How Do You Build A Strong Character In Your Writing?

What’s the most important element in a piece of writing? Is it the plot, the characters, descriptions, dialogue, or the style?

Obviously, you can’t single out only one. A powerful work succeeds in combining all of them in a unique mix producing a master creation.

Having said that, you’re probably better at one writing element over the rest and working on your strengths will work to your advantage. Building characters, though, is crucial and can be fatal to your writing. It’s not to be neglected under any circumstance.

writing characters, characters, story

Photo by Anthony Cain

A mundane theme can be saved by a great writing style; poor dialogue can be replaced with a fantastic storyline, and descriptions can be skipped altogether if it’s not your cup of tea. Undeveloped characters, however, are not to be hidden or overlooked by anything else.

So, how do you build a strong character?

Make Them Real

This is probably one of the most common pieces of writing advice: make your characters believable. What does it really mean?

It means that your character needs to be there for a reason, not just for pushing the story forward.

He/she has a real life, with his own fears and dreams, and you have to show this.

Your character doesn’t need to be typical to be believable. The peculiar ones are even more interesting, but it’s your job to make your reader relate to them.

Understand Human Psychology

To build great characters, you’ll need to understand people’s psychology: what are they thinking, what are they feeling and experiencing, why are they doing what they are doing?

Get behind the obvious. Be in the backstage with them. Sit them in a chair and let them talk away. Be their psychiatrist. If you truly listen, you will learn.

Be Your Character

When you immerse yourself in your writing, you get lost in that alternative world and you start living it. This is when the magic happens and you become your character.

By self-reflecting and walking in your character’s shoes, you allow yourself to experience what you’re writing about first-hand. The more it feels real to you, the bigger the chance that the reader will feel at least some of it too.

When writing a play a few months ago, I experienced what building characters really means.

In a play, that’s all you have: characters and dialogue. The characters need to be developed before you even start writing. They existed before you wrote your story.

You just need to show who they are and what they are about. Let your reader meet them under the impression they’ve met them in the street. Your character’s story is your reader’s story now. Fiction can be just as real as non-fiction.

Remember to ask yourself ‘why’ when developing your character. Even if it seems an unimportant detail, you’ll need to know the background. After all, you’re the almighty creator.

Over to you: How do you build your characters?

PRACTICE

For fifteen minutes write about a character of your choosing. Build a character profile by answering questions like: who is he/she, where does he/she live, their past, secret desires, small habits, future ambitions, lifestyle, dreams and nightmares, everyday routines, hidden thoughts etc.

When you’re done, post your practice in the comments. As usual, be supportive by giving feedback to others’ practices.

About Sophie Novak

Sophie Novak is an ultimate daydreamer and curious soul, who can be found either translating or reading at any time of day. She originally comes from the sunny heart of the Balkans, Macedonia, and currently lives in the UK. You can follow her blog and connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

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  • Marianne Lock

    Hi folks, that’s my character! Hope you like him.

    Michael Tunney or Mike, as he is called by the people he knows, except for his father who gave him the name and always told him ‘A man without a proper name is no proper man at all’, lived in Philadelphia, not the real one but the one in Mississippi,when he was a child. His mother died when he was five and since then he had been raised by his father, who couldn’t cope with his wife’s death. He didn’t like him much and therefore never told him, that he was homosexual. But maybe that was just an excuse, because actually he was very afraid of telling him. The day he graduated from High School, he moved to Dallas to find a job. He couldn’t afford Collage though he planned to go when he had earned enough money. But that never happened. He got a job at a retail shop on the corner of S Griffin and Main Street, and never left until today. He always dreamt of where he could be now, if he had the money, and who he could be with, if he was lucky. But he never made real efforts to get out of the claws of that little shop.
    He currently lived in a small flat in the cheaper district of the town, where the lower classes resided and crime ruled the streets. Because of that, on his 31st
    birthday, he bought a Glock 23, though he never thought about firing it. He
    could never hurt anyone, but he knew he needed protection. All the way back in High School, when he decided to tell his best friend who he really was and lost him as a friend the same day, the bullying had started. He could never really get away from it, though he hid his own self very thorough already. He didn’t tell anyone much about himself though he thought that that was part of the reason he had no boyfriend yet.

    • Bori N

      I think that if you remove that ( “He didn’t like him much and therefore never told him, that he was homosexual. But maybe that was just an excuse, because actually he was very afraid of telling him.”) part you will make the reader wonder “What did he tell him?” and then at the end – “Ooh, I get it now!”. The first time I read it I accidentally skipped the part and I really liked it.

