One of the best things about being a writer is how ideas for new characters can spring from anywhere. I might be mulling over a great book I’ve read, and then boom, my imagination flashes an image of someone thundering across the prairies on a horse, stealing a kiss, or sliding a knife between a mark’s ribs in the darkness. A stranger’s smoky voice in a crowd can trigger the beginnings of a character, and so can a TV commercial, news headline, or watching my kids play. Every time it’s like a tuning fork strikes at my core. I just know this is someone I must write about.
But a flash of an idea won’t get me far. I need to develop this person to uncover who they are, and what drew me to them. To be story-worthy, they need to become flesh and blood.
If you’re like me, when you have an idea for a character you go into serious planning mode. You might fill a notebook, use character questionnaires, worksheets, and other tools to uncover their inner layers. Or if you’re a pantser, you may decide to start writing a discovery draft to find out who they are and what the story is about as you go. Plan or pants, we all must end up with the same thing: a character who is rounded, credible, and unique.
The more important the character, the bigger their role, meaning you’ll need to really understand how their actions, choices, and decisions influence the story. Let’s look at some of the things you’ll want to uncover about primary characters to help you write them with authority.
Backstory (and their Emotional Wound)
Characters may come from our imagination, but to feel real, they need a past. We need to know what came before the moment they arrived on the doorstep of our story. This includes some history, like how they grew up, what people and key events shaped them, and any influential life lessons that created their current worldview. Pay special attention to negative experiences as these can cause unresolved emotional wounds to form. The fear of being hurt again means your character will avoid certain people, situations, and events. Some things may trigger them, bringing their emotions close to the surface. You can exploit these moments to generate tension and conflict.
Each person in this world has a unique personality, so your character should, too. We want to think about what traits showcase their strengths – their ability to achieve goals, make good decisions, build and maintain relationships, and reveal their identity. Likewise, a character will have flaws – negative traits that will cause friction between themselves and others and hold them back in certain ways. Because flaws are a form of emotional shielding that comes from being hurt by life, your character’s negative qualities give readers clues as to what wounds they suffered in the past, and how they will need to grow or change if they are to achieve their story goals.
Talents, Skills, or Abilities
Everyone is special in some way, so think about your character’s giftedness. Big or small, a talent or skill sets them apart from other characters, can help them in the story, and it will be something that makes them feel more interesting to readers.
Fears & Insecurities
Characters come with their own baked-in fears, self-doubts, and insecurities. In the past, negative interactions showed them how life can hurt, the world can be dangerous, and most tragically, leave them feeling like they lack something or are deficient in some way. This is why delving into backstory wounds is important … knowing what happened to them helps you see exactly what fears and sensitivities came to be in the aftermath, and how certain events in your story will trigger them, steering specific behavior and reactions.
Maslow’s Hierarchy looks at the basic human needs all people have and can help you zero in on what your character needs most in the story. Physiological Needs are tied to what they may need to survive, and Safety & Security is what is required to be safe and healthy. Love & Belonging is a character’s need to love others and be loved in turn and Esteem & Recognition is about your character feeling good about how others see them and how they value themselves. Finally, Self-Actualization is your character’s need to achieve meaningful goals, learn, and live their truth.
Yearnings are what a character feels when a need goes unmet … the stronger the yearning, the more urgent the unmet need is. A character who goes through a marriage breakdown may want to avoid relationships for a while, but after a time, if they don’t have the love and support of others, they may grow lonely and yearn to find someone to share their life with. This yearning indicates a missing Love & Belonging need.
What your character yearns for will be at the center of your story, because at a certain point what they lack (the missing need) grows so large, that they feel compelled to do something to fix it. Once they identify a goal that is the solution to their problem, they will strive to do everything in their power to achieve it so they can feel happier and more complete.
Every character will have a goal they are trying to achieve in the story. If it’s the right one for them, it will solve a problem that is holding them back, fill a missing need, or both. Put another way, the goal is the answer to what’s missing or gone wrong for them at the start of the story.
Despite your character’s yearning, something inside of them believes they cannot have what they want most because they are somehow unworthy, inadequate, or the world itself is so broken, it will always sabotage their efforts. This lie they believe (the misbelief) stems from old wounds, and they must let go of it if they are to achieve the amount of inner growth needed to secure their goal. If they cannot see the truth (that they are worthy, that the world is not as dark as they previously believed, etc.), they will fail.
A job may seem like a smaller detail, but it’s packed with characterization potential, so think carefully about the work your character does and why. To do a job well, you need certain skills, work ethic, personality traits, temperament, and abilities. Don’t choose a job because it’s cool, choose one that makes sense for who your character is and their circumstances.
Passions and Interests
What does your character get excited about? What do they like to do? Passions and interests make someone more individualistic and can explain their choices and direction in life.
All characters have an internal meter for right and wrong, even the baddies (their line in the sand is just a bit further out). No matter if your character exists in the light or shadow, think about what they believe in, how they live their life in accordance with these beliefs, and what, for them, would be a line they would never cross. Morals and values are ingrained and hard to change, so this will influence your character’s actions and opinions in the story, and show what they are willing to sacrifice for.
Emotional Range & Behaviors
Every person expresses emotion differently – some are demonstrative, others are reserved. Think about where your character fits on this spectrum and the emotions they are sensitive to (like ones associated with old wounds) which can make them more volatile. Brainstorm natural ways your character will express emotion (verbally, through thoughts if you are in their POV, and behavior). How does this change when they feel uncomfortable? Thinking about this will help you write their behavior when they are trying to hide what they feel from others.
We all have secrets, and characters will too. Often a secret is tied to past events, especially where they perceive they failed, made a mistake, or they feel guilt or shame. Ask yourself what is the last thing they would want others to discover. Find a way to expose that secret to generate conflict and an opportunity for the character to let go of the past or make a change to undo it.
Our goal is to create characters who feel real, ones with motivations, hang-ups, and other psychological drivers that readers will connect to. So, explore some or all of the areas above and your readers will thank you for it!
About Angela Ackerman:
Angela Ackerman is a bestselling author, writing coach, and international speaker who loves thinking about the psychological makeup of characters and helping writers create stronger stories. To that end, she’s the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, a portal to game-changing tools and resources that enable writers to craft powerful fiction.
Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Need help with character building?
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