Building Characters

What do you need to build a successful character?

Give your character a flaw, even if it is their steadfastness against their environment, make it matter to the plot i.e. need to be revealed and make it so the character needs to overcome it or recognise and address it, in order to meet their goal. This flaw will help to enhance the roundedness of the character and dealing with it to meet their goal will satisfy the reader.

To make your characters 3-dimensional:

  • They have an appearance,
  • they have a reality to their personality which may be different from how they appear externally,
  • they have a way of seeing the world and beliefs that inform how they act,
    they have social norms that are expected of them to which they conform, or better, don’t,
  • they are complex
  • they are unpredictable, given free rein they will write the book for you (trust me)
  • they have certain characteristics which may be larger and more pronounced than others, e.g. physical or emotional baggage,
    they have a sense of humour, or don’t,
  • they may be miserly or spendthrift
  • but they must be real.


To make your characters real they have to be human and exhibit characteristics which elicit empathy or sympathy, something that the reader can identify with. Readers can have empathy for a character and recognise themselves or be familiar with a situation your character is going through. They understand or share this experience. The may also have sympathy for the character i.e. feel the pain that the character is experiencing.

A baddie might be a really nasty piece of work, but it they are irredeemably bad then they will probably horrify and upset your reader. These are the baddie we love to hate. But to keep them reading the baddie should have some redeeming features to illicit a degree of empathy or even respect. For example they may be fiercely intelligent and clever at keeping one step ahead of the authorities. The readers want them to get their just deserts but they keep getting away. Or they may be charismatic, or witty, or have a classiness and sense of style that engages the reader. They need to have some characteristic that engages the reader and not just be a mad person who nobody would empathise because then your readers won’t care about them.

If a character is evil perhaps reveal confusion and unhappiness as well as his malice. Their reluctance at first and trying to fight and deny it, then acceptance, then revelling in it with the power that it gives. Also all characters should be a mixture of good and evil for example fiercely intelligent but furious with it.

Ursula Le Guin said, ‘Artists are people who are not at all interested in the facts – only in the truth. You get the facts from outside. The truth you get from inside.’

So when you are thinking about characters you don’t need to waste time and too much effort writing their physical appearance, only those parts that are vital to the story. However, think about the truth of your character and how you can describe them, sketch them, and show them to reveal that truth to your reader.

Focusing on who and what they are rather than how they look will enable readers to create them as fully as if you described them down to every hair on their head and the last mole. Characters come alive in the reader’s mind by understanding what makes them tick.

When you raise questions about why characters behave as they do in your novel, then you will engage your reader, after all we’re all nosey and gossips, so give the reader something to talk about. Also give your characters a misfortune as that too will engage your readers through sympathy.

We are all judgemental and we often make our initial impressions quickly, so as a writer if you can subvert your reader’s opinion of a character that they thought they knew, it can be a useful tool to increase depth of character and engagement. However, you have to make sure that the transition is realistic and not completely out of left field and not relevant to your plot, just for the sake of it. Characters have to serve the plot.

All characters need:

  • A background
  • Something they want
  • An essential fact which motivates them, be it a creed or belief system,
  • A flaw (nobody is perfect), Think about the 7 deadly sins:
  • Avarice or greed
  • Lust or lechery
  • Gluttony for food, wine or just excess
  • Wrath, anger or hatred
  • Sloth/Laziness
  • Envy and jealousy
  • Pride, selfishness and putting yourself above everyone else
  • Maybe they don’t realise that they have one or more of these traits
  • Or maybe they don’t use their talents because of one of the above, they may be able to save the world but they really can’t be bothered