Mar 26 2012

How to Write Interesting Characters

Creative Writing Resources for English Class

Feel free to use this printout for your creative writing classes or whatever else you have in mind.

Below, I’ve included a text version, mainly to help Google “read” this.

Developing Interesting Characters

Personality and Distinguishing Traits 

In particular, major protagonists should have a combination of flaws and strengths, preferably a relatively fresh combination. For example, Tony Stark isn’t a stereotypical brilliant scientist: he’s hyper-charismatic and his principal flaw is a lack of restraint. He’s much more interesting than, say, Steve Urkel.

 

As for villains, I’d recommend shying away from one-dimensionally evil antagonists.  At the very least, give them an internal logic that makes sense to them. For example, the Nazis were obsessed with purity and didn’t think of themselves as evil. Ozymandias doesn’t WANT to kill millions of people, but thinks that it’s necessary to avert a nuclear war that will kill billions.

 

Unique Impact on the Plot

If you could remove a major character without the plot changing much, (s)he probably isn’t memorable. I feel Soon I Will Be Invincible’s main hero could’ve been more effective here—removing her would probably not affect any major actions/decisions by other characters. In contrast, Batman consistently drives plots forward by acting to attain goals.

 

Some possibilities:

  • Characters act proactively rather than merely to responding to others.
  • Unique skills/capabilities. Sherlock Holmes isn’t the only detective in his stories, but he does things nobody else can.
  • Unique goals/motivations. Dexter Morgan’s homicidal urges affect the plot and every other character.

Unusual Decisions

Give your characters chances to make decisions that 90% of their genre’s characters wouldn’t do in the same situation.  Most unusual decisions are made by protagonists, but it could be a side-character (Neville stands up to Harry Potter in HP1) or a villain (in Watchmen, Ozymandias won 35 minutes ago).
Readers may or may not approve of character’s decisions.

  • Peter Parker lets the thief go.
  • Bob Swagger, framed fugitive, destroys exonerating evidence because the tape would shake his countrymen and he’s already killed most of the perpetrators.
  • Scott Pilgrim is an immature 23-year-old that dates a high school girl because he’s dealing with a hard breakup.

10 responses so far

10 Responses to “How to Write Interesting Characters”

  1. Chihuahua0on 06 Mar 2012 at 3:17 pm

    I see a little green there. 😉

  2. Milanon 06 Mar 2012 at 6:26 pm

    Hah! A small green indeed. Box 3, “Give your [] chances…” Perhaps the connecting arrows could further highlight the interaction of the boxes. If your first example in each box was from the same source then that might make the interplay of personality, plot and decisions more obvious, I don’t know. While keeping the other examples.

  3. Goaton 06 Mar 2012 at 7:03 pm

    I feel that most of this poster is great but some of the references might be too obscure for the average creative writing student (Ex: Ozymandias did it 35 seconds ago.) and some examples like the Batman one need more elaboration.

  4. B. McKenzieon 06 Mar 2012 at 8:11 pm

    “Perhaps the connecting arrows could further highlight the interaction of the boxes.” Yeah, I’m still working on page 2 (without which the triangle theme probably doesn’t make much sense). You can see a rough draft of page 2 here. In the most recent version of page 1, I’ve taken out the arrows because it’s too cramped.

    “I see a little green there.” Hmm, what do you mean? In the first version of this, there were red squiggly lines where Microsoft Word thought that some words were misspelled (“Ozymandias” and “Invincible’s”). I assumed you meant that there were green squiggly lines but I didn’t see any. UPDATE: Ah, I see the green line under “(s)he”.



    “some examples like the Batman one need more elaboration.” I agree completely. Page 1 has 320 words. Page 2 will probably fit about 200 words. If I were writing this article without length restrictions*, I’d probably write 1000-1500 words. Cutting down to 500 words forced me to slash details. Pretty much all of the examples (but notably Batman and Bob Swagger/Point of Impact) could probably have used more space than they got above.

    *I really wanted to keep this to 2 pages because I think it will be a lot more convenient if it can be printed out as a double-sided handout for class.

  5. Milanon 07 Mar 2012 at 8:36 am

    I stared at it until I was sure the ‘small green’ was smaller than a pixel. Made me look. Looking so closely inspired me to start a “Wooden Tryptich of Gripping Plots” to parallel this, but then lunchtime was over… instead your draft second page looks to be on the money.

  6. Yuuki12on 24 Jan 2014 at 10:08 pm

    Greetings. First off, I wish to thank you for posting this article. With that said, I need some help in regards of my main character, Derek Masters. While I think I have got him down personality wise, and motivations, I wish to see if his actions and decisions are unusual.

    Anyway, before I go into detail allow me to give a brief summary: “Derek Master’s ordinary life changes when he is given a chance to join the Adjudicators of the Infinite Realms; a policing organization in charge of protecting the infinite realms. It is here Derek learns of a plot that will lead to the destruction of his world”.