      Best regards
      Bori

      • Marianne Lock

        Thank’s, that’s a brilliant idea!

        Love, Marianne

  • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

    Good post, Sophie. I spent about 2 hours today trying to figure out the protagonist of my latest story. I used most of your questions, and at first, just got stock answers. I had to ask, “Why are you really doing this? What is this story really about for you?” I realized that to really inhabit my character, I had to get past the obvious answers to his core. And it worked! I have a much clearer sense of my story now. Thanks for challenging me this morning!

    • Sophie Novak

      Thanks Joe! I’m so glad to hear posing those questions helped. I’d love to read what you wrote too. :-)

  • Katie Cross

    The problem I have with ‘becoming my character’ is that I begin to write the same story over and over again- mine. I have to channel the character, yes, but I can’t do it too much. I have to distance myself, or I end up getting frustrated because I either write the character with no flaws (As I would like to be) or all their flaws are mine. It’s a weird balance I’ve had to learn :) And honestly, I’m not really sure I have learned it yet.

    • Sophie Novak

      They say we all have a book in us. I think writing about ourselves is an urge and inclination that’s hard to get rid of, but there are ways. You can add one element of yourself to each character, but not you as a whole. Or challenge yourself experiencing being a completely different person – I love that about writing. You’ll get better, just keep practicing.

  • Alex Myers

    I agree with your “be your character claim” — one of the first exercises I like to do when I’m starting a draft is to sit down with my character and write some backstory, some side story, some dialogue (almost between me and the character) just to get to know the person. A lot, even most, of this never ends up on the page, but it is so helpful and really informs the fiction going forward.

    • Sophie Novak

      I do exactly the same. It really helps and gives ideas when you get stuck.

    • http://elisabethflaum.wordpress.com/ Elwyne

      yes, this. I don’t always start with it, but anytime I get stuck at all it’s a go-to practice.

  • Cindy Christeson

    Dana loved it whenever ‘Merry Mom’popped in. Dana had a pet name for all
    the regulars who came it to do their marketing. Doing so encouraged a positive spin to a mind that spun too often in the wrong direction. It also made her feel
    more connected to the customers. It almost made her feel like she had friends, just one of the many things Dana lacked.

    Dana lacked what most people accepted and accepted as the status quo. Take
    ‘Mercedes Mark’ or ‘Cadillac Cathy’ for example. Those weren’t really their names, of course, but she’d seen both of them in those kinds of cars, when she’d helped them out with their bulging baskets of food. She’d
    seen each of them in different cars too, which meant they had more than one
    car, or they didn’t live alone, and the other person in the house had a car as
    well. In any case, those two, like most of Dana’s customers, had cars and other people in their lives. And they had a place to live.

    ‘Merry Mom’ suddenly reappeared, mildly breathless. Dana stopped biting
    her nails, that habit she kept trying to break, and asked the young woman what
    was wrong.

    “Oh, nothing is wrong, nothing at all,” she said. “It’s just that little Joey
    wanted me to give you this plastic toy dog of his, he thought you might like
    it. He always talks about you when we leave, saying what a nice lady you are.
    Wow, I guess I ran faster than I realized, but, the kids are in the car,
    and my neighbor is out there talking to them while I ran this back to you. See you sooner rather than later! Bye”

    “Good bye, and please thank Joey for me,” Dana said. “This means more to me
    than you know.”

    • Marianne Lock

      Love it, from the end of the second paragraph on I felt like I was in her mind. Seems like a very deep character, with some more to tell about, to me.
      Love, Marianne

      • cindy christeson

        Thank you Marianne, the more I wrote, the more I felt I was getting to know her too! Maybe I should condense the first paragraph to get to the ‘meat’ of her character sooner

  • Helen Earl

    Make them real! Absolutely. Friends asked me why I bothered writing 3 page backstories on each of a group of characters who died in the first paragraph of my story. Simple. Those left alive had to react to those deaths as real people, not as names on a page. Did they like the deceased? Love them? Hate them? Jealous? They may have just died, but I couldn’t treat them as if they’d never lived.

    • Sophie Novak

      Backstories are definitely needed!

