12 Character Writing Tips for Fiction Writers

character writing tips

Character writing tips.

Characters are the heart and soul of every story.

Almost every great story is about people. Plot, setting, theme, and every other element of fiction is secondary to realistic characters that an audience can connect with on an intellectual or emotional level.

There are exceptions, of course. Some readers enjoy plot-driven stories, but they never seem to achieve the massive popularity that stories with rich, layered characters achieve. Why do fans adore Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen? Because they feel like real people.

We connect with characters in fiction for any number of reasons. Maybe the character reminds us a little of ourselves. We might love her because she represents who we want to be, or we might hate her because she reminds us of the parts of ourselves that we are ashamed of. Some characters feel like friends; others remind us of our enemies. We might admire a character’s heroism and relate to his philosophy or we might admonish his acts of destruction and hate.

Some writers argue that it’s not necessary for readers to connect or identify with characters in a story. That might be true to some extent, but the most beloved stories throughout the history of literature are populated with characters we love and characters we love to hate. There’s something to be said for making readers care.

Character Writing Tips

Readers won’t care about characters unless they are believable. So how do we make our characters realistic? Why do the most celebrated characters seem so real even though they are made up? How have some writers managed to render animals, aliens, and even inanimate objects into characters that we embrace emotionally?

The answer is simple: the best characters come with all the flaws, quirks, and baggage that real people possess. They are not just names on a page. They have pasts and personalities, and they are unique.

Here are some character writing tips to help you develop characters that feel like real people:

  1. Backstory: We are born a certain way, but our life experiences continually mold and shape us. Each character has a life before the story begins. What is it?
  2. Dialogue: The way we talk depends on the language we speak and where we live (or grew up) but there’s also something unique to each person’s style of speaking. We repeat certain words and phrases, inflect certain syllables, and make certain gestures while we speak.
  3. Physical Description: Our primary method of identifying each other is the way we look; hair and eye color, height and weight, scars and tattoos, and the style of clothing we wear are all part of our physical descriptions.
  4. Name: Esmerelda doesn’t sound like a soccer mom, and Joe doesn’t sound like an evil sorcerer. Make sure the names you choose for your characters match their personalities and the roles they play in the story.
  5. Goals: Some say that a character’s goals drive the entire story. He wants to slay the dragon; she wants to overthrow the evil empire. Goals can be small (the character wants a specific job) or big (the character is trying to save the world). Come up with a mix of small and large goals for each character.
  6. Strengths and Weaknesses: Villains sometimes do nice things and heroes occasionally take the low road. What are your character’s most positive and negative behaviors and personality traits?
  7. Friends and Family: These are the people in our inner circles, and they have played important roles in shaping our personalities and our lives. Who are your characters’ friends and family before the story starts? What new friends will they meet once the story begins?
  8. Nemesis: A nemesis is someone with whom we are at odds. This character doesn’t have to be a villain, but the goals of the nemesis definitely interfere with your main character’s goals.
  9. Position in the World: What do your characters do for a living? What are their daily lives like? Where do they live? What is a character’s role or position among his or her friends, family, or coworkers?
  10. Skills and Abilities: A character’s skills and abilities can get him out of a tight spot or prevent him from being able to get out of a tight spot. Skills can be useless or they can come in handy. Does your character have an education or special training? What can he do?
  11. Gestures, Mannerisms, and Quirks: One character chews her nails while watching movies. Another runs his hand through his hair when he’s trying to figure something out. Give your characters identifiable quirks and behaviors, like real people.
  12. Fears: An old fiction writing trick is to figure out what your character is most afraid of, and then make the character face it. We all have fears; characters should, too.

How to Put These Character Writing Tips into Practice

Characters need to be detailed and complicated in order to seem real. These character tips give you a lot to consider, but how do you put them into practice?

You could tackle each idea as a separate exercise. Write your character’s backstory one day. The next day, do a page of dialogue to see how the character speaks. Then spend some time looking for a perfect name for your character. If you work through all these tips as separate exercises, you’ll end up with a robust character sketch, and your character will be ready to enter the plot of your story.

Character sketches are by no means mandatory. You could also start writing the draft of your manuscript and see how each of these elements develops organically for each character. During revisions, you can check your narrative against this list to make sure the characters are consistent and have all the depth of real people.

