Saturday, March 21, 2015

Essentials of Character Building

No matter the genre, every story has characters. Otherwise, you'd be writing a phone directory. Hold on. Bad analogy. I know plenty of characters in a phonebook, and who uses a phonebook anymore anyway?

As I was saying, sans phonebooks, characters are the main ingredients in a story recipe. There are lots of tricks to jazz up a memorable character, but EVERY character needs some basics.


What's makes your character scream like a little girl? Centipedes? The IRS? The threat of an alien probe shoved up their—wait a minute. I'm scaring myself. And that, my friends, is the point. Everyone is afraid of something. Identify what your character is afraid of so you can use that fear to ramp up the tension.


I'm not talking six-pack abs here, though in the case of your hero, that's never a bad idea. Think about what skills your character possesses. Is he a crazy freak with nunchucks? Can she hit a raccoon in the eyeball with a slingshot from fifty yards away? Maybe this character has x-ray vision and can see into people's souls. Whatever. Give them something to work with.


Nobody is flawless, so make sure your character isn't either. Not even your super stud that rushes in to save the day and the damsel in distress in one fell swoop. This can be something as small as an inability to balance a checkbook, or you can create a whopper of a wart like a gambling habit using stolen money copped from nuns.

A Secret

Yo. Buddy. Step a little closer. No, closer. I’ve got a juicy secret for you. Are you leaning toward the screen? That's because you want to know what I've got hidden. Secrets are like big, plump nightcrawlers wriggling on a hook, irresistible to the literary fish. Characters with secrets reel in a reader.


Everybody wants something. A brand-spanking-new Tesla. A mutton lettuce tomato sandwich. The stupid hangnail on your thumb to go away. Your character wants something as well. What is it?


Great characters have lots of layers, and the best kind are those at odds with each other. Example: show a heroine battling insecurity on the inside while acting and speaking with careless arrogance on the outside. The more complexity, the better. Your characters are human after all. Okay, so maybe they’re not real humans. But living, breathing people are reading your story, and that’s who your characters must relate to.


A compelling character needs a cause about which they are passionate, usually one that involves justice. Not that they have to be over-the-top, protest-sign waving hippies. Just give them an issue they care deeply about.

Make sure to incorporate these building blocks next time you construct a character and you'll be well on your way to making him or her memorable in a reader's mind. 

Like what you read? There’s more. WRITER OFF THE LEASH: GROWING IN THE WRITING CRAFT is a kick in the pants for anyone who wants to write but is stymied by fear, doubt, or simply doesn’t know how to take their writing to the next level.

Michelle Griep’s been writing since she first discovered blank wall space and Crayolas. Follow her adventures and find out about upcoming new releases at her blog, Writer Off the Leash, or stop by her website. You can also find her at the usual haunts of Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.