  • Bob DeSpy former Spycacher

    Indubitably his thoughts wander back in time; to a time where he was a young man full of energy and nothing to be scared. At a time when he was proud of the first three or four curly hairs pushing out of his chin and in the corners of his upper lip, and in some other parts of his body; admiring and treasuring them to the point that the teacher had to remind him of the academy rules regarding personal appearance and defiantly rejecting the insinuation. Later, as a young man, he was proudly showing off his hairy chest on the beaches of Thailand and the beautiful young women wearing colourful sarongs, approached with a bright smile stroking his chest and calling him “monkey man, monkey man”. Nowadays, he abhors shaving every day, sometimes twice. It has become a burden, and he could be in fashion with a one-week designer-stubble, not been for the colourless, untamed and in every direction uneven-growing hairs. They grow long, uncontrolled, everywhere, in the most unexpected places; awakening the deepest jealousy in any werewolf. Nevertheless, he still went through the calvary every day. He took painfully care of every detail in his appearance. As he finds out, much later in life, he didn’t do it to impress anyone, but of pure vanity. And of course, there were also some other issues: the missing hairs where he needed them; the many visits to the loo — nights and days — the lack of energy; the brown spots where there were none, the inevitable marks of life, the fears and insecurities, the need for glasses and the hanging, flaccid skins. Perhaps so. But, all those years in the desert and after, during his education, and training and later in the working days, he never had the chance to take care of himself. To be aware of himself. He now felt he deserved it; especially after the undercover operation, where he had to play the role of a pauper jobless to infiltrate an NGO laundering money for a guerrilla group that, by the way, after the fall of the communism lost their legitimacy and became a gang of smugglers, bandits and extortionists. He bought second hand clothing, reversed the worn collars of his shirts, wore shoes a few sizes too large with holes in the soles and tips pointing up, had a creased, ill-fitting suit to attend job interviews, lived in a bed and board room rented by a spinster in a shack and eat out of the pan with a wooden spoon he made. He never paid the rent, but in kind. She didn’t care. The operation took so long, and he played his role so well that his personality changed to such a degree, he forgot that he had an ultimate task: to deal with the target.

    • Haley Vannoy

      This is a really good piece!

      • Bob DeSpy former Spycacher

        Thanks a lot for the support!

  • Systalis

    here is a little bit of a character’s back-story that i have been working on. It is in first person let me know how it is. I do apologize about the language but that is his character he is meant for a more adult audience as are the rest of them. i will try to have back-stories done and up if you all like what i have done thank you in advance for the help.

    “Why do i fight” you ask. Heh! I don’t really know to tell you the truth. Been fightin for as long as I can remember. Pops would force me an my older sister to go with him to the bars. I think we went to one every night of the week, staying there until possibly four in the morning. There’s usually a fight every we were there, mostly because my dad was a raging alcoholic and would start many of them fights. I was such a b**** back then. I spent so much time gettin my ass handed to me that my sister lugged me back home while my dad tripped over himself. Back then i wished that he get hit by a car so we wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore. If there was anything good about my younger days it was my sister, Elise. (sigh) She always seemed to be smiling around me. As a matter of fact most of my scars came from savin her ass. Secretly ,i think she preferred draggin me home than dad. when i’d confront her about that, she’d always say: “Well, you hold a better conversation than he does. that’s bout the only difference.” i got my ass kicked for years, sometimes thinking i was going to die. That was until something terrible happened. I still remember that clears as day. The bar of the night was call RedZone. The smoke was so damn thick a knife couldn’t cut through it. The night started like always with Pops getting drunk and thinking he can take out the biggest guy in the bar and since Elise and I were the only ones who weren’t drinkin it caused a ruckus and it turned into a full out brawl. Now here’s where things got different: a biker gang tended to chill there and the law was nothin but shit to them. i was actually doing a pretty good job protectin me an my sister. That is, until i felt a body fall onto my backside. The cool liquid that i presumed to be blood seeping into my then torn shirt. Thinkin it was some random dead guy i started to toss it aside. That’s when i felt somethin that i still wish i hadnt: My sister’s jacket. Of course i cant help but look and see if that was actually Elise just to see if it really was her or if someone had just stole her jacket. Sure enough it was her. Her lifeless body now in my hands as i look into her eyes and they starred into the nothingness. then something clicked. I dont remember much of that night after that. i just remember three things: It was the first time i walked out of the bar by myself, i was the first one out of the bar, and i was the last one out of the bar.

  • Alyssa Phillips

    Dane is a retired warrior who was forced to fight in a gladiator like arena for over 15 years. Originally he hails from a Northern tribe and was captured as a young man. They pitted him publicly against beasts and foes. He was eventually moved to an entirely different arena, where he killed and tortured various victims for the private pleasure of the royal court. These victims included women, children, and the elderly. If he refused to carry out his tasks both him and the victim would be killed. Whenever he preformed as instructed he was rewarded handsomely. He has finally won his freedom and is thrown back into the world without any support.

