What Makes a Great Character?

Today, I want to talk about what makes a great character. A publishable one? First, let me say: book elements do not exist in isolation. A stellar protagonist must be put into action with great plot and dialogue, a fascinating plot must have great heroes to act it out, etc. etc. etc. Character, for me, is most important, so I’m starting here. You’ll even find a character development worksheet to help you along.

how to create a character, how to write a character, novel protagonist, novel writing, children's books, what makes a great character, what makes a character
How to create a character who’ll engage and dazzle young readers.

How to Create a Character

Every story has a main character. If the story is written in the first person, the character is also the narrator. If it is in third, I’d argue that there still needs to be a main anchor to everything, even in omniscient narratives. (Or two main characters… Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld is a good example of a narrative balanced fairly equally between two people.)

A character-driven book usually focuses on your character and their life, and it is the character who dictates what the plot is. Other books toss a character, a John Everyman, say, into an aggressive outside plot that determines the course of the book.

Questions for Character Development

In either case, I say that the writer needs to have answers to the following questions in this character profile worksheet:

  • What is your protagonist’s nature? Are they shy? Gregarious? A homebody? A great girlfriend? A backstabber? (Examples of personality and nature are endless…)
  • What is your character’s physicality? Are they fat? Thin? Awkward? Do they have some kind of physical issue? Are they a slouch? (Also endless…)
  • What is your character’s self-esteem? Is there something about themselves they want to change? Why?
  • What are their secrets? Are there things they’ve never told anyone? Do they wish they can tell someone? Why?
  • What does everyone else know (or think they know) about your character? Is it true? What does your character wish everyone knew about them? Why?
  • What are your characters goals in life and moment to moment? Their wants in life and moment to moment? Their needs in life and moment to moment? Their frustrations in life and moment to moment? Why, for all of the above?
  • What is their motivation in life and moment to moment? Why?
  • What is their “normal” baseline? What is life usually like? (This usually gets disturbed pretty early on in the story.)
  • What are your character’s relationships with other characters? What is the most important relationship? The best? The worst? The most fulfilling? The most frustrating? The one they most want to change? The one that will never change? Why?
  • What is the character’s unique perspective on life? (I will talk more about this when I talk about voice.)
  • What is the hero’s past? What is their present? What is their future?

Character Development Exercises

When you’re reading your book over, feel free to use some of the above questions as writing exercises to brainstorm. I’ve tried to avoid questions that would trigger simple “yes” or “no” answers. Drill deeper than that. You probably don’t have to be so thorough about every person in your book. But the above character development worksheet is a good place to start.

You don’t really need to spend valuable time figuring out the deep, life-defining secret of the guy your character borrows a pencil from on page 37, for example. But your protagonist? Yes. The important parent/guidance figure? Yes. The best friend? Yes. The love interest? Yes. The enemy? Yes.

When you start brainstorming, you’ll be surprised at what you find out. That’s the great thing about creating (See? You do get to be creative during revision!). When you start thinking about some of these things, your mind will just come up with answers you never anticipated. And they’ll feel right. Give it a try. Maybe answer one of these questions a day. When you comb back over your draft, figure out places where you can reveal whatever answers you want your readers to know.

Character Development Brainstorming

A lot of these things may never make it into the manuscript itself. And a lot of them, like the goals and motivations, will come out in scene, but below the surface. A character’s past will emerge through backstory. Relationships will come out in dialogue and plot. Secrets and yearnings, other private thoughts, will come out in narration (if in first person… if you’re writing in close third, the narrator can peek into their head).

I’d say that, out of the above questions in the character development worksheet, the answers that will make a huge difference to your story page by page are the questions of goals/needs/wants/frustrations and their motivation. A human being changes from moment to moment. In one scene with their crazy mom, they might want to stick it to The Man. In another, they might just want a parent who can listen to them.

Character Objective and Motivation

As you go through your plot and through ever scene, ever action your hero takes, think about what’s driving them in this moment. What needs/wants/goals/frustrations are in play. Those will usually factor into why they’re doing something — the motivation. And every scene and moment in your story — as well as the larger story arc — needs motivation.

Now, the tricky part is, all this stuff is hidden. We never walk into an argument with someone saying: “I want such and such and I plan on yelling at you until you give it to me!” No. First we might flatter. When that doesn’t work, we might get nasty and say something mean. When that backfires, we’ll try to guilt trip the person, and so on and so forth.

