It turns out that, ostensibly, creative writing is my field of specialization. I obviously get dreadfully embarrassed by this and write about everything from sewers to warheads to avoid talking about it, but it’s always a topic I feel compelled to come back to.
I personally believe the one thing that every novelist needs to nail, more than anything else, is good character writing. With screenwriting you can get away with a lot less, and that’s for a good reason: You want to see what different actors bring to the story’s table. You don’t want to make a character too rigid in a screenplay, because making a character is a collaborative process between the writer, the actor and the director.
In one way, a novelist doesn’t have the restriction. In another way, a novelist doesn’t have that freedom or leniency.
A good actor will bring to the character mannerisms, presence and personality. Small gestures, expressions, body language, all these things an actor will do on-screen, and it’s stuff you won’t notice yourself noticing a lot of the time. Costuming, tone of voice, inflections are all largely out of a screenwriters’ hands.
In prose, everything that an audience notices and gets a feel for from an actor is something you have to consciously put on the page. What gestures they use, and why. We have italics for emphasizing inflections, but, as is often lamented, there isn’t a real sarcasm font.
So how do novelists make a strong character? The ones that feel like they exist outside the story, and outside the author’s head?
This is like pantsing and plotting. Everyone does it differently, and I’m going to be laden with my own biases here as to what I think good character writing should be. If you disagree or dislike any of the methods or suggestions I put down here, because you have completely different ideas as to what makes a good character, then all that should matter to you is how well it works for your intended audience.
With that out of the way, what do I think defines a good character? I use a really rough heuristic here:
The GOOD the BAD & the QUIRKY
Each of those is a shorthand for a more complex question to ask. The good is; “Why would it be desirable to be this person?”. Now, this isn’t the same as ‘why is this character likable’ or ‘why is this character morally good’. Some of the most engaging characters penned have been anti-heroes, and some have been villains.
The good comes down to that characters’ philosophy. What about them makes them a person that you could understand someone else wanting to be? I’ve said this before elsewhere, but every character is fundamentally a different answer to the question ‘what is a good life’, and this is about what their answer is.
This isn’t about what makes the character good. It’s about asking what this character thinks ‘good’ is.
Usually this is going to be answered most simply by “What does this person most revere as a virtue”? Honesty, patience, justice, charity, kindness, hopefulness, passion, ingenuity, cleverness, industriousness, wisdom, pacifism, pedagogy, humility, self-control, these are all examples of different virtues that most of us agree are valuable.
Different characters will put different valuations on those traits for different reasons. One of the big reasons a lot of authors say you don’t really know who a character is until you put them under stress is because it makes characters question what they actually value, and which are just the values they pay lip service to.
So that’s the ‘good’.
The ‘bad’ is a little easier; what holds them back from achieving ‘goodness’. What vice cripples them? Now, the idea of a vice doesn’t just have to be, say, alcoholism or drugs. I’m using it in the sense that it opposes a virtue. The ‘bad’ is anything that is outwardly negative and harms their relationship with others, but provides them with personal satisfaction. Extreme pessimism, for instance, provides satisfaction. It insulates someone from failure, and it gives them an excuse for why they’re not trying harder. It makes them unlikable when they derive satisfaction from being right about bad outcomes.
Vices are a bit harder to give examples for than virtues, because there’s less obvious reasons why someone falls into a personality that’s unappealing, so in contrast to the virtue examples list, I’ll give a short breakdown of the positive effects it provides a character.
Arrogance — it’s a solid armor against insecurity that doesn’t require real results, and it makes you feel superior.
Wrath — anger is an effective tool that feels really good, and it makes you feel powerful in moments of powerlessness.
Laziness — If you never try, you never have to deal with failure. Or get out of work at the cost of someone else doing it, score.
Manipulativeness — by treating people like puzzles, you never really have to be emotionally vulnerable to them or show your ‘true’ self under the persona. Also, puzzles are fun.
All forms of hedonism are more overtly obvious; When you don’t feel good about yourself, it’s so much easier to make yourself feel good.
What’s important about negative traits, vices, is that they need to feel more beneficial to the character than the repercussions of having that trait are detrimental, or else the audience isn’t going to feel sympathetic to the character for failing to overcome them.
Sometimes the character’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ contradict, and that contradiction can make for the best characters. Someone who values bravery more than anything else, but is a coward themselves? There’s a lot to work with in that. This character will be defined by the contradiction.
They don’t have to contradict, though. If they don’t, you’ll have a character more defined in one direction or the other. A character defined by his vices will probably be disillusioned and unidealistic; They’ve fallen back on simpler, or more hedonistic, ‘pleasures’ because they don’t believe their ‘good’ is worth striving for. Maybe it never was, maybe someone they idolized fell from grace, or maybe they found that their values made them vulnerable and they were burned for it. But now the ‘bad’ outweighs the ‘good’.
