Most character charts for writers will include things like hair color, eye color, place of birth, occupation, and education. While these things are nice to know, they don’t tell you very much about the character other than surface facts. Here’s a list of some other things you need to think about to make a believable character.
Personality: Is your character an introvert or an extrovert? Is she ruled by her emotions or her intellect? Is he the life of the party or laid back? Personality is the cornerstone of who a person or character is. There are twelve basic personality types you can choose from. Click this link for a description of each type.
World View: What is your character’s belief system? This goes beyond their religious affiliation, but that’s a part of it. I’ll give you an example. Sally is an evangelical Christian who goes to church every time the doors are open.
You already have an idea of Sally’s belief system, but you need to dig deeper. Sally believes the Bible is the final authority, but even evangelicals differ. For instance, does Sally believe you should tell the truth even if a person’s life is in danger? Does Sally believe Christians should be actively involved social causes or does she believe we should be more concerned with spiritual matters? Does Sally think it’s alright to have an occasional glass of wine? How does she feel about protecting the environment? If someone is steeped in sin, will Sally befriend and try to help that person or will she distance herself and judge the person? There are many factors that go into our world views. It’s important to understand these when forming a character’s world view.
Character Flaws: What are your character’s flaws? Nobody is perfect. There are many flaws to choose from. But when choosing your character’s flaws, consider his personality and world view. For instance, an extrovert whose emotional may have a bad temper. Or she may make rash decisions. If she has a world view that’s judgmental, she may justify how she treats people. On the other hand, if she believes she’s supposed to help everyone, she may feel guilty when she loses her temper.
Redeeming Qualities: Every protagonist should have at least one redeeming quality, something that keeps the reading liking the person no matter how bad the character acts.
For instance, in my novel, Forks In the Road, JJ grows up to be an outlaw. There’s nothing good about that except he also has a protective friendship with his younger brother. He has put his brother before himself consistently throughout the novel, even risked his life for his brother at times.
This redeeming quality and the fact that he’s polite, even toward his victims, and has gone through a difficult past makes him likable even though we don’t like many of the things he does.
Motivation: Every character has to have a motivation or goal that keeps him moving forward in the story no matter what obstacles come in his way. And there should be obstacles, many of them, to keep the protagonist from reaching his goal. Without motivation, your main characters will seem flat like he’s drifting through the story. Motivation is key to a great character.
Mannerisms: We all have them. Does your character like to tease? Does she giggle when she’s nervous? Does he cross his arms when he’s upset? If you have a certain mannerism that signifies a character, it will make that character come alive. One warning here is don’t overuse that mannerism. A little goes a long way. Before long the reader will see the character doing the mannerism without you mentioning it.
Let’s go back to Sally. God is the most important thing in her life. Her family is second, and her career is third. What if Sally’s husband left her for another woman and isn’t paying child support? Now her career becomes more important because she needs the money to support her children.
But what if her career requires her to work so much she can’t spend any time with her children? Then what happens if she has to always work on Sundays and can’t take her children to church? What if the only babysitter she can find doesn’t believe in God?
You can see where this is going. Priorities are never easy. They sometimes blend, sometimes conflict with each other, and sometimes mess with motivations and world view. Life isn’t easy and neither are the choices we make. Don’t make life easy for your characters.
Backstory: We all have a past that colors what we believe about our world. Sometimes this past will cause us to have a distorted view of the world. What is your character’s backstory? What dark moment in the past causes him to believe a lie? What would it take to change his viewpoint?
You don’t want to reveal this backstory right away, but it’s important that you, the author, know what it is and why your character behaves the way he does. Then when you reveal it later on, it will make sense to the reader.
If you consider each of these factors when creating your characters, your characters will come to life and dictate to you where the story is going and what choices they will make. You will have a character driven story that keeps the reader on the edge of his seat.
The best stories have protagonists the reader connects with, characters they care enough about to continue reading to see what happens. A good plot isn’t enough if your reader doesn’t care what happens to the characters you created. Here are some tips for creating protagonists.
The main character should be the hero of his or her story.