    He is illiterate and has almost no education but is quick on his feet and is as strong as an ox. He is haunted by his victims and considers himself a coward for not standing up for them. He believes he deserves death but can’t bring himself to end his own life.
    He is around 40 years old, tall and bulky with several scars, marks and gashes covering his body. He dreams of taking revenge for those that he had to kill and seeks redemption for the things he has done. His first act of redemption is to help one of the Emperor’s concubines escape her captivity. He eventually finds some comfort with her but can never fully shake the images that stay with him.

  • Tuckie

    Before doing something like this, I didn’t even know that one of my main characters lost his left big toe, let alone had a tattoo on his back since his clothes are never off. It surprised the hell out of me XD

  • Leo F

    I would say that something that might help with “make them real” is to take the broad actions you have planned for them, and to figure out what kind of person would take those actions. If question marks over the death of a friend prompts them to investigate, ask yourself what kind of person takes it upon themselves to investigate a crime independently of the police. What experiences made the character into a person who would do that?

  • j

    It was still a dawn. The birds have just started to chirp a
    little. There was clam mistiness around. Sounds of people rising to the early morning
    could be more heard gradually. Sun was
    about to appear soon now. in the everyday
    mundane early morning of everyday, a little child aged around 6 slowly appears
    peeking out of one of the house gate in that neighborhood. Wearing
    a worn out faded blue shorts, a bit grayish t-shirt, a bit fearful he looked as the eyes scanned his surrounding from right
    to left. He slowly brings his body out of the gate and stands in their timidly carrying
    fear inwardly. He looked as if he was
    not sure which direction he should be heading. He looks left and then to the
    right and then holds his glands looking down to his feet, closely placed
    together as it was supporting each other to make his body stand there for that crucial
    moment. Somewhere the dark circles underneath his eyes were visible in the light
    of the glowing dawn. His long and think lashes where slugged with morning sleep.
    He needed someone to hold him, give him some care, or maybe for now a
    direction.

    The roads were getting a little crowded that early, as he
    looked thoughtful. A cycle suddenly halts in front of his small body, he looks
    up and the milk guy hands him 3 packs of
    milk saying – “kancha , here. Sorry I am little late.” He looks at the milk man
    with a smile that was trying hard to come out, hiding something that was just his’’.
    Takes the milk packs and pretends to go back inside the gate and the milk guys
    curves his other leg the paddle and cycles away.

    The boy waits behind the closed gate or the milk guy to go. Then
    the loud shouts comes from the house. “ KANCHA, KANCHA….ABHAYA…KanCHA….where
    the hell is this boy.”

    The voice makes his head turn suddenly toward the house, he
    drops the milk packs right there and runs outside the gate. The voice of his
    owner, his heartbeat rising, his eyes filled with tear and shivers of fear runs
    his body. Without deciding his destination, he had chosen to move to the
    unknown direction. He had just plunged into the unknown without knowing his
    brave heart.

  • Forth’Wyn

    A few of my current characters were actually created while playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons (I tend to write fantasy stories and not much else). For those who don’t know, you put points into various scores like strength, dexterity, wisdom, intelligence, etc, and go from there. I found that once I had that – for example, my protagonist has high streetsmarts but not such a high score when it comes to book smarts – a personality starts to form. Things like “how does she resolve conflicts?” or “does she have a short temper?”

    If anyone knows the system or knows someone who does, I’d really recommend it as a change of style. You can even use dice rolls to completely randomise them and their appearance and make a character from there.

  • http://www.mjkelley.com/blog/ M. J. Kelley

    Great post. I was looking for a good reminder to jump start my thinking for a character. Thank you.

  • K Shashank

    A Great Post! I’m learning and trying to characterize my story.

  • Colby Davidson

    Wake Julliard is an Elven peasant
    living on the outskirts of the holy city of Macropolis, where the Temple of
    Saint Akara is located. He is a devout worshipper, and Akara is his favorite
    saint. He is around 15-20 human years old, and when he was about five, his
    father Seth walked out, leaving his older brother Jarbis to take care of him
    and their cousin, Victoria. His mother died long before his memory developed.
    He wants to be a hero, to be held high in the regards of others as the one they
    can turn to to save them from whatever evils may come their way. He fears being
    stereotypical.