In college, I got a theatre degree (as well as an English degree). It was the best thing I ever did because I got to take playwrighting and acting classes. I highly, highly recommend this to any fiction writers, because you figure out just how essential motivation and goals and actions are to character.

Character Development and Subtext

If you think about the stage, every moment has to be alive, to keep the audience engaged (and awake). How to do that? Lots of tension, lots of subtext. Every moment has to have something larger running underneath it. This comes from a character’s wants and needs. If you put two people who usually like each other into a scene and they want totally opposite things underneath the surface… voila! Tension! Drama! A page-turning read!

We all understand this on a fundamental level. There are very few times when we’re just bantering with someone without any ulterior motives. That sounds bad but it isn’t. We are all built to care about our goals/wants/needs/frustrations a lot. And when we do things, we’re primarily motivated by what will serve our goals/wants/needs/frustrations. Be aware that your character would, too. That’s how to create a character, in a nutshell.

From moment to moment and scene to scene, make sure you map out their goals/wants/needs/frustrations and see what their motivation is at the beginning of the encounter. What do they want? What are they going to do to get it? Do they get their objective by the end of the scene? (Sometimes they will, but that’s boring… it’s better if they don’t and then they have to try something else, try another action, fall flat on their faces again… Tension! Drama! A page-turning read!) You will also want to work with the idea of interiority, which you can learn more about.

Character Development and Plot

And so, with a character who is fleshed out and has strong motivation, you can start to string together scenes and moments. As you go back through your work, make sure you know what’s operating below the surface, what’s important and at stake for each person. What each character is really doing in a scene.

If you have a lot of scenes of people hanging out, making small talk, not moving toward their goals, not caring about their wants or needs, not advancing away from their frustrations… you’re probably creating less tension than you could be. Go scene by scene, moment by moment. And always keep your character’s interests at the front of your mind. This way, you slowly start assembling next week’s topic: plot!

Want personalized help with what makes a great character for your story? Come to me for book editing services and we can dig into your protagonist together.

Rewriting a Book: When To Cut, When To Keep

When you’re rewriting a book, here are some very simple benchmarks for when to cut something out of your manuscript. If you are agonizing over how to tell your story and are trying to decide whether to keep a paragraph, scene, phrase, character, line of dialogue, etc., run it through this checklist.

(Hint: if people are telling you that your pacing is slowing down or if a scene is running long and boring to re-read during revisions… Pay attention!)

rewriting a book, how to tell your story
When you’re rewriting a book, you’re going to have cut material you’re attached to. It’ll be okay, though! Your project will be stronger without the filler.

Rewriting a Book: You Can Cut Something If…

  1. It does not advance our understanding of the character. Does this piece of writing show us something new about or a deeper layer of your character? Everything you write serves a purpose (and no, that purpose is not to boost your word count). If nothing new is revealed as a result of this being in the manuscript, cut it. If no new nuance emerges, give it the axe.
  2. It is just so darn clever. Find the part you love so much because it is witty. Cut it. That’s you showing off as a writer and I’m willing to bet that it does not advance our understanding of the character (see above) or advance the plot and tension (see below).
  3. It does not advance plot or raise tension. Every piece of fiction needs plot and tension to keep the reader going. Some things have very little happen in them but they’re readable. That’s okay, I guess. In the same way that elevator muzak technically counts as a composition. “Readability” is not what we’re striving for, though. So when you’re rewriting a book, make sure you are turning out plot points and upping the tension with every scene you write.
  4. It does not reveal anything new. In terms of plot, or backstory, or foreshadowing or our immersion in the world of the book. If something doesn’t give us more meat to chew on, it’s just fat and gristle.

How to Tell Your Story: Trim the Fat

This is a very reductive view of writing revision. But honestly? I’ve been reading some manuscripts this week where I’ve wondered long and hard: Why is this in here? Whether it’s been a particular bon mot that the writer couldn’t cut (KILL YOUR BABIES!) or a scene where the same wrinkle in a friendship dynamic is replayed over and over (“I just need to know I can trust you, man!”/”You can trust me, broseph!” for like five scenes straight…), I have developed a wicked itchy delete button finger.

And what happens when you rewrite a book and all of the unnecessary fat is gone?

What’s that?

