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5 Tips for Writing Strong Characters

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

I knew a Trellaxian Bommavard once who sang different tunes through each of his three mouths while eyeing up sixteen women at the same time. Needless to say, you didn’t want to get within arm’s reach, considering how many there were. Now, he…was a character!

Creating a character is not always easy. Sometimes they just come to life in your head, but sometimes they keep to themselves as they move through your story and you have to probe a little deeper to find out what really makes them tick. It can take a long time before you know them, and you might be approaching the end of the first draft of your story before something clicks and one of your characters suddenly comes alive, telling you that they would not have said what you had them say 100 pages ago, or that there’s no way they would have done what you made them do in the previous chapter.

As writers, you are restrained by your own imagination, but I’m here to tell you that your imagination is limitless. The characters and situations you humans create come out of your own heads, and while this concerns us somewhat, we would still like to suggest some methods you might like to use when developing or strengthening the presence of your characters. So, here are our top 5 tips for writing strong characters.

1. The Round Table

The final (double) episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (All Good Things) dealt beautifully with the interactions between its lead characters as they played poker. The unique traits of the characters developed over years of writing and acting were condensed into a microcosm of dealing, shuffling, betting, and bluffing.

Imagine that you and a small number of your closest friends or family members are seated around a table. The activity and surroundings are up to you – are you playing games; having drinks or dinner; having a family meeting; or discussing where to go on your long-awaited group vacation? What you are trying to get to when it comes to creating a memorable character is a reaction along the lines of “That’s exactly what he’d say”, or “I wouldn’t expect anything different from her”, or “It’s so like them to do something like that”.

When your character is so well-rounded that your readers can either anticipate how they will react or, alternatively, be shocked by their reaction, you’re on to a winner. This will create emotional investment and lead to moments of cheering your character on or praying for them to lose. If your readers don’t care either way, you’ve missed an opportunity.

If a character does something that is ‘out of character’, you had better explain why. You can do this either by a clear or implied accumulation of ‘stressers’ beforehand, or in an explanatory reveal after the ‘out of character’ dialogue (an angry outburst, perhaps) or action (did he really just kill that girl?). You can, of course, do all of this retrospectively in a second or later draft, writing the reasons for unexpected actions or reactions back into the narrative to create this build-up.

2. Become a Spy

A lot of people say they are ‘people-watchers’, a trait which helps enormously when creating characters. Unless you have multiple personalities, the best way to learn how to convey the behaviours and perspectives of others is to observe them. Watch people in the grocery store; or at a bar; or in the car next to you at the lights (they’re probably picking their nose). Steal furtive glances at the lone coffee-drinker or the person in the queue, but try not to get caught (unless you like what you see*). Please don’t install hidden cameras anywhere. For the more private situations, you’ll have to fall back on your imagination.

There may have been a time when ‘reality TV’ provided exactly that, but as the old anthropology adage infers, when someone knows they’re being watched, their behaviour is entirely different to those secretly observed. You people didn’t know we were watching, and look what you all got up to!

*Temple Dark Books takes no responsibility for adulterous behaviour or covert surveillance.

3. Bump into Your Character

We’ve spoken to plenty of human writers who have dreams about their characters or the situations into which they have written them. Plenty of writers wake up all blurry-eyed, thinking, ‘That’s a great idea!’, only to find this apparent Eureka moment drifting away into the ether of another day. Others simply come to realise when fully lucid that it was not, in fact, a great idea. Human minds play such terrible tricks on them. A great idea for a human is a rare commodity.

You all know, of course, that when you’re in ‘the zone’, everything flows wonderfully and true inspiration leads to true creation. Getting into the zone is the difficult part. So, why not set the scene and meet your character? No matter your genre, you can do this any way you see fit – whether you magic yourself into the world you’ve created, or you liberate your character from their constraints.

Sit down with your character or go for a coffee. Go on a mutant-hunting spree or steal a spacecraft and explore the stars with them. Indulge in a spot of serial-killing as part of a team-building exercise. The choices are limitless, no longer bound even by the story you’re writing or the rules of your fictional universe.

Ask your character anything you like, but keep it conversational. Challenge your character’s ideologies or flaws; flatter them, insult them, flirt with them…attack them. Everything you do will inspire a response, and you might get to the heart of matters that have long concerned you, such as motivations, aspirations, fears, and idiosyncrasies. Everything you do will add layers of reality to your character, helping you to colour their actions and reactions, their words and responses, their inner thoughts…the list goes on.

4. The Interview Room

Similar to interrogating your chosen character, this scenario prompts you to pick your character out of your fictional world and place them in a ‘safe space’ – it can be anywhere at any time in any form – where they are free to explain and explore themselves without fear of judgement or consequence. When you speak to your character, they may perceive you as a threat, and so might hold back or provide you with falsities designed to mislead you (depending on their personality). In the Interview Room, you can invite characters with whom the interviewee might be comfortable, or at the very least willing to open up to. If all else fails, hypnotise them and get the truth!

The interviewer could be living or dead (from a real or fictional perspective) or someone you never dreamed of before. The strength of this approach is that you may also meet other characters and the interactions between two or more could flesh out many people with whom to populate your universe.

5. What the Dickens?

This is a little experiment we fully endorse. It’s based on ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Dickens, within which the main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, is visited by three apparitions on Christmas Eve. These apparitions represent Scrooge’s Past, Present, and (potential) Future, and the reader learns so much more about this initially loathsome character – why he is the way he is; what motivates him; what mistakes he made; what he is missing out on but can’t bring himself to participate in; what his fears are, etc.

This is a great method for exploring your character. Some writers build character profiles, but they often force details into them just to fill the gaps and feel like their character is well-rounded. Where do these details come from? The character didn’t get a say at all!

Choose a character. You can either be the relevant Christmas Ghost or write them in the third-person (the former might be more fun and expansive). Visit your character and take them on a journey, forcing them to face their insecurities and the layers of life they’ve eschewed as they deal with your other characters on a ‘daily’ basis. These layers are who they really are, the deep truths that determine how they interact with others and how they respond to challenges.

Question them, make suggestions, analyse the choices they made. Tackle their conclusions and presumptions, point out the consequences and ask if they would have done things differently. Remember, in all of this – and all of the above – that your own experiences and personality (and those of people you know) can be used as a template for a character timeline of eventualities. You can shuffle events and experiences, replacing them with a host of options at any given crossroads.

You will find that your ‘profile’ is led not by randomly filled labels or traits you are forced to choose simply to keep your characters different from each other; but instead by the things that make us all who we are – our experiences, our memories, our interactions, our loves and losses, and so on. And instead of those things simply listed in a profile form like pins in a map, you have instead explored their reality. And you didn’t travel alone.

If you have any more advice for writers, please leave it in the comments below. Anything that worked for you can work for others. Good luck and keep writing!

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