How to Establish Characters – Writing Guide

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By Andrew Wright

There are many important aspects of writing that are needed to create even a good story, never mind a great one. D.C. Ward has already touched upon the more technical side with his article on punctuation. But today I’m going to look at what I consider to be the single most important part of truly engaging fiction: characters.

Even the most suspenseful cliff-hanger, the most breath-taking action sequence or the most perfectly crafted romance can leave the audience feeling unsatisfied or, worst of all, apathetic, if they do not care about the characters involved. As Harry Potter walked into the Forbidden Forest to meet Lord Voldemort in Deathly Hallows, the knot I felt in my stomach was there because I had spent my childhood getting to know him and I cared what happened to him

From a writer’s point of view, I would argue that the most difficult part is not coming up with the characters, but expressing who they are on the page. To demonstrate this, I hope you will indulge me a small reminiscence:

My first and greatest literary love is my fantasy novel series Children of the Purge, which I am still working on. A couple of drafts into my first novel (which will now act as the third in the series – long story), my brother, and fellow blogger, Chris Wright was reading through and giving his thoughts – as all Sentient Ink writers do for each other. It was during this that he asked me, to paraphrase, “how are Danny and Stephen different from each other?”

It was a question that caught me entirely off guard. While they share some similarities, as many people do, in my head they were, and are, very different people. Stephen is more reserved whereas Danny is comfortable around everyone; Stephen acts more out of morality whereas Danny often acts out of duty; Stephen is more sure of who he is whereas Danny battles between his background and his current status. These are all key aspects that make up who they are as people, and they are aspects that I had not expressed through my writing. My key point here is this: just because you know who your characters are, it does not mean your audience will. It is our job as writers to make our readers see what we see.

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“Show, don’t tell,” is a popular idiom of many writers and I think this holds true with establishing characters. Though it is not always possible or convenient, it helps the character feel more real and keeps the audience in the story if, for example, you show a character to be pacing back and forth rather than simply stating that they are nervous. In this regard, it is not only a character’s personality that effects how they act, but also their backgrounds and experiences.

To use another example from my own writing:

My two protagonists, Jay and Lexi, are best friends and, without giving away the plot, are exposed to similar circumstances, which bring them separately to an inn. When the innkeeper asks for twenty five bronze, the wealthy and privileged Jay hands the money over without a second thought. Lexi, on the other hand, has been brought up in a world where haggling a better price can mean the difference between eating and going hungry and so barters the innkeeper down to a lower amount.

This is a small thing and it is probable that most readers won’t even notice it, but it helps get into their heads that Lexi is world-wary and cunning and that is something that will stick with them even after they have forgotten why.

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More than anything else, every character must feel like a real human being to the reader, even if that character carries some mystery. The best way of getting this across is by treating your characters like real human beings, and real people have strengths and weaknesses, as well as little idiosyncrasies that help define who they are. Not every character has to have a paralysing phobia or a glaringly obvious fault, but no real person is perfect and therefore characters shouldn’t be either. A protagonist with unlimited power or talents is a profoundly boring character and it is their weaknesses and limitations that will drive your story.

We will keep on adding more insights and opinions on character creation in the future – building them, changing them, how they interact with other characters. It’s a truly endless discussion, a limitless pursuit, but it’s worth it if you want to right a great story.

Best wishes,

Andy Wright.

Feel free to analyse the characters in some of our stories on the fiction page, or explore more tips and guides on how to write fiction on our articles page. If you like what you see, please subscribe and tell us what you think below.

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20 thoughts on “How to Establish Characters – Writing Guide

  1. “A protagonist with unlimited power or talents is a profoundly boring character and it is their weaknesses and limitations that will drive your story.” This quote from your post is what really got me. I feel that we love our characters so much, we don’t want to give them weaknesses or limitations!

    And, if I may, how do you feel about writers using lists of questions to help them get to know their characters better? Would these tools actually help us to write them out more expressively for our readers, or do they only help us?

    Example:

    1. What does your character believe in when it comes to death and religion? Does this change any by the end of the story?
    2. Which relationships does your character rely on the most?
    3. What physical changes, if any, does this character undergo by the end of the story?
    4. How does your character feel about the lives of others, even enemies, and why?

    The reason I ask if that I have filled long lists like these out for my characters, and while they have certainly forced me to think quite a bit, I have yet to see how it changes my writing (if at all).

    Like

    • It isn’t something I’ve ever done but I might give it a try; it sounds like a good idea. Getting to know our characters better will never be a bad thing, especially secondary characters we might not think about as much. Translating the answers to the questions on to the page is another matter, but we can’t write, or hint at, something we don’t know ourselves so I think it will definitely be helpful.
      Thanks for your comment,

      Andy

      Liked by 1 person

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