Writing a novel requires mastery of many different aspects: dialogue, scene descriptions, plotting, narrative voice… but perhaps the single most important skill is the ability to write good characters. The reason is simple. Of all the things people are drawn to, they are most drawn to other people. It’s the people, the characters, in the book which will attract readers, which will keep them turning the pages, and which they will remember more than any other element of the story.
Think about your personal favourite stories. Why do you love them so much? What do you remember about them? For most people, the answer is simple: the characters.
But just why, exactly, do you write great and memorable characters, characters like Raskolnikov, Lyra Silvetongue, Harry Potter, and Jayne Eyre, characters that remain with readers through the years?
if there’s an answer to this it surely lies in our own feelings, in the way we ourselves, as writers, relate to characters.
Take my own experience with characters. Perhaps my single favorite character of all is Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov has stayed with me long after I first read Crime and Punishment. He’s the sort of character that has become an icon, a template, an archetype. But just what makes Raskolnikov such a powerful character?
Empathy: It is very easy for me to personally empathise with Raskolnikov. Sure, I might not be about to kill anyone, unless they steal my cookies, but there are many elements of Raskolnikov that are very much me. Raskolnikov has his own moral code of conduct, he is a deep thinker, he finds himself in isolated from the world around him because of his outlook on life… There are elements of myself that I can see in Raskolnikov. And therein lies the first point and the first rule of good character writing. The reader needs to be able to empathise with the character.
Journey: Readers enjoy reading about a character who develops in some way that would benefit the reader themselves to develop in. Raskolnikov essentially goes through a huge period of awakening. He is tortured by what he has done and begins to realise the horrific nature of his crime. His entire moral compass is put into question. He learns to let go of his warped and morbid perspective, and learns morality. Though Raskolnikov’s journey is heightened and dramatic, the basic nature of that journey, of awakening and realisation, is one we all go through. The same can be said of other excellent characters. Luke Skywalker, for instance, learns about the force, grows strong and discovers his true power. Tris from Divergent leans to be herself, as an individual who is separate to her family and her society. Bilbo learns that he has a power inside of him, regardless of his stature. Characters develop in at least one important way, otherwise their story is pointless.
Strengths: We often value a character because of their strengths; the more human those strengths, the better. With Raskolnikov we value the depth of his thought and his unique perspective. With other characters we may value their honesty, loyalty, perseverance, or any other quality. The more human the quality, the better. It is far better to have a character of heroic bravery than one of sheer brute strength; a brave character like Frodo reflects a depth of human nature, where a sheer brute powerhouse like Conan the Barbarian does little but offer an impressive physique.
Weaknesses: Perhaps more important than strengths are weaknesses. A characters weaknesses can create significant empathy. In The Pursuit of Happyness, for instance, Chris Gardner led a destitute life of poverty; we can all sympathise with such a character, we can all put ourselves in that position.
The creation of a compelling character is reliant on the balancing of strength and weakness. Returning to Chris Gardner in The Pursuit of Happyness, we see the opposing forces of strengths and weakness, we see a poverty stricken man, but one who has the utmost determination to turn his life around. This creates fusion.
Character premise: The combination of strengths and weaknesses leads to the character premise, the character question, which is most often defined as Can character X’s strengths overcome their weaknesses? Can Chris Gardener’s perseverance overcome his poverty? Can Bilbo’s bravery overcome his limited physique?
It is in these three key elements—empathy, journey, and strengths and weaknesses—that a great character is found.
Let the reader share the character’s development
Every great fictional character goes through significant changes throughout the course of their story. This is for one simple reason: we feel closer to people (and thereby characters too) when we have been with them through key moments in their lives. Think about sports. We all watched the Olympics. If you were in the UK for London 2012, you almost certainly fell in love with Jessica Ennis (heptathlete), but why? Because you were with her through a life changing period; you saw her training leading up to the Olympics, you saw her compete at the events, and you saw her win. You witnessed her entire transformation. You shared her story.
People want to share each other’s stories
People want to be there through the transformative period of other people’s lives, and the same is true for great characters. To write a good character you must allow the reader to experience the most important transformative period of the character’s life.
The real reason we want to be there through the character’s transformative period is that we ourselves wish to change. When we read a great novel, we do change. This has been proven through the positive psychology of stories. When we witness a character’s growth, we grow too.
With this in mind, it’s important to ask:
How are you transforming the reader through the character?
What experience, what growth, what development are you giving, not to the character but to the reader themselves? Is it a transformation the reader cares about? If so, they will be more inclined to love the character.
Yet there are some examples of amazing characters who do not change throughout the story. Indianna Jones and James Bond, for instance, remain the exact same person at the end as they were at the beginning. Why, then, are we so drawn to these unchanging characters?
Characters whose transformations are “inverted”
Characters like James Bond don’t change within themselves. Rather, they are the agent of change, causing change in the environment around them. Though the characters themselves don’t change, everything around them does. With Forest Gump, for instance, we come to see that there is wisdom in the ways of the foolish. Forest Gump lives an amazing life because his lack of understanding liberates him from the shackles of the intellect. His foolishness actually inspires the characters around him to change themselves.
The rule then, is that one of two things must change considerably. Either the character themselves must go through profound changes, or the world and people around them must change because of them.
The ideal, however, is to have both the character and the environment change.
This is what we witness in Lord of the Rings. Frodo changes considerably. He finds bravery, perseverance and strength (inner growth) and he also becomes one of the most valuable and respected characters in Middle Earth (outer / social growth). At the same time, the bravery and courage that Frodo shows touches the heart of every character around him, and the world of Middle Earth itself. Every element of Lord of Rings goes through significant growth. Every character changes, and the world itself changes. And that is perfect characterisation.
