are the shadow of a more positive trait – that of confidence and self-worth. What’s more, there’s room for her character to grow. At the end of the trilogy, Lyra does something completely selfless at great cost to herself. She does it because she has grown over the course of the story.

Trait 2: An interesting personality

Your main characters don’t have to be likeable, but they do have to be interesting.

We don’t always have to like a character or agree with their values, but we must be able to understand why they act the way they do – otherwise they won’t feel real and believable.

If a character is unlikeable but we don’t understand why and we don’t find them interesting, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Your reader must be willing to spend a lot of time with your characters. If they’re unlikeable, you must provide reason enough to make your reader want to stick around. And that reason is how compelling they find the character.

If your main character is unlikeable, make sure you’re reading lots of examples from published literature to help you understand how to pull this off effectively.

EXAMPLE: Alex from A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess is a violent rapist with a love of Beethoven and no sense of empathy. He’s intelligent, manipulative and speaks in a unique slang-language. He believes he sees the world for what it is, which is why he feels empowered enough to make his own rules. In short, his mind is a fascinating, yet disturbing, place to be.

Trait 3: An inner life

Novels can offer an intimacy that real life can’t, and it is your job as the author to foster this intimacy, to move beyond a character’s physical traits and dive into the depths of who they are.

Many novice writers don’t dig beneath a character’s surface. Instead, they use them merely as a vehicle for telling the story. Characters that don’t have much depth are given a basic physical description, and dialogue and actions that are necessary to the scene at hand, and nothing more.

A well-developed character has a rich personality full of quirks, inconsistencies, unpredictability and complexity.

If that sounds kind of hard to create, it’s because it is. When it comes down to it, though, you simply need to consider the following:

  • People change
  • People have pasts that influence them
  • People have hopes and dreams that drive them
  • People have views and opinions about the world

So should your characters.

If you can create characters that embody these elements, you’ve just given them a rich inner life. Understanding a character’s inner life will allow your characters to act and react to events in an interesting and authentic way.

EXAMPLE: Jane from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë is one of the earliest representations of an individualistic, passionate and complex female character. She’s intelligent, moral and struggles with complex issues of love, society and self-esteem. She challenges the imbalance between how society views and treats her and how she views herself and her place in the world.

Trait 4: A super-objective

You’ve undoubtedly heard that characters should have motives. A character’s motive is the reason they do what they do. Perhaps the character’s motive within a scene is to extract a piece of information from a reluctant informant. This in turn serves their overall motive of finding out who murdered their sister – the question that drives the plot.

Yet well-rounded characters also have what’s called a super-objective. This is their prime motivating desire – what they want more than anything else. Every character will have their own super-objective, and drama is created from having two (or more) super-objectives in competition or conflict with each other.

The super-objective goes beyond the character’s plot-based desire to a single universal (often unobtainable) desire that motivates their very existence – to be the most powerful, unconditionally loved by all, completely comfortable for the entirity of their lives, etc.

EXAMPLE: In Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Okonkwo aims to find an honoured place in his tribe while navigating between old traditions and new customs brought to his society by the white man. However, the driving force behind every one of Okonkwo’s decisions comes from his super-objective to be the perfect leader. He believes that to do this, he needs to be as different from his father as possible. His father was weak, effeminate, lazy and poor. Consequently, Okonkwo strives to be strong, masculine, respected and wealthy.

Trait 5: Originality

A common difficulty that new novelists often run into is that their main characters are all too similar. Creating original characters goes beyond making sure they have different hairstyles and accents.

Instead, characters should have different outlooks on life and different values.

This helps create drama and plot, because when people have different opinions and believe in different values, they’ll surely disagree with one another. If all characters thought the same way, things would get rather boring.

Consider, too, that characters will have different thresholds on how much stress they can handle and will express their stress in different ways. Characters will have different sense of humours, which they might express in a variety of ways – sarcasm, vulgarity, etc. All these things together help create characters that are different from one another.

EXAMPLE: In Beloved by Toni Morrison, Sethe is assertive and determined but also mentally scarred. The horrors of her past as a slave haunt her deeply, and she is willing to do whatever it takes to prevent her children becoming slaves. Her daughter, Denver, on the other hand, is immature and lazy, too afraid to venture beyond the garden – until the ghost of her dead sister returns to consume her mother’s energy. Then Denver must become the brave and assertive one if she is to save her family. If Denver and Sethe were too similar to each other, they wouldn’t be able to save each other as they’d both be broken by the same challenges.

Trait 6: An active role

Great main characters are not passive. They don’t just exist as the story picks them up and sweeps them along.

Passivity isn’t interesting, nor does it allow readers to empathise with a character or respect them.

Great characters are active characters. They make decisions, and it’s through their decision-making process that a reader can understand them. A character who makes decisions and acts on them is interesting. A character who allows themselves to be manipulated by external forces is not. (Unless this is part of their character journey, in which case they can’t be passive throughout the whole of the novel – they must become active.)

EXAMPLE: It’s easy to think that in The Hunger Games by Susanne Collins, Katniss has very few choices. In fact, it is because of the choices Katniss makes that she can first survive and then change the system that controls her. Her first major decision comes when she decides to volunteer as tribute to save her sister. This gives her character more gravitas than if she were selected at random.

Trait 7: Backstory

Backstory is a tricky thing. Provide too little and your characters end up acting in a strange void with little context; provide too much and your story is suffocated.

Your readers don’t need to know every detail of your character’s backstory, but it’s important that you know the character’s history well so you can control exactly how and what is revealed to the reader.

Whatever you do, don’t start your novel with a summary of your character’s whole life so far. If your character’s backstory is important, reveal it in glimpsed detail and by showing how it’s affected your character in their present situation.

By conducting your character’s backstory this way, it makes them feel more real and creates a sense of intrigue and depth. Trust in your reader’s intuition.

EXAMPLE: In A Feast for Crows by George R. R. Martin, Cersei is increasingly hostile towards Lady Margaery. At first we assume this is because Cersei is pretty horrible to everyone, but later we learn that she has even more reason to be wary of Margaery; when Cersei was a girl, a witch prophesised that ‘another, younger and more beautiful [will] cast you down and take all that you hold dear’. This piece of backstory helps the reader understand why Cersei acts the way she does, making her a more rounded and compelling character.

Combine these seven traits (flaws, an interesting personality, an inner life, a super-objective, originality, an active role and a backstory) and you’ll undoubtedly write a brilliant character that will live forever in the minds of your readers.

Sophie Playleis a professional fiction editor. She specialises in developmental editing, critiquing and copy-editing, and loves working with authors and publishers who are passionate about high-quality storytelling. Speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction and literary fiction are her genres of choice. She's an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading and has a Creative Writing MA from Royal Holloway, University of London. Find out more:

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