Creating Compelling Characters

Stories are easy. The world is full of millions and millions of tiny stories begging to be written. Settings are easy. The world is chocked full of scenes, places, and settings to choose. Twists; twists are easy. Have you ever known a story, one worth telling, that went exactly as planned? Of course not. 

What’s not so easy, when it comes to writing, are well defined, unique characters. People that make the reader suspend disbelief long enough to think maybe, just maybe, that voluptuous redhead in the story is a vampire AND a real person. There’s only one way to do that.

Well written characters.

How do you know, for certain, your characters don’t wind up flat, stale rehashes? Attention to detail and follow through.

Writing is hard work. That’s well known. Plucking plot, setting, characters, twists and turns all from thin air isn’t easy. If it were, everyone would write that novel they claim they’ve been meaning to write for years in an instant. It takes an attention to detail that most people lack. One of the most important things a writer can pay attention to is how they present their characters.

Know your world. By having a thorough knowledge of your world, how it works, and its ends and outs, you’ll find who will fit best in the world. They become a well fit puzzle piece, completing the picture you present readers.

Appearance. Keeping the details of your character’s looks is important. This can include anything from their hair and eye color, to birth marks, and even clothing choices. Let’s face it, there are only so many different hair and eye color combinations that can be made (not counting, I suppose, oddity choices like blue or pink or whatever). But staying away from stereotypes (think Gingers in leather, ugh! it happens so often, or raven tresses with blue eyes boring!) lends a reality to a character. It also means to take care that your characters’ appearances don’t suddenly change throughout the story, unless there is a damned good reason (for example: scars/wounds, tattoos/piercings).

Nuances. Also known as ‘tics’ or nervous habits, these minor details carry HUGE weight. These can be portrayed in any manner you choose – finger twitches while idle, slurring the letter ‘R’ in spoken words, twirls a lock of hair when thinking. They all lend depth. Adding customary habits to characters lends believability. Everyone has tendencies and habits, include fictional people.

Vocabulary. Speech is a defining trait. It’s hard to believe someone with a Jamaican accent in 1888 London in any realistic setting. Thus the reader trying to suspend disbelief that the Jamaican is also tracking a shape shifting Loch Ness monster through the streets might have a little trouble swallowing that tale.

World Role. This goes back to knowing your world. You wouldn’t bring a Tibetan monk into a technologically advanced post apocalyptic society and expect him to be the story’s hacker. Once you get to know how your world works then you can figure out what role your character is most likely to play.

History. Good writers know more back story for their character than they EVER put into the story. They know how their heroine got the scar on her cheek (a playground accident where she fell from a slide as a child), knows why the hero wears his hair short at all times (once got it caught in a machine at work and was nearly scalped in the process), or why the mage is terrified of water spells (accidentally drowned her pet rat with her first ever spell). Great writers, however, know when and what history to use in their stories. Is it relevant to use all that information? Probably not, unless it happens to get mentioned in passing how the heroine got her scar. The point is, it is vital to know a ton of information about each character. It is not correct to put ALL of that information in your story.

In short, it’s easy to come up with your character in five minutes. And there isn’t anything wrong with the fact you started a story with a character you thought about in five minutes. The injustice to readers and yourself is if you finish a story with that character the exact same way.


BC Brown is the author of three novels and has participated in multiple short story anthologies. Having committed almost every bad deed in the book of ‘How to Be An Author’, she now strives to educate other writers through humor and simple instruction.

Anthologies: Fracas: A Collection of Short FrictionQuixotic: Not Everyday Love Stories A Chimerical World: Tales of the Seelie Court

She can be found on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

2 thoughts on “Creating Compelling Characters”

  1. I have gone both ways on this one. Sometimes reasonably well defined characters have popped into my head and the universe they inhabit forms around them. Other times, the world is waiting expectantly for their arrival. in most cases, when the two meet for the first time, both are changed. Hopefully for the better

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