Writing Engaging Characters

Since mid-March I’ve been doing a lot of planning for rewriting my 2018 NaNoWriMo speculative fiction mystery novelette; my previous research suggested that mysteries required more planning than other kinds of story. I had hoped to start writing for the April 2020 Camp NaNoWriMo , but there was still a huge amount of planning to do. About two and a half weeks in, I got frustrated about notwriting and drafted the first scene – the start of a bridging conflict – meant to introduce the characters and setting before getting to the first plot point (the murder). I finished a draft, about 1,000 words, and realized I hadn’t done enough of what such conflicts are supposed to do: make the main character engaging. So like a good little scholar I did a bunch of research on how to do that.

Several sources listed things you should know about your character from the start, a character profile, and I’ve made a consolidated list later in the article. But I wanted to organize the advice to be useful to pantsers as well as plotters. So the main caveats about all that follows are:
  • Character profiles are similar in some ways to worldbuilding bibles: not everything the writer knows will appear directly in the novel. You’re going to need to dole out this information to the reader at appropriate points in the plot. Even so it can influence what you write, indirectly
  • Pantsers can discovery-write as usual, and can then apply this summary to yield judicious amounts of planning when they find they’re blocked in some way, or in response to beta reader comments.
  • I am summarizing the sources I consulted, not speaking from personal expertise in writing. You should consider reading the originals, which I refer to throughout and collect at the end.
  • I limited myself to freely-available internet sources. There are many great books out there on many of these topics, some by great writers, but I’m aiming at people like me on limited budgets.
The Three Sliders
The most critical thing I learned was, as usual, from Writing Excuses : an engagingcharacter doesn’t have to be likeable. There are three “sliders” you can adjust : likeability, competence, and proactivity. Manydifferent combinations make for engaging characters.
  • Likeability , arousing sympathy. You might opt for low likeability if the other sliders are high, to make the character less annoying, or you might start off low to give room for growth. Villains typically have very low likeability but are high on the other two sliders. You might also lower likeability to make another character more sympathetic by comparison. You can reduce likeability via emotional distance from the reader; getting into the character’s head raises likeability. Friendliness, warmth, approachability, connectedness to others, empathy, integrity, authenticity, and similarity to the reader all increase likeability; making bad decisions and alienating others can reduce it. Humour (jokes, gallows humour, self-deprecation about weaknesses), and admirable characteristics (self-awareness, niceness, generosity, selflessness) can raise sympathy, as can some kinds of weakness or fatal flaw; so can having some other character like them.
  • Competence or ability. An initially low-competence character might have an arc where they increase competence, or they might have competence in some area not related to the challenges of the story, which they might be able to adapt to their unfamiliar circumstances. A high-competence character might meet circumstances where their competence doesn’t help; this is especially appropriate in horror stories. A good antagonist can bring out the protagonist’s competence. Try/fail cycles can show that the problem is hard, and show the character improving.
  • Proactivity , taking action, having agency; this slider is the most closely related to being a protagonist. Higher personal stakes in the plot, and choosing to stay when they could walk away, both increase proactivity. Less action-oriented activities are proactive, such as researching things that are, or become, relevant to the plot.
    The reluctant hero is the standard initially-low-proactivity character; the inciting incident or first plot point starts to kick them into higher gear. Kurt Vonnegut apparently said “every character should want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.” If the character isn’t engaging with the main plot, it should be because they’re engaged in something more important to them; those plans might be disrupted or abandoned.
    Rarely you can have a main character who isn’t the protagonist, such as Watson; even rarer is to separate the viewpoint (main), the protagonist, and the hero (covered in some WX season prior to 10.8, which I haven’t found yet). When a reluctant hero changes motivation, to be convincing they should go through a character arc (see later).
Somebody high on all the sliders might be hard to challenge, and thus boring, like the pre-Kryptonite Superman.

Brandon Sanderson taught that there are three things you need for a character to be engaging (but you needn’t use all three):
  • Likeable: relatable (similar to readers in some ways), nice (shown by “saving the cat” or refuted by “kicking the dog”), or liked by other characters.
  • Motivated: driven by something interesting to us. What do they want, and why can’t they have it? Do they have a personal connection to the plot?
  • Progress: something about the character is changing. Will they become the person we see they can become?
Revealing the Character

At the beginning, you need to engage the reader quickly; advice varies, but some go as far as to say by the end of the first page. You need to quickly establish why readers like them, why readers want them in the story (particularly, why the main character is the right viewpoint from which to tell the story), the way they look at the world (mindset), what they want to fix in their lives (their motivation), and their feelings (mood, which is influenced by mindset). You need to show the character engaged in something, so they are active, and establish competence, possibly including what they are not good at. But you have to balance plot with character engagement; scenes have to do more than one thing. You should show how the character reacts under the pressure of the plot (such as cracking jokes), and what is important to them.