The story has to be about your protagonist: what he wants and can’t have, what she needs to overcome, the quest for meaning or greatness. Everybody sees themselves as the heroes of their own stories. That’s why we can relate to the hero of the story we’re reading.
Main characters shouldn’t be perfect.
The greatest way to kill a story is to create a perfect character. If your character always does the right thing, reacts the right way, and makes the right choices, there is no story. When conflict happens, we need to be able to bite our lip hoping the hero makes the right choice but knowing she might not. Otherwise there is no conflict.
Another reason not to have perfect characters is that people are turned off by those who are too perfect. They can’t relate to them. Give your character a weakness. Even Superman had kryptonite to keep him humble.
In my Christmas novella, A Christmas Promise, Anna Brunner is the perfect wife, mother, and missionary, but even she has a flaw. She is so fearful and worried that something might happen to her family that her husband skirts the truth to protect her, and her children feel smothered by her. If I’d written the story without that flaw, Anna would have come across as boring and holier than thou.
The main character should grow and change. This is called a character arc. In real life, conflict causes people to make changes in their lives. The same should be true of your story.
The hero of your story is faced with conflict. This will cause him to change and grow as he works through the conflict toward a resolution. The change will sometimes help him overcome flaws and become a better person, but he could also become bitter, angry, or vindictive.
Both occurrences can happen in the same story. He might react the wrong way at first and become bitter, then come to accept the situation and grow into a better person. The change might happen gradually or it could be dramatic and instantaneous. But there should be change.
I use this technique in my novella, Soldier’s Heart. Noah is home from the Civil War with PTSD. He’s a good man, but the reader never knows for sure if his PTSD will cause him to act in the wrong way despite his good intentions.
Your protagonist doesn’t have to be likable, but she has to have a redeeming quality.
There is room in fiction for the anti-hero, the interesting character who might not be likable and who goes against societal mores. These kind of protagonist can work if they are the heroes of their own story.
But whether they change to become better people or not, they have to have a redeeming quality. This redeeming quality is called “save the cat” or “pet the dog”.
The main character could have a strong loyalty to family. He might regularly save people’s lives. She could have a soft spot for children. He might have sacrificed something for a friend. Even if your protagonist is disagreeable, manipulative, immoral, or greedy, this redeeming quality will be the one thing to keep your reader on the protagonist’s side. Even Scrooge had a good eye for business.
One example of this is Reddington on the television series, Blacklist. Reddington is a real bad guy. He kills people and has betrayed his country. He’s sold arms to small countries and is on the FBI’s most wanted list for a good reason. But he’s not completely despicable. He’s a charming man who will do anything for the people he cares about. One of those people is FBI agent Elizabeth Keen. Another is his assistant who he rescued from a slave trader. He is willing to sacrifice everything, including his life, for these people.
Whatever that redeeming quality is, it has to be something the character does. Don’t make the mistake of giving your character a bad childhood or a horrific event in life to make him likable unless you show him doing something good despite his terrible background. Everybody has gone through tough times. The reader will tire of the author making excuses for the character because of what happened in the past.
Whether it’s a corner in a room or a full-scale office with all the luxuries, every writer needs a writing area. This is the place the writer goes to allow his or her creativity to soar. If you write there every day, especially if you schedule a time to write, you’re training your subconscious that this is the time for you to be creative. This is the time and place for the words to soar.
The important thing is to be creative about your writing space. If you can have an office, that’s great. But there are certain items every writer needs in her writing area.
1. Computer: The days of the typewriter are over. Thank God. Make sure you have a good computer that’s easy for you to use. I recommend a laptop. That way, you don’t have to carry around a jump drive if you’re away from home. An Ipad with a Documents to Go app and a portable keyboard is also a great tool for when you’re on the road.
2. Internet: Internet is essential for writers in today’s world. It gives us marketing tools, email, online writer’s communities, writer’s tip blogs, research at our fingertips, and access to publishers’ and agents’ websites. The only caution here is to schedule when you’ll be on the internet and when you won’t. You may want to schedule a certain chunk of time for the internet. I have the internet running all day, but I only check it once every couple of hours, and if I’m not done writing (unless I’m doing research), I don’t stay on it longer than five minutes.