    He’s supposed to be a vegetarian,
    but he sneaks out to the river with his cousin every morning to catch salmon to
    eat. He doesn’t wear his traditional Elvish headband, and the only job he’s
    ever held is being his brother’s constant pet-peeve. At night he dreams about
    saving villages from these pie-eating six-year-old-like gnome-bug-hybrids, and
    the villagers chanting his title of, “The Great Awakener!” as he rides into the
    sunset on his white steed.

    One day a human tradesman shows
    up in the city, asking the Elves if they have a bookworm among them, basically,
    as he needs one for a grand adventure of epic proportions across lands and seas.
    Everyone steps forward, of course, so he asks if any of them know a bookworm of sorts, and everyone
    steps back except for Wake, who volunteers his brother Jarbis.

    Jarbis is smart—he sells
    record-books at the market, including the Encyclopedia
    Wikimedia—but he doesn’t want to be called a nerd or whatever, so he tries
    hard to be socially normal, or in other words, the opposite of Wake. With
    everyone watching him be asked to partake in this marvelous expedition, he has
    no choice but to accept. To Wake’s great delight, he drags Wake along with him,
    purportedly to absorb some of the
    adventure for him.

    On their travels through the
    realms of Edenia, always headed to Hierosolymum in the Southern Kingdom, of
    course, they rack up loads of adventures and lots of new friends, such as (almost)
    fearless Dwarven warrior, Bjorn XII, studious/cute Halfling silk-weaver, Margaret,
    and banished wingless Angel forced to become a simple Witch and roam the
    Overworld on debt-quests, Isis Megan. This last one Wake eventually develops a
    crush on, referring to her in his telegraph contacts as, “The Good Witch of
    Heaven.”

    The group also makes some enemies
    during their journeys. All the time they are hunted by the forces of Slenderman
    lords Jim and Jean, but are also the opponents of evil-doers and rogues
    everywhere, and Wake personally develops a deep hatred for villainous Dr.
    Sanders, an evil skeleton fry-cooker with the magic power to transform innocent
    livestock and vegetables into greasy food-like products.

    This is a continuing story I’m
    working on, but I had fun doing this exercise! It really helped me come up with
    stuff for my series!

    (© 2015, C. Davidson)

  • Shannon Jones

    I don’t usually let anyone read my writing, but I guess I need to get over that if I’m going to write a novel. This is an introduction and a bit of back story for my protagonist.

    Dylan fumbled with the keys to her moped as she stood
    outside of Lake Ridge High. She finally
    pocketed them and smoothed down her wavy red hair, which was rumpled from her
    helmet. She took a deep breath and
    headed inside. Arriving late on her
    first day at a new school was a double=edged sword. On the one hand, she could avoid being
    bombarded with stares and whispers as she approached the heavy wooden double
    doors. On the other hand, she would have
    to endure them when she got to her first class.
    It wouldn’t have been so bad at the beginning of a school year when
    everyone is reuniting. But they had
    moved during Christmas vacation.

    She had just moved to Lake Ridge with her mom, a staunch
    realist and nurse, and her little sister, 8 year old Kate. They had moved because her mom wanted a fresh
    start after the divorce. And Dylan
    supposed that they all needed one. Her
    father was a cheater and seemed to only care about his new family. Dylan and Kate didn’t fit in to what he
    wanted for his life. Instead he had
    Natalie, his 20-something secretary, and the new baby she was going to have
    because of him.

    Dylan had been forced to leave everything with hardly any
    notice. She didn’t really mind about
    most of it. The one thing that she had
    hated leaving was Anabelle. Dylan had
    thought that she and Anabelle would be together forever. Of course, she couldn’t act upset around her
    mother. Her mother didn’t know about
    Anabelle. Or rather, she did, she just
    wasn’t aware of the depth of their relationship. Dylan couldn’t help but roll her eyes when
    her mother asked her if she was interested in any of the boys that she went to
    school with. Her mother assumed that she
    was too busy maintaining her strong B average or playing soccer to be worried
    about boys. But the truth was that she
    had Anabelle, the blonde angel of North Woods High. And she couldn’t tell her mother about
    her. She wouldn’t understand.

    Dylan arrived in the office of her new high school and stood
    at the receptionists’ desk for a good 10 seconds before the plump woman looked
    up from her computer. She looked
    startled, like she was just coming out of a dream, and Dylan guessed the email
    she had been writing wasn’t work related.
    She smirked at the woman, then straightened her expression. She didn’t want to have a reputation for
    having a bad attitude on the first day of school. She was sure that would come later.