All characters have both good and evil in them
Lord of the Rings shows another key element of truly exceptional character writing: the polarity between good and evil. Of course, there are millions of books that involve a fight between good and evil, but the vast majority of them use separate characters to represent those two opposing forces. It is much more powerful to write characters who in themselves struggle in the fight between good and evil.
Again, Lord of the Rings offers by far the best example of this. With Frodo we of course have the good guy, the hobbit who can do no evil. Yet because he is holding the ring of power, the potential for evil is always inside Frodo on every step of his journey. The reader is absolutely gripped because they need to discover whether Frodo will remain inwardly good or inwardly evil.
Of course, the reason this internal struggle between good and evil makes for such compelling reading is that we all struggle between good and evil deep down. We all strive to be good, yet the temptation is always there to do evil, to be greedy, to take advantage, essentially to be selfish.
By creating a believable inward struggle between good and evil, the author takes tight hold of the reader’s empathy, creating truly memorable characters. After all, what would Luke Skywalker be if he didn’t have that temptation to join the dark side? He would be flat. That inward struggle made him one of the most cherished characters in the history of the movies. And the same is true for Raskolnikov, who in order to become good, must come to recognise both his crime and his punishment.
Good characters are larger than life
In order to write good characters you must also make your characters larger than life, though this point is sure to raise arguments. Many believe that characters are often their strongest when they are regular everyday people. Winston Smith in 1984, for instance, is in many ways a very regular guy to whom we are all drawn. And so, many critics are apt to claim that “regular” characters make for compelling reading. But really, is Winston Smith so regular? Would a regular person really be willing to endure so much and to risk their life for their beliefs? I highly doubt it. Such loyalty to self is a trait of larger than life characters.
Making characters larger than life does not necessarily mean making them do outlandish things. A character doesn’t need to be Rambo to be lager than life. A larger than life character could be one who, like Amelie Poulain, has an extra large heart, or a character who simply happens to be more open and more expressive than regular people.
Perhaps the most powerful form of a larger than life character is one who self sacrifices for greater good. There can be no better example of this than Jesus. Of all that Jesus is, of all his strengths, we are most drawn to his self sacrifice.
While being larger than life, however, a character must also be believable. It is all too easy to write a character who is either too spectacularly good or too spectacularly bad, but neither is realistic. An antagonist who is born bad and always is bad is not believable, just as a protagonist who is born good and is always good is not believable either. While being larger than life, a character must exhibit enough of that which is human to be believable.
Good characters need a strong supporting cast
A huge part of nailing your lead character is creating the ensemble cast.
A character will only truly come to life when they are put in contrast with other characters. It is only through relativity, through contrast, that we truly get to see the true colours of the individual character.
Imagine a character who shares bread with a Jew, for instance. There’s nothing amazing about such a character. He’s just giving someone bread. Now make that same character a Nazi. Voila! Through contrast to others we have create a memorable character. Our sympathetic Nazi, by way of contrast, has become a character whom we can recognise the good of (or at least the potential good of), one whom we are intrigued by simply because he is different to others around him.
Characters are no different to people. We understand people based on their relationship to the people around them. Imagine being attacked by a gang (something that happened to me a few years ago). Naturally you’re going to hate them all. Now imagine that one member of that gang, surrounded by the other gang members, leans down to check that you are okay and to help you to your feet. By contrast, you’re able to see the good in the character, just as in darkness we are more able to see the light.
By being intelligent with the other characters in the cast, by giving them personalities and traits that offer contrast to the protagonist, you illuminate the personality and the human values of your central figure.
On Writing Characters
To truly bring a character to life you need to write them well. Having a good character in your imagination is just phase one, you must also be able to transfer you creation to the page.
There are a few key tools that can help you to bring your character to life.
Self Awareness: Your character must be self aware. The character needs to understand, or at least recognise, the conflict in themselves. They need to be able to discuss their own character, be aware of their own feelings, and understand their own motives. If the character isn’t aware of themselves, the reader won’t be aware of them either.
Sympathy: Ultimately, you want the reader to sympathise with your central character. In order to achieve that, your character needs to sympathise with other characters in the book. Think about it; we don’t have sympathy for people who don’t care about anyone else.
Time: Growth is the most important part of a character. The reader needs to feel that they are with the character during the transformative period of the character’s life. In order to make the reader feel connected, it’s imperative to make use of a sense of time.
Let’s say, for instance, that your character starts as a coward but develops courage throughout the story. It’s important to remind the reader of the journey by referring back to the times when the character was a coward. This can be done in narrative or dialogue, but it is vital to keep the reader aware of the character’s transformation.
Dialogue: Dialogue is one of the most important elements of any character. It is essential to make sure that the mannerisms of speech that the character uses illustrate their personality. Different characters will all speak in different ways. Imagine that bullet blows just past the character’s head. While a soldier might say, “Close call,” a preacher might say, “Lord Almighty,” a teenager might say, “Holy f***ing s*it” and an elderly lady might say, “What’s that ringing? Something’s wrong with my hearing aid.”
Using a combination of these tools will help you to translate the character from your imagination to the page.
Love people and people will love your characters
There is one key to writing good characters that will beat all techniques and tricks in the world. That key is this: have compassion for every person you meet, and the intellect necessary to truly understand them.
If you care about everyone, if you are sympathetic and emotionally intelligent, you will naturally reveal those traits in your writing. In many ways, instead of asking how to write a good character for a novel, a better question is: how can I become more understanding, more sympathetic, more emotionally and socially intelligent. For if you don’t understand people, you never will write a solid character, and if you truly, deeply understand people, you will never write a weak one.
Characters are people. Develop love, understanding and compassion for people, and your character work will naturally blossom on its own.
And if you truly want to produce amazing work, why not try method acting your characters.