How do you create characters? Do you start with a character sketch or do you just start writing? Do you have a checklist (like the one above) to help you know and understand your characters? Got any character writing tips to add to this list? Leave a comment, and keep writing.

whats the story building blocks for fiction writing

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

25 Responses to “12 Character Writing Tips for Fiction Writers”

  1. Siena says:

    Characters are all about function, mask and archetype – see http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html

  2. Jann Burner says:

    And remember that Character is timeless. But characters do not grow chronologically. They grow sometimes in one dimension, sometimes in another. Sometimes there are whole dimensions in which there is little or no growth. It is a very uneven process. It is all partial and relative. A character can be mature in one realm and quite childish in another. A genius in one world; an idiot savant in another; autistic in a third. The character ego attempts to serve as a mixing board to all this input, hoping to be able to distill and mix out a commercially acceptable product. Something with a strong sound and a good beat; something you can dance to.

    • You make great points, especially when you say “A character can be mature in one realm and quite childish in another. A genius in one world; an idiot savant in another…” Just like real people!

  3. Matthew says:

    Great advice. My theory with characters is that its their emotion that makes them tick. Its the driving force behind their actions and the key to getting readers to emote. I write to try and put the reader in the characters shoes and to elicit an emotional response based upon that. Thanks for the help though.

    • Getting characters to emote is pretty tricky. I do think it helps readers strengthen a connection, but the readers probably need a connection before the characters’ emotions matter. Think of it this way: if you see a total stranger crying or yelling angrily on TV, you won’t care unless you know more about the character and/or situation.

  4. Lena says:

    I love to see myself in any character I read. Thanks for this post. Wonderful tips altogether! These could even help me build a novel.

  5. Jennwith2ns says:

    I just start writing. If the character doesn’t introduce him/herself to me in a few pages, he/she probably isn’t going to.

  6. Great tips! It’s often been said that every great story begins with great characters. For me as a reader, the characters are at the core of the story and are the basis of what I get out of the story. Thanks for posting this.

  7. Penn says:

    Little tip I find useful – after characters have been fleshed out, I have a music playlist set for each character (genres, bands and songs they like) and play their music in the background to quickly fall back into character without having to scroll back, re-read and assume the role again. I’ll have this playlist set into a loop (because at first, there may be only a couple of songs as the character grows), and after 10-15 mins, mostly I don’t even care about the background music any more. Even if the music does get to me or I find it repetitive, it’s time to explore more music they would indulge … it’s just another opportunity to add dimension and understanding to the character. Also, for me … I find doing this broadens my own perspectives I wouldn’t normally touch with someone else’s 10 foot pole 🙂 btw, loving this website BIG TIME

  8. PetrujViljoen says:

    Hi, I’ve been wondering if I have the ability for a full novel for ages and never had the confidence to try. Being a strong reader doesn’t necessarily make one a writer. However, a little story I wrote (blogged on my page) starts with the name of the character first and things carry on from there. I think I wrote it in a week.

    • You might try signing up for NaNoWriMo this November. After several failed attempts, I too started to wonder whether I could finish a novel. NaNoWriMo proved to me that I could. I will probably never polish or publish that novel, but it was one of the best experiences of my life.

      • Petru Viljoen says:

        Thank you, I will consider it. Also, I’ve written a poem and published it on my blog on wordpress. If you can have a look and comment, I’d really be grateful. I’ve written a few poems but this is the first time that I’ve done it with a specific audience in mind. Else you can explain how to send it to you on this site. I find this site very helpful. It is bookmarked on my computer.

        • Hi Petru, Unfortunately, this isn’t a critique board and we don’t publish poetry here at Writing Forward. However, readers sometimes share poems they’ve written from our prompts and exercises in the comments sections.

  9. Ronn Jordan says:

    Thank you so much, I am loving this site. I have been blogging for years but just joined a creative writing group as I want to write a book about growing up in the Bronx. Your tips here will help me flush out the characters I grew up with.

  10. Rylee Blade says:

    Something that I find interesting in reading or creating charters is that they evolve during the course of the story. The little character defects, flaws and fears are overcome. The characters should undergo a metamorphosis that makes them a better and stronger person having faced the great difficulties within the plot line. Thank you for the great tips Melissa. Awesome page, glad i found you 🙂

    • That is the truth and bears repeating: “The characters should undergo a metamorphosis that makes them a better and stronger person having faced the great difficulties within the plot line.” Thanks, Rylee!

  11. Kate says:

    Hey there, thanks for all the tips! For other writers, I like to base my characters off of real people. For example, I have a close friend whose character traits and quirks are mirrored in a character of the novel I’m writing (with her permission, of course). This is a great base for developing characters that are more “real,” and easier to connect with.

    • It’s a good way to find traits and behaviors that make your characters more realistic. We can get a lot of inspiration from other stories and characters, but real life is one of the greatest sources of ideas.

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