You’ve freed up some room in your word count and it gives you anxiety?

Go forth and fill it with important, varied, nuanced and truthful stuff! This is how to tell your story. Because if what you’re writing isn’t any of that–if it is just taking up space in your manuscript–then those are dead words anyway. It’s better if you cut them when you see them, as they’re placeholders for something more awesome.

Trust me. Now go: chop, chop, chop on your way to figuring out how to tell your story.

Rewriting a book? Hire me as your freelance book editor and I’ll help you trim the fat and focus on the elements that drive your plot forward.

Why You Need a Strong Dramatic Arc

Writers, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, of all people, about dramatic arc. But maybe I will, just so we’re clear. When you’re creating a plot, dramatic arc looks like, well, an upside down check-mark, actually, more so than an arc, with the pointy part making a mountain near the end.

dramatic arc, plot points
Dramatic arc: The story starts off on ground level, then slopes up nicely until the climax (the mountain) and then slopes quickly downward to a nice resolution.

Benefits of Building a Strong Dramatic Arc

A large part of this nice, inverted-check-mark shape, is the sloping. As your plot points build on each other, the tension and the stakes and the action rises toward a climax. Yes? Yes. Then, after an exciting climax, things decelerate quickly and we have a satisfying conclusion.

The key point of getting that great building action in your story is that the reader is aware of what’s at stake. They know what the characters want and they know, pretty much, what is going to turn into a dangerous situation near the end. In other words, they have an idea where your story is going and what your climax is going to be about, pretty much after the first 50 pages. Some people would ask: “Doesn’t this make your novel predictable?”

No. A strong dramatic arc gives the reader something to fear, something to anticipate, and something to care about. And if they know what could possibly be at stake and what kind of danger could possibly transpire, they’ll be that much more eager to read and find out exactly how it all goes down for the characters that they’ve grown to empathize with.

The One Thing You Never Do

This brings me to the one thing you never do in a manuscript (there might be more of these, but so far, this is the high and exalted One Thing).

Do not introduce plot points (an event or person or thing or consequence) in the last 50 pages (or so) of your manuscript if that event/person/thing/consequence will become instrumental to the climax. (The only viable exception to this is introducing a villain who has, up to this point, remained hidden or shadowed or otherwise dark and creepy.)

Ideally, the same stakes and goals and characters and threats that you build into the dramatic arc from the very beginning of the manuscript should be the forces involved in the climax. The whole point of the climax is that you bring everything that you’ve worked so hard developing and making irresistible together…and that comes from the reader having spent a whole book with these things and really, really caring about what happens to them.

Why to Avoid the One Thing

If you introduce plot points a few pages away from the climax and hinge the climax on that thing, you’re going to lose some readers because they simply don’t care. For example, if your dramatic arc has been building up to a battle for the main character to avenge their father’s death for the whole book, then you interrupt the story ten pages before the battle with some bad guys who burst on the scene and want to steal the Magical Decanter of Shmegoo (that we’ve never heard of before in the book, or only heard in passing once or twice) and then make the battle about the Decanter instead of the hero’s father, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.

By all means, introduce new complications, villains, conflicts as your book develops. But don’t introduce something that becomes instrumental in the climax near the end of the book and expect us to care about it. More often than not, your readers will be let down in a big way.

Is your plot flowing the way it should? Hire me as your manuscript editor and I’ll give you hands-on plotting advice.

Past, Present and Future

Sometimes a writer forgets that their characters have pasts and futures, just like all of us do. There’s not an hour goes by that I don’t, personally, think about something in either the past or the future. It can be something mundane or something huge that I’ve either lived through or am dreaming about.

A lot of the time, especially when I’m writing a first draft or an early revision, I forget that my characters must be like this, too.

Every character must feel the weight of the past, present and future at every moment.

Not in an overbearing or obvious way, of course. Please don’t take this as free license to write something like:

Just sitting in chem lab, Judy felt ready to explode: not only was her embarrassment at the audition yesterday still fresh in mind but the callbacks would be tomorrow! To top it all off, her stomach rumbled so loudly that people all the way across campus could probably hear it.

But there is something compelling about keeping all three of these balls in the air at the same time. A lot of manuscripts suffer from a lack of tension. There’s not a very clear feeling of what is at stake in the moment. Sometimes, adding a past and mixing it with over the future just might be the ticket to increasing tension.