Some sources said it’s even more important to “show, not tell” when revealing a character’s emotional side than it is for other parts of the story. However you do it, you need to make the character’s motivations clear, so their actions make sense to the reader.

The character should have a distinctive voice, way of speaking, turns of phrase; the ideal to aim for (currently extremely difficult for me, personally) is to be able to take something they say out of context and still recognize who is speaking. Some sources said it’s important to establish the character’s physical appearance early, and that body language is also important.

Important technical aspects include: Reveal information in a piecemeal but organized way, so that the reader has time to assimilate it; weave in personal descriptions and appearance gradully; ground the reader by making clear where the character is in the setting, especially when they enter a scene; use nicknames with discretion, and don’t even name very minor characters. Use a new paragraph when changing speakers or describing a different person’s actions.

A character doesn’t need to be completely consistent, but inconsistencies have to be believable; in fact most people have both “public” and “private” faces.

Even alien characters must have human-comprehensible characteristics so that readers can engage with them.

Story Progression

You reveal character throughout the story; many sources go so far as to say the plot is the reaction of characters to circumstances, that character must drive plot. This means you normally have to have a strong character arc; the character must change (though not too fast – the reader needs a consistent baseline first). There are four types of arc :

  1. Heroic arcs, where the character completely transforms from ordinary person to hero; these are common in speculative fiction, especially fantasy, and normally reserved for protagonists.
  2. Growth arcs. The character is essentially the same person at the end of the story, but has learned something, overcome something about themselves, or changed roles. This is common in literary fiction, and common for well-developed secondary characters.
  3. Falling arcs. This is typical when creating an authentic-feeling villain, doomed by flaws and bad choices.
  4. Flat arcs — iconic” characters like Sherlock Holmes or Nero Wolfe, common in mysteries, adventures, and spy thrillers. We may learn more about them as the story or series progresses, but they don’t change.

A character arc is the C in the MICE quotient. A character starts offdissatisfied with some aspect of themselves, or becomes dissatisfied: there is a disruption to their internal status quo. The arc aims for the establishmentof a new status quo, and challenges along the way are obstacles to this. Mary Robinette Kowal recommends Elizabeth Boyle’s D.R.E.A(M) approach: initially the character Denies there is a problem, moves on to Resisting change, then Exploring the change, and finally Accepting it; acceptance then Manifests in some way (that is, they must dosomething, not just realizeit). It can be especially helpful to show the influence of other people in this progression, through conversations that get to the heart of what the character cares about and why they are changing.

Along the arc, you should challenge the character frequently; thrust them into difficult predicaments; remove supports and conveniences; bring them into situations only a changed person can solve. Show their vulnerabilities, concerns, and flaws. They should face frustrations; their reactions to not getting what they want drive the plot. There are many possible specific reactions, such as anger, blame, or even giving up, and there may be a mix; the secondary reactionsmight also be useful in the plot. Stress and conflict may bring to the fore some inner character complexity or contradiction.

A particularly intense form of conflict is to place the character in a moral dilemma : a choice between two highly undesirable choices. Force them into a corner, where something important to them personally is at stake, there are no easy solutions, the character mustact, and must live with the consequences; thenthe choice deepens tension and advances the story. You can face them with two conflicting desires, face them with two bad things (such as yielding to bribery or extortion versus violating a conviction), or pick some genre-related dilemma, such as justiceversus injustice (crime), faithfulness versus betrayal (romance), orconsciousness, humanity, and morality (speculative fiction). Perhaps have them escape the dilemma by finding a third way, andmake that way “unexpected but inevitable.”

Avoid having the character driven by the plot; give them a life outside of it. Don’t force actions inconsistent with their personality or desires; watch out for unconsciously assuming your m ovations are the character’s. Beta readers can sometimes detect this better than the writer, since writers can be blinded by the “need” for the action to go a certain way.
Character Profile Questions

This is a combination of several lists I found of things to decide or explore about your characters. Some sources suggest basing characters on real people you’ve met, at least in part. One source lists 8 male and 8 female archetypes; they come with ready-made characteristics that make answering these questions easier. For characters significantly different from yourself, you will need considerable research; I have enjoyed lessons from Writing the Other .