3. Library: Every writer needs a library that includes writing books, a dictionary, a thesaurus, and books he enjoys reading. Some of these books may be on-line. Some won’t. See this link and this link for the books I believe every writer should have.
4. Files: Every writer needs a place she can file research, plot outlines, character sketches, ideas, agent lists, and other important information. Some writers use online files such as MS One Note. Others like hard copies. But you need somewhere to store information.
5. Online computer back-up: Don’t take a chance. Subscribe to an online computer back-up service. They aren’t expensive, and if anything happens, you’ll be covered. Schedule the back-up to automatically back up your files at least once a week.
6. Music: Whether you use an i-pod, your computer, a CD player, or some other device, you’ll want something where you can play music or some kind of white noise. Some writers like it quiet when they work, but even they benefit from listening to music before or after writing. Also invest in a good set of headphones that will be comfortable to wear for hours and will block out most noises including the phone ringing.
7. A comfortable chair: You’ll want a chair where you sit up straight, your feet are flat on the ground, and your back is supported. Don’t prop your laptop on your legs while you type in a recliner. Your back will thank you later.
8. A desk or table: Don’t use one of those portable lap desks unless it’s short term. You need something you can put your computer on even if it’s a card table or a TV table.
9. No distractions: If you really want to escape into the world your writing and let the prose flow, you’ll need an area without television, video games, or a telephone ringing. A door that can be closed is even better.
10. A notebook: Keep a small notebook with you to jot down ideas. If you have an IPad or a memo app on your smart phone, this works even better because it will always be with you. Before you begin writing, record these ideas in your idea folder.
So that all you need to begin writing. Other than the computer, most of these items are free or can be purchased for very little money. Make this investment in your writing career.
Submitting and Marketing
How to Get Happily Published by Judith Applebaum (The best book for helping you through the submission and marketing process.)
Writer’s Market (Lists agents, publishers, and other important info.)
Christian Writer’s Market (Lists agents, publishers, and other important info for the Christian market.)
Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World by Michael Hyatt
Book Proposals That Sell: 21 Secrets to Speed Your Success by W. Terry Whalin (for nonfiction, but benefits fiction writers also)
Book Marketing Success Secrets by Terry Whalin
Sell More Books by J. Steve Miller
Genre Specialties and Research
Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life Series Writer’s Digest Series
Going to the Sources: A Guide to Historical Research and Writing by Anthony Brundage
Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction by Patricia Highsmith
On Writing Well by William K. Zinsser
Children’s Writer’s Word Book by Alijandra Mogilner
Science Fiction and Fantasy:
World Building by Stephen Gillett and Ben Bova
If you have any books you’d like to add or comments on these books, please comment.
There are many great writing books that will help writers with their craft. These are the books I consider as must haves.
Learning the Craft:
Self Editing For Fiction Writers by Browne and King (If you don’t buy any other book, buy this one.)
The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi
On Writing by Steven King (Warning: There is a little objectionable language in this book. But it’s still well worth reading.)
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
The Fire In Fiction by Donald Maas
Writing For the Soul by Jerry Jenkins
Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell
from the Inside…Out: discover, create and publish the novel in you! by Susan May Warren
Deep and Wide: Advanced Fiction Techniques by Susan May Warren
Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress
Merriman Webster Dictionary and Thesaurus 11th Collegiate (Very helpful for historical writers because it has the date each word originated.)
Chicago Manual of Style (Considered the final authority on grammar by most publishers.)
My next blog will post books on submitting, marketing, genre, and research.
Adverbs are words that normally end in an ly and should usually be avoided when possible. I used two ly words in the last sentence; nobody can avoid them all. Many new writers delete all of their ly words but don’t use a stronger verb in its place. The reason to delete ly words is because stronger verbs can replace them. Here’s a list of a few strong verbs you can use to replace your weaker verbs and adverbs.
slowly walked – sauntered, strolled, loped, moseyed, wandered, meandered
quickly walked – strode, darted, rushed, treaded, marched, advanced
angrily looