One of the most difficult aspects of writing is creating realistic characters. Sometimes as authors it can be incredibly difficult to avoid the pitfall of making our protagonist too perfect, or the opposite, so flawed they don’t come across as real.
Everyone’s heard the phrase “give your characters' flaws” as a cure all for flat/uninteresting characters. The problem with this is without further explanation a writer may end up giving the wrong flaws to their characters or even worse mistake weaknesses for flaws. Another line of thought is to pick a stereotype and turn it on its head. Doing this creates a whole host of new problems and leaves characters feeling forced.
Both techniques can be done well, but they aren’t the only options.
Every author has thought about whether their cast is well balanced. It’s part of the process and the mark of a good writer. So how do we make a well balanced character?
I’ve filled out dozens of character sheets and questionnaires galore. None of them got me as close to my characters as these five tricks I learned from over half a decade of writing.
Outlines are like a first date: lots of info, little knowledge
Everyone has met someone new at some point in life. First meetings are full of curiosity, excitement, fear, and anxiety.
It took me several years and highly interactive jobs to get comfortable meeting new people on a daily basis. One thing I’ve learned both from life and from writing is that these encounters rarely result in knowing a person’s true character.
Filling out hundreds of questionnaires about your main character(s) is the same. True, you may learn the tiniest details about your character's appearance, but their true colors don’t show until interacting further.
My approach to outlines is to use them as you write. It's overwhelming to mentally keep track of character quirks and appearances, especially when you have a large cast. Having a character sheet to refer back to saves you time and headaches.
If you need a basic “get to know you” before you start writing I recommend answering just 2 questions:
What do they want:
(Gives a direction for the plot of the book)
What they will or won't do to get it:
(Establishes a moral system and personality)
That’s really it. Just 2 questions. Appearances, behaviors, race, even gender can be changed to fit the narrative better, but the driving factor for the character should remain the same. This does not account for plot twists, but that’s a different topic.
Flaws vs weaknesses
A flaw is defined as a defect that mars the perfection of something. A weakness is defined as inadequate or defective quality in something.
Here’s an example: Pride is a flaw, and Kryptonite is a weakness.
In storytelling, flaws are the factors that allow for a character arc. They present a clear and damming chink in the character that must be overcome to progress further. The seven deadly sins are an easy chart to flaws: pride, lust, envy, sloth, greed, gluttony, wrath. Additional flaws can be things like: Low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, upbringing, personal-biases, racism, sexism, intolerance, selfishness, mental/emotional “walls”, fear, cowardice, narcissism, etc.
Weaknesses are additional aspects that prove the character isn’t all powerful and don’t necessarily have to be overcome in a character arc. Weaknesses can be physical, mental and emotional. Some examples are amputation or deformation of a limb, impaired senses, impaired mental function, lack of muscle strength, slow, clumsy, forgetful, illnesses/chronic conditions, etc.
Don’t have to “break” stereotype
As mentioned in the introduction, breaking stereotypes can be a problem unto itself. One problem it presents is that it can make a character feel forced, or unauthentic.
Example: Burly mercenary is feared worldwide, but is actually a marshmallow. It doesn’t make sense. If the mercenary is supposed to be tough and strike fear into the hearts of all he meets, then having such an outrageous reversal of character is out of place.
Here’s a better idea: Burly mercenary has a soft for kids and gets especially aggressive on jobs that involve a child being abused. This intense aggression can perpetuate his reputation as a brutal sell-sword, but when interacting with the scared child, the reader can see his soft side.
If you’d rather not break the stereotype, there are ways of being highly successful in that area as well.
If you’ve read my fantasy book “The Ajoiner Realm” you already know Warren Northwright. In a lot of ways he fits the “knight in shining armor” stereotype; but he comes across as authentic because he has the right flaws, weaknesses, and other character traits that make him an individual.
However you decide to model your character allow yourself to be motivated by finding out who they are rather than creating something for the sole purpose of being “different.”
Top 5 Pro Tips:
Inside the mind
The best way to get to know your characters is to get inside their head. Dungeons and Dragons is a fantastic way to get into your MC’s mind, especially if you are not the Dungeon Master. By having to react to situations out of your control, you get to know how your character might react in similar situations in your book. Another bonus to playing DnD as your protagonist is that you will interact with other people. This is huge because not every character in your book should get along with your MC. Other characters may make choices that dramatically affect your character and by role playing as them you can better understand how they handle other people’s choices.
