How to Create Rich Characters: 5 Tips Anyone Can Use

By: David Maxwell | March 31, 2018

Mr. Maxwell is expert in building and defining his characters. Regardless of their place in the story – major or minor actor, protagonist or antagonist – he brings them to life with an unparalleled sense of verisimilitude. These actors are true to life and unforgettable.” – Lex Allen, Author (excerpt from his Readers’ Favorite review of my 2nd novel, The Drift)

I don’t think I can say enough about the characterization. There are a lot of characters in this book, major and minor – a whole town’s worth. The author brings each of them their own personality and makes you feel you know them. Not only are the characters themselves vivid and believable, but the town of Crystal Falls is itself a character, fully and richly realized.” – Davyne DeSye, Author (excerpt from her Amazon review of my 2nd novel, The Drift)

In my experience as an aspiring new author, agents, publishers and, most importantly, readers are becoming more and more drawn to character-driven stories. Creating rich and vibrant characters that elicit emotional investment can enhance the reader’s experience and elevate an aspiring author from mediocrity to fame. Conversely, flat or underdeveloped characters may adversely affect a reader’s, agent’s, or publisher’s interest in a book before the plot, no matter how creative, begins to unfold.

Here are five tips on how to create the rich characters, protagonists and antagonists alike, that can bring characters to life and evoke emotion in the minds of readers.

1. Become the character. As you write the dialogue, interaction and experiences of one of your characters, become the character in your mind. Don’t try to write for them, write as them. Just as the best actors become the characters they play, often doing extensive research or even immersing themselves in the aspects of their persona and lifestyle.

Consider, for example, actress Tatiana Maslany (@TatianaMaslany) of Orphan Black. As an actress, she expertly takes on the persona of 14 identities. Tatiana portrays each of her identities in a believable and well-rounded manner, eliciting in viewers feelings of adoration or disdain. Some viewers fall in love with Cosima, hate Rachel, root for Helena, or relish the quirkiness of Alison. The point is that one actress portrays numerous identities, all of which evoke very real emotions and connections with the viewers.

Much like Tatiana does in her roles as an actress, you, as an author, must become the characters you portray in order to effectively bring them to life in your writing.

2. Be consistent when in character. No matter how big or small a character is with respect to your overall plot, always stay consistent in accordance with the mannerisms and persona you have given them. How they would act, react, or speak in any given situation must remain congruous with who they are as you’ve created them. One thing that can turn a reader off in a hurry is a character that acts entirely out of character; unless, of course, that extreme divergence is integral to the story.

When I’m writing, I regularly ask myself WWTCD (What Would the Character Do). If I don’t know my characters well enough to answer that question in any given situation, then I haven’t yet successfully become the character. Consequently, I’m unlikely in that case to develop them as richly as I may have.

3. Create comprehensive character sketches. In order to effectively accomplish the first two tips, you should try develop a comprehensive character sketch for each of the main characters in your story. The character sketches should not only help you get “in character,” but also give you the full background of who they are as a person.

Naturally, a character sketch should include a comprehensive background (childhood, family, education, profession, personality traits, etc.), but just as importantly, a detailed physical description. A good character sketch will help you stay consistent in developing characters with depth that are believable and relatable.

Although there are many applications and utilities that aid in character sketching and development, I personally use Scrivener. In addition to many other useful authoring utilities, Scrivener includes customizable character sketches. This authoring software’s template also allows the addition of a photo. Inserting a photo in your character sketch of someone (movie star, model, musician, etc.) who embodies some of the physical attributes of the character you envision can be very helpful in character development and consistency. It can serve as a great reference whenever you are writing segments related to that character (eye color, hair style, skin tone, etc.).

4. Seek balance and originality in description. Two surefire paths to obscurity in writing are being under descriptive or over descriptive. As with all things in life, we should seek balance. If the protagonist is blonde, we can say it a few times in different ways; but, if we say it every time we reference the character, it may be overkill. The key is moderation.

Quality character description is essential. Readers want to be able to visualize the characters, not just in behavior, but in physical appearance and style. Originality in description is helpful; repetitiveness generally is not.

Strive to stay original through unique and consistent representations. For instance, a character who takes pride in dressing to the nines opens a plethora of descriptive options, but putting them in a tuxedo or ball gown in every scene is a sorely missed opportunity to enrich authenticity and impact.

5. Keep the dialogue “in voice”. If Kelly Clarkson (#kelly_clarkson) came on stage and started belting out gangsta rap, we’d, at the very least, find it out of character. Likewise, once you’ve followed the tips above to know and properly represent your characters, keep consistent in their mannerisms and speech. Structure your dialogue to stay “in voice.”

A cowboy talks like a cowboy. A Nobel laureate is unlikely to start a speech with, “Hell Yeah!” An introvert is not likely to walk into a room and yell, “Let’s get this party started!”

If properly used, these five simple tips can help you transform the characters in your stories from flat, vanilla representations into rich and vibrant people for whom we truly care what happens next in their worlds.

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