When you encounter a great character, you can usually just feel it in the way they act and behave. They’re realistic and complex and full of personality. They’re their own person, with their own distinct needs and wants and fears and all the things the rest of us humans have to deal with.
It’s hard to narrow down a well-written character to a list, but in general there are some things you should include when writing your own characters. Take your time. Sit down and just brainstorm—let your mind wander! You can change things later. This should help either create a new character, or shape ones you already have. Because I love examples, I’ll attach some stuff about my good friend Alice.
It’s a broad subject, so start simple. Optimistic, pessimistic? Introvert, extrovert? What are their core values? Nailing down some core values can work wonders when it comes to understanding how your character operates.
For example, a Caring value should equate with friendliness and kindness, while an Integrity value should equate with honesty and loyalty. Just remember that these are guidelines and distinctions, not rules.
EX: Alice is very pessimistic. She values loyalty but is incredibly distrustful. She’s also determined and brave and does what she has to, even if she doesn’t want to.
No one’s perfect! And any of their good traits can easily become flaws if they tilt too far in one direction. Confidence can turn into arrogance. Overly kind may turn into a pushover, and so on.
Don’t be afraid to blemish your character with flaws. This is just as important to personality as their good traits!! Maybe more so, because flaws are a great place to focus your character arc.
EX: Alice is selfish, stubborn, and she will revert to immaturity before admitting she’s wrong.
3. Swoons and Wounds
What do they want to do with their life? What are their goals? Are they taking steps towards their ideal future? What’s holding them back? This is usually tied in with values and passions.
EX: Alice wants a happy family life and friends/family she can trust. She’s not taking steps towards this because she’s afraid of getting hurt.
Could be a subject in school. A hobby. A collection of stamps or dolls or squashed pennies. Something that they really love.
Often, it’s a skill they work to perfect. It doesn’t even have to be a thing. They could be passionate about abstract ideas like love or family.
EX: Alice loves cooking, because she loves the idea of a family gathered around the dining room table. Good food brings people together.
And I don’t necessarily mean like, they wear red every Monday or something weird. Just things specific to them. Clothing, speech, physical movements. Hats, for example, can distinguish your character and add to their personality. What does a character with a fedora vs a cowboy hat vs a baseball cap mean?
Think of all the nervous tics people have. Shifting weight, scratching, avoiding eye contact, clenching fists, sweating. Rarely will someone do all of these things when they’re nervous.
Choose one or two specific actions for your character depending on if they’re nervous, scared, happy, confronted, etc.
EX: Alice always scowls and crosses her arms when she’s upset. She doesn’t shrink when she’s confronted; she juts her chin and squares her shoulders. For clothing, instead of Alice wearing generic “shoes,” she prefers boots. Black boots, below the knee, with a silver buckle across the side. Is this detail necessary to the plot? Not at all. And I don’t think I’ve ever detailed the boots beyond “black,” it’s just a tidbit I keep to myself. I saw a pair of Alice boots at Dilliard’s and I took a picture for my own enjoyment. But it’s what she prefers, and she’s entitled to her own preferences.
Other characters can share a trait or value, but for the most part, if you go through this list and all your characters are answering along the same lines, it’s time for some changes.
Don’t arbitrarily answer these, either. The character’s distinctions should sort of weave together, because random ideas aren’t organic. I’m always saying to make your character paradoxical, but that doesn’t mean random.
I mean, look at Alice. She’s selfish and brave at the same time. This can, at times, be paradoxical, since brave might include standing up for something even if it puts yourself in danger. She cares deeply about the people she trusts, so again, she might put them before herself in ways that appear selfless. She’s still selfish, but it’s not the end-all deciding factor for her choices and actions. She’s pessimistic but still clings to the crazy fantasy that her parents will call off the divorce, because she dreams of a happy home life.
Even the fact that she wears boots. Boots are more protective than a pair of sandals, and as mentioned above, Alice is distrustful. She’s selfish and stubborn as a means to protect herself. Parts of her clash, parts of her blend, but they’re all related, at least. A random core value like “health” or “precision” simply doesn’t fit in with the rest of her goals, values, flaws, and so on.
Hopefully that all makes sense. If you’re not sure where to start for your own WIP, try analyzing each of these aspects for some of your favorite characters in books or movies.