If you don’t have anyone to play with, but still like the idea of “playing” your character in a game, there are other options. One of my personal favorites is playing an open world RPG. I will establish rules for my character that align with their personality. For example: if I were to play Bethesda’s “Skyrim” as Warren, I would use heavy armor, a single-handed weapon, no magic (not even to heal myself), and avoid fighting when persuasion options are available. Also, unnecessary looting would be off the table, I would only trade up gear from a slain enemy and pick up healing items, but nothing that I wouldn’t use. The reason for doing this is to help me figure out ways of completing quests without cutting corners like I normally would. I gained new insight to what Warren would think about varying encounters.
Which leads into my next topic: mirror encounters. This can be done literally anywhere at anytime. Take any interaction you’ve seen and plug your protagonist into any position.
Example: Fast food dinner rush. You can plug your character in as the overworked employee, the customer who’s been waiting for an hour, the customer who got the wrong meal, the starving people waiting in line debating whether or not it would be better to wait there or try somewhere else, etc. Anywhere you put them will give you insights on how they handle stress.
As I mentioned before, this can be done ANYWHERE, class, the gym, at the park, at home, in a fight, at a scary movie. Anywhere.
As a final idea, you can try journaling from your character’s POV. The best thing about journals is that they aren’t typically meant to be read by anyone other than the writer. This enables you to turn off the “what will my reader think?” switch and just focus on being in the mind. I’ve done this with all my characters at some point and found it absolutely incredible. I learned that the character who’s always joking around is prone to high anxiety. This bled into the story every time my team was forced into a difficult situation he prescribed caution, or tried to find an alternate route to keep everyone friends safe.
Adventure book technique
This is another fabulous way to get to know your character if journaling or creating scenarios is difficult for you.
If you aren’t familiar with what an adventure book is, a choose your adventure story, where you as the reader get to decide how you want to react to given scenarios.
Example: You are walking through the woods when you find a large cave. You notice something reflecting light a few feet inside as you inspect the opening.
Go in for a closer look (turn to page 2)
Stay outside and look around a little more (turn to page 3)
Leave (turn to page 4)
The story will be different based on the chosen option. In this example, you learn how impulsive/reserved your character is. Let's break down each option:
A character that would wander in without thinking further is likely to act before thinking throughout your story. This can be a flaw for your character to overcome as they get themselves into trouble often.
A character that studied a little more is likely to show restraint and avoid getting into predicaments throughout your story. This can be a problem if it takes your character a long time to make decisions when decisive action is needed.
A character that noticed the reflection, but didn’t stay may be too focused on their destination to realize there was a better/easier way of accomplishing their goal. Fear of harm/failure may also have been reasons to avoid investigating. Whatever the cause, lack of curiosity, or denial of curious actions can be good or bad depending on the situation.
This is about as close to an outline as I go during the early creation stage. This technique employs the power of asking questions to your character about themselves, or their thoughts on current events.
When performing a character interview, it is important that you do this where other influences can’t interfere. Quiet time at home, without music, or distractions is key to fully understanding your character’s thoughts.
Additionally, it is highly beneficial to imagine what your character is doing during the interview. Are they fidgety, calm? Do they slouch or sit up straight when addressed? What questions/topics make them uncomfortable? How are their responses? Clipped or detailed? Do they pause to find the right words, or say the first thing that comes to mind?
If it helps, you can create a mental “interview room” for them to be in with you while you talk to see how they interact with their environment. You can also use whatever room you happen to be in at the moment as a backdrop.
How would you describe yourself?
What is your biggest strength?
What is your biggest weakness?
What motivates you?
What are your thoughts on the current world affairs? (can be their world or ours if different)
If you could remove one problem from the world, what would it be and why?
Do you think the current government system is productive, why/why not? How would you change it?
If you didn’t have your current quest, what would you spend your time doing?
****As you think about your MC’s responses, be sure to document their physical behavior as well.****
This is probably one of the most fun options, as it allows you to really dive into your character without having to do too much creation work.
The internet is a wonderful place. I use apps like Pinterest to save collections of things that relate to my characters to help me get a better mental image of who populates my stories. A physical poster can also be created if that is preferable.
An added benefit to exploring beyond your own mind is that you get to see what currently exists. As you create your character, you may find someone has created something similar. This doesn’t mean that you cannot use your original idea, you may have to change up an appearance or modify a personality, but good research is never a bad thing.
Anything you’ve written is good, but it also helps to save things that make you think of that character. Something’s will surprise you.
If you have art skills (or even if you don’t but want to draw anyway) this can be fabulous to really visualize what your character looks like.
Songs are incredibly inspiring. I’ve found endless inspiration for my plot and characters in the notes I hear every day. When you come across a song that connects you to a character that is a huge victory and should be included in your character board.
Any random thing that relates to your protagonist. In some of my character boards, I include specific shades of a color that I feel like relates to the character. For some I have clothes that they would wear either in their time period or in mine. Weapons they use, armor they’d like, trinkets, animals, anything that I feel truly represents their essence.
Developing character boards is harmless, claiming any material that you didn’t create as your own: very harmful. Be sure that when you are writing your book, you do not accidentally plagiarize material.
In a box
The final secret to figuring out who your character is on a deeper level is to put them in a box. A plain, white box, four walls and a ceiling, and nothing to do. As you observe them document what they do.
How does your character react? Do they stay calm or do they panic being confined?
Do they try to escape? What process do they go through?
Do they try to occupy themselves immediately or after an extended time?
How do they react to the silence?
Based on your answers, you’ll learn a great deal about how your character handles boredom. Why does that matter? As humans, we tend to keep at least some degree of stimulus at all times. Knowing what your character does when they are bored helps you develop a well-rounded protagonist.
If we aren’t mildly engaged in an activity, we find ways to entertain ourselves. Why else do we fidget, daydream, doodle, or cause trouble in classrooms and meetings?
Scientific studies have proven this. When a test subject is left alone in a room with only a button that causes mild electric shock, the subject WILL eventually press the button even if they know it will shock them. Not only will they press it once, they will press it MULTIPLE times. Some will try to outsmart the button, try to be faster than the button, or just plain out to see how much they can tolerate. Even when the only option of action causes pain, humans will always have some sort of response to not having anything to do.
If you want to write as a career, odds are you aren't going to just write one book. With each story you tell there are new characters to meet and develop. Sometimes that can become problematic. Sometimes you’ll even need more than just the top 5 pro tips. So when you’ve outlined, added proper flaws and weaknesses, been true to the character, gotten in their mind, interviewed, made character boards and even stuffed them in a box, there are two final practices that can save your character before having to totally rewrite them.
This exercise should not be done lightly. It will show you the blackest side of your character(s) and can be very sobering.
This is where you will strip every last bit of hope from your character to find out how they deal with complete, irreversible defeat. The thing to remember is you have to be 100% honest. This isn’t the time to feign heroics with your protagonist. If they truly lost EVERYTHING and had nothing but their life left, what would they become?
Using the Defenders of Radiance as an example, there are some team members that would continue in bitter anguish, some who couldn’t live with their failures, some who—surprisingly—would restart their lives from scratch. These aren’t the only options a character has, they’re just examples.
The final trick to this is to find out just how much they have to lose before reaching this point. Will they abandon hope at crippling financial loss, crisis of faith, devastating counter efforts of the antagonist, loss of a loved one? Knowing just how far you can push your characters before they break will help you establish their true values. The loss of a sibling could overthrow a character that may appear to only care for wealth and power. A character that may appear noble of heart may turn to bitter crime to support their lover.
Whatever their turning point is know it and when to use it. Not every character has to break for you to tell a story effectively. Sometimes it is imperative that a character remain steady when all else fails. I personally love stable supporting characters, who even when the protagonist is a ravenous beast, remain loyal and help pull their friend back into the light. One of the best examples of this is Samwise Gamgee in Tolkin’s “Lord of the Rings”. Even when Frodo is consumed by the influence of the Ring, Sam stands firm and refuses to abandon Frodo or the quest.
One of the most exhilarating phrases is “don’t tell anyone else about this, but…”. As a writer, one of the best ways to round out your characters and make them feel more genuine is to provide them with attributes that don’t directly pertain to the story.
Example: A fantasy princess who has repressed her ladylike mannerisms during a time of war may be a terrific musician. At times she may grow slightly distracted from war councils when she hears a servant playing a harp. While she does not regret her calling as a warlordess she will still appreciate musical skill.
As a general guideline, I only allow 1-3 major secrets per character. Major secrets are items such as past crimes/accidents, significant deaths, heritage, unusual upbringing, etc. Major secrets are things that shape a person’s character for better or worse.
With the rest of the list, it is best to add a blend of moderate and mild secrets.
Moderate secrets are things like dominant hand, idiosyncrasies, physical or mental characteristics/quirks. Anything that might pertain to the story but not significantly.
Lastly, mild secrets. These are attributes that have little to no bearing on the plot. These can be taste/smell/fashion/music preferences, hobbies, talents outside of plot use, etc.
Writing effective characters is a critical aspect of storytelling. Even with flawless diction, the perfect plot, and stunning imagery, a book can still flop if the characters just don’t feel right. It takes time to get to know your characters, so being patient is key. It is also important to note that you don’t have to intimately know everything about your protagonist and their friends before starting to write.
More often than not you’ll understand more as the story progresses. Plus, you can rewrite and refine your tale as many times as you want before publishing. Nowadays it’s even possible to rewrite a book after publication to more perfectly capture an idea or character.
Hopefully, I was able to help in even the smallest degree and I’m looking forward to sharing the next steps of making a EPIC story with you soon!