    I apologize for the lackluster summary, but I wished to get my point. The first unusual decision I tired to make was when he was selected to join the Organization. In order to join, he’d needed to complete a test called the “Rite of Inheritance”. This was to prove if he was worthy.

    While many other prospects accepted, Derek denied the request. His justification, aside from being a bit lazy, was due to him being content with his life he is living, and doesn’t wish to add further complications.

    Although, it is due to his competitive streak( being goaded by one of the contestants), that changes his mind. The second unusual decision that was evident was Derek’s decision to become a hero.

    To give some back-story, I originally wanted him to be hesitant in becoming a hero, at least one who showed himself in public. Given the group of villains who wish to destroy his world, that he is willing to take on. This would lead to some conflict with his friend, Liam Patel.

    I avoided this because I have seen this plot-line countless times. Given my character’s age at a teenager, the last thing I wanted was unnecessary angst and drama that would detract from the plot.

    As a justification for him wanting to be a hero, I tied it to how he (with his powers of sound manipulation, enhanced hearing) has been aware of many problems going on. Derek admits his past was rough, but he was lucky with the support. He doesn’t want fame or justice. Rather, he wishes to allow others to see that they are not alone, that as he described it ” for every cry, there is a response, a voice”.

    Call it shaky, but I tired to justify having such a decision. The second to last noticeable choice I pulled within the story concerned Derek and the villain. In the story, he finds out the villains’ motivations are for altruistic purposes. As such, Derek is given a chance to join.

    When confronted by the foes, with Liam, Derek agrees, much to the shock of his buddy. To note, Derek doesn’t really agree, only accepting so as to go undercover. The reason why I chose this decision was because most heroes when put into that spot would have rejected it, which is typical.

    And second, I wished to show the ramifications, noticeable his friend, Liam (while understanding Derek’s logic), is mad, because he hadn’t trusted him with this. To conclude (I apologize for how long this post has been), due to his duties as a hero, Derek has been failing to fulfill his promises, mainly to his friends and family.

    The most noticeable one was with his girlfriend, Teri, missing an event. While in her presence, Derek hears a series of sirens. Although sensing something serious, he chooses to ignore it, mainly out of laziness, and wanting to make due on his promises with Teri.

    The choice is disastrous. The disturbance was to confront a group of narcotics dealers. A big shootout broke out, which not only resulted in the deaths of four police officers, but also a ten year old boy was caught in the crossfire, and critically wounded.

    This dilemma is to showcase not only Derek’s laziness and overall frustration with his roll as a hero, but also his impulsiveness, specifically when considering the weight of his actions.

    All in all, how are these decisions? Are they well merited, and do enough to make him stand out?

  7. Fact-Or-Fictionon 15 Apr 2015 at 12:06 pm

    One more question about my Urban Fantasy thing. How do you write timid characters in ways that are still funny and interesting. I’m worried that my protagonist might become stagnant or boring once the actual policework rolls around. Suggestions?

  8. B. McKenzieon 15 Apr 2015 at 6:24 pm

    Hopefully, the character’s timidity causes him to be MORE active in some way (e.g. more willing to act, even if that means making a mistake). For example, a police officer that’s extremely timid might be more likely to lose control of a dicey situation. For example, if he’s surrounded by potentially hostile werewolves, a timid officer probably wouldn’t have the persona or reputation to keep them in line, and even some threatening posturing from a werewolf might panic him into shooting early. This could push him in interesting directions (e.g. coming up with creative solutions besides raw badassery to get through tough spots or perhaps blackmailing/coercing/contracting a third party to help him talk with the werewolves) and/or cause him to overreact to semi-threatening actions or situations (also interesting).

    In contrast, if his timidity makes him less active (e.g. if he tends to idle as things happen around him and/or he rarely actively develops the plot on his own), I’d recommend reevaluating. (I feel that active protagonists are generally much more promising than less-active protagonists).

  9. Fact-Or-Fictionon 16 Apr 2015 at 2:42 pm

    I’m going to consider these, thank you. I was talking to someone in my writing group about this, and they threw out an interesting suggestion. What if his partner set him up on a date, wanting him to break out of his shell. Of course, he is adamantly against this, but then she informs him that the woman is an informant or spy of some kind. He goes on the date, and finds out that the woman is just a random girl she set him up with? Is this worth exploring comedically, or is it too weird? Appreciate the input.

  10. B. McKenzieon 18 Apr 2015 at 11:03 pm

    “He goes on the date, and finds out that the woman is just a random girl she set him up with? Is this worth exploring comedically, or is it too weird?” It’s not weird, but it doesn’t sound particularly comedic. It’d be easy for the main character to pull the plug on the scene once he realizes what’s going on and there isn’t any reason for him to put up with the awkwardness*. In contrast, if it had been a major criminal flirting hard with him, then he has a reason to keep the scene going whether or not he has any romantic interest (e.g. it might advance an investigation and/or turning her down may be dangerous).

    *And if he is putting up with a scene where he doesn’t want to be even though he could easily walk away, having him NOT walk away will probably make him look passive, which is probably not the first impression I’d recommend for a protagonist.

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