On the other side, a character defined by his virtues is usually more intuitively likable, or make a better first impression. They might not already be paragons of their own ideals yet, but they haven’t given up on them yet either. They might not have as much to prove or the motivation of someone that lives a contradiction, but they’re also the lowest risk character to write, especially if they’re not part of the main cast. And sometimes, you just want a plain old good guy.
Just to condense, because that was a lot of information on what’s supposed to be a really rough heuristic; the good is just what their admirable values are, and the bad is how they conflict with others’ — or their own — values.
So why the heuristic at all? What is it good for knowing, as an author?
The GOOD is the conflict they’ll have with the plot, the BAD the conflict they’ll generate with other characters, and conflict is the currency that drives your story.
So what about the QUIRKY? That’s easy enough, and it’s usually the first thing everyone thinks of when planning characters. It’s what makes this character different. It’s their most superficial characteristics, the skin-deep qualities. That also means it’s the part that’s most on display.
This is their voicing, their vocabulary, their word choice, their mannerisms, the complexity of their sentences, their costuming. This is what you’d notice about them if you were people watching in a park. These are the most noticable elements of a character, the most exaggerated.
Think of three or four things about this character, traits or quirks, and have at least one of them come up in every scene they’re in. This can be a topic they like, a tic, a catchphrase, whatever. Give them a few, and juggle them so none of them individually become overplayed, but not too many so they become diluted. Again, three or four big ones is probably a strong number here.
These are important to think about, but they’re not the entirety of the character. This is usually the biggest reason you’ll find characters feel weak or superficial in fan-fiction when you otherwise can’t put your finger on an exact reason; The quirks, being the most visible element, are what get lifted, so you have a hollow character who says all the right lines, but loses the underlying drive.
Let’s take an easy example of a really defined character here, Dr McNinja of the fantastic comic The Adventures of Dr McNinja, to break down what I’ve covered so far.
His GOOD: Professionalism, stoicism, and passion for being really good at cool things.
His BAD: The need to be as cool as Batman, and an irrational anger towards King Radical.
His QUIRKY: He’s an Irish medical doctor who is also a ninja.
Dr McNinja is a character who seems entirely built around the ‘quirky’. Even the name plays it up. But the comic wouldn’t be engaging, and have run for over a decade, if McNinja was only built around the ‘quirky’ component.
Let’s run down why he’s such a brilliant character real quick, and how those qualities intermingle. How does his desire to be professional in all things cause conflict with the plot, and how are those values tested? Well, he’s a doctor and a ninja, and those professions have… very mutually conflicting versions of professionalism.
His need to be as cool as Batman is also an interesting one, because McNinja at his core is a wish-fulfilment character. He’s an amalgamation of the coolest things to be and then turning those settings up to 11. Howver, his values and his mannerisms have come from wanting to be Batman so hard. So hard.
This isn’t inherently bad. In fact, it’s driven him to live up to what can be seen as his best possible self. What makes it a ‘bad’ in this case is that it causes conflict with other characters, who think less of him for it — his values are often questioned because his role model is a fictional character, and a dorky one at that.
In fact, you can see how something like “deeply religious” can be in the ‘good’ or ‘bad’ categories at the same time, for the same reasons. Because even when the outcome is good, and the values themselves can be respected, the source of them and a strong adherence to them can cause a lot of conflict.
On the subject of character arcs and character growth; The more flawed your character is at the start of the story, the more satisfying it is to watch them be challenged and overcome those problems by the end of the story. However, it is important that you focus on them reassessing and achieving their ‘good’ and not just overcoming and giving up their ‘bad’.
On the subject of McNinja here, I did say he’s a wish-fulfillment character, which means that his virtues far outweigh his vices. That’s not a problem; Other characters bring the conflict to him. Not every good character needs to be riddled with inner conflict, or have a deep flaw holding them back. In fact, that can even make your story too busy, provide too many distracting elements.
No one man is an island, and no one character a novel. The bad might be there to generate inter-character conflict, but there are other characters in your story that can cause that kind of conflict instead, and you weren’t just planning out your protagonist… were you?
Actually, how much should you plan the other characters? Specifically, what do you do for minor characters?
This is where, more than anything else, archetypes are useful. If I want engaging minor characters, I usually think of the role I need to fill; This noir story needs a police officer, a bounty hunter, a bartender, and a prostitute for this scene. They need to all be interesting enough that the conversations between them in this scene are dynamic and engaging, but none of them are guaranteed to be recurring characters, and fiddling around with them too much will be wasted effort in five thousand words from now.
So… what’s a quick and dirty way to make good minor characters?
Take the characters’ role description here. You’re coming up with these characters because there’s a person-shaped hole in your story, and this is where you fill it. As such, you’ve already answered the most important question about a character; What purpose do they serve to the story?
The GOOD, the BAD and the QUIRKY for main characters up there, that’s you figuring out how they can serve the story in more nuanced and abstract ways. That gives them tons of room to grow, as well, and develop over a story. But a minor character? A minor character needs to come out fully formed, where we already immediately get their whole deal.
So you take their role description, and you think;
A) What is the most played-straight, exactly-what-you-would-expect version of this role?
B) What is the most idealized, exaggerated, turned-up-to-11 version of this role I can think of?
C) What is the exact opposite of the kind of person I’d expect to fill this role?
So let’s go through those one by one. Let me bring my list back down here;
A police officer, a bounty hunter, a bartender, and a prostitute.
The police officer could be;
A) A broad-shouldered, middle-aged man who’s just trying to do his job and go home safe
B) A large and muscular man who is calm and kind. He has a razor-sharp uniform and a finely-tuned moral compass. He is not angry with you, only disappointed you are not being your best self. He’s trying to be your friend, and it’s working.
C) A four-foot four angry blonde barbie-girl who threatens to break the bones of anyone who draws attention to that, snarling and ready for a scrap.
The bounty hunter could be:
A) A tall, tattooed mercenary. He rides a Harley Davidson.
B) Seven feet tall, muscles like basketballs have been surgically implanted under their skin, a canister of bear mace on each hip. He drives a surplus Humvee that was built to withstand a direct hit from an RPG.
C) A kindly old grandmother whose specialty is mothering people into coming back for their court appearances, and helping them through this difficult time in their lives. She drives a Beetle.
The bartender could be:
A) A young person in a waistcoat and rolled up white sleeves with a neat, tied up ponytail, a good sense of people, and a practiced ear for listening.
B) An older man with silver hair and a perfectly manicured, tiny moustache on his upper lip. He knows the make and muster of every bottle behind the shelf, and handles them like a juggler. He knows everything about everyone, because they’ve told him as much. He carries those secrets to his grave.
C) A twelve year old girl, who swears like a sailor and who’s just doing this for the pocket money.
The prostitute could be:
A) A woman in torn fishnets and a skintight cocktail dress, desperate for a smoke.
B) A modern-day succubus who weaves innuendo into the act of breathing. She is not a whore, she is an escort and a professional, and you should be ashamed for putting your prejudices onto her.
C) A chubby IT guy, who services your computer before servicing you, while he’s down there. “Fixing computers is the new lumberjack for sexiness”.
All this was just stream of thought, but that’s already 12 characters who I’m basically ready to just slip right into writing. All of them have an appeal to them, and it’s better to use a mix of these. The A) option works best for straight-men, and for characters you don’t want to draw attention to, but a scene full of them doesn’t pop. A scene full of just B)’s and C)’s fight to hog the spotlight, and the strength of each of them individually might be diluted for it.
A)’s aren’t necessarily the most interesting on their own, but they’re great supporting characters to highlight the eccentricities of the rest of your cast. They’re force multipliers, because they represent normality, and the storytelling can really exist in the contrast between your other characters and ‘normal’. Don’t be afraid to use them, and don’t feel compelled to make every character ‘pop’.
The A)’s will be forgotten, but the moments they set up for your other characters to play off will be remembered all the more clearly for it, because it means that the more interesting characters weren’t fighting for attention.
That’s not true of all things at all times though. For instance? I’m now in love with the idea of the IT gigolo ordering a drink from the 12-year-old bartender. But that’s contrasting the normality of the interaction against the abnormality of the people having it, isn’t it?
I think the final word of advice is, when you’re done, cover the names of all the characters in a conversation. Delete all the pronouns and attributions. You should still be able to tell who’s who, even if you have to squint a little.
A few years ago, another writer was bragging in front of me about how strong his character writing was. I copy-pasted into our Skype conversation a full page of a conversation between his two protagonists, stripped down to only the dialogue lines themselves, and I asked him to label which line was from which protagonist.
It shouldn’t be hard. One was supposedly a shy introverted librarian, and the other an extravagant, dramatic, extroverted artist. Also, he himself had written it!
He couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. His audience couldn’t do it. The argument was settled. His dialogue and voice was good, but it was only his voice on the page.
This is where I sound like a pretentious hippy, but here you go with my advice on how to avoid this issue.
Don’t try to think of the character, try to think as the character. Hold a conversation with them in your head, and simply write the things they tell you with as little interference as possible.
Problems like the one above occur when an author is still using their own voice, and painting what they believe the character wants over it. They aren’t writing another character’s words, they’re writing their own words with that character’s name on it. Their own mannerisms will override any of the characters’.
The trick to all of this planning, in the end, should be that you’ve thought about the character so hard before you write them is that you shouldn’t need to think about them at all when you write them. They’re already there, living inside your head. You’ve made a space for them, and you know them as well as you know any other friend of yours.
Writing is a very lonely process, even at the best of times. It helps when you know how to make friends.