I’ve numbered these for possible future reference, and sorted them into alphabetical order by one key word; I decided I wasn’t experienced enough to prioritize them by importance. Bear in mind that you won’t necessarily reveal all of this directly, just as you don’t reveal all your worldbuilding detail; your novel shows the tip of the iceberg.

Also, for things like greatest strengths and weaknesses , don’t get hung up on “greatest;” a major one is good enough.

  1. Ability and impairments.
  2. Age, including mental age.
  3. Appearance, though you don’t infodump everything right away: add details through dialog and action. Consider distinguishing features such as scars, piercings, tattoos, and physical imperfections.
  4. Backstory: what shaped them. Family, childhood, career choices, traumas; best, worst, and most embarrassing things that ever happened. Moments of fear, courage, sorry, joy, failure, shame (undermining of self image), guilt (violation of their moral code), redemptive forgiveness – some of which are backstory and some of which might be part of the story. Don’t go overboard; focus on what’s relevant to the story. Steven King apparently said “The most important things to remember about back story are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting.”
  5. Class, in the socioeconomic sense.
  6. Desires (especially their greatest , which might be obsessions), passions, ambitions, joys, pleasures, and goals. This can suggest conflicts, since the world doesn’t arrange itself to easily grant our desires. Brandon Sanderson characterizes goals as changeable, and achievable within the constraints of the current story or scene; motivations are longer term and more fundamental. Mary Robinette Kowal uses objective and superobjective for the same distinction.
    Motivations can be conscious (and thus more likely to drive the plot), and shown through thoughts, dialog, and actions. They can be deliberate, a special case of conscious, incorporated into the character’s plans. They can be unconscious, which makes it harder to reveal, but you can show the character reacting to situations related to their motivations and needs, or have them think one way but act another.
  7. Emotional triggers, particularly anger and fear
  8. Ethnicity. race, and nationality.
  9. Flaws, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities, especially their greatest They should interfere with the character’s motives and suggest plot elements. Brandon Sanderson distinguishes flaws (things the character was able to fix before, but didn’t), handicaps (something to overcome, not within the character’s power to change, but perhaps fixable within the story), and limitations (things that generally don’t change, but that constrain how the character behaves).
  10. Inner/private life, which may differ from outer/public. Things that keep them awake; blind spots; secrets; embarrassments.
  11. Gender identity and sexuality.
  12. Name, which should be ethnically appropriate.
  13. Occupation and income.
  14. Personality type, such as Myers-Briggs category, Enneagram number, or Dungeons and Dragons alignment
  15. Relationships, past and present, and their effect. Siblings, friends (including best), romantic partners, mentors or apprentices, political affiliations, even treasured physical objects. Is the relationship functional or dysfunctional? For people, even those who are close, are they for or against the character’s goals? What sources of friction might there be in the relationship.
  16. Religiosity and spirituality (including atheist).
  17. Role in the story.
  18. Secrets that if revealed would forever change the character’s relationships and standing in the world.
  19. Strengths, especially their greatest , some of which might evolve to heroic levels. Skills and talents.
  20. Traits, such as (dis)honesty, bravery/cowardice, generosity/miserliness, nobility; these are usually moral or ethical, and intersect with flaws, strengths, and weaknesses. One source suggests 3-4 positive and 1 negative , the contrast being a source of conflict. An uplifting ending accentuates positive traits and de-emphasizes negative ones; downer endings do the opposite.
  21. Voice and accent, how they speak: vocabulary, turns of phrase. Both inner and outer dialogue (which can contrast with each other).

Once you develop several members of your cast, you should consider the web of relationships among them, how they interact with each other. Compare the protagonist and main antagonist; are they competing for the same thing? how will they react to each other? Compare with any other opponents – before comparing with allies, since conflict is central. Compare opponents with allies. Clashes can arise from opposition of personality traits: a positive trait of one clashing with a different positive trait of the other, or two negatives, or one negative and one positive. They can arise from different moral codes or beliefs, different life experiences, and different important goals. Clashes don’t need to be entirely negative; one might challenge the other to grow, let go of misbeliefs, or recognize their own values more clearly.

Moving Forward

After doing all this research I’m both encouraged and intimidated. I understand a lot more about making a character engaging, and have a wide range of choices of what to include in the opening scene that I want to polish. On the other hand, there is a lot of work to do, much of it new to me. At this stage of my writing, I know I have a lot to learn, and each time I take on something new, I’m making progress.

Sources I Consulted

The whole of Season 13 of Writing Excuses was about character, but I only surveyed those that seemed most directly related to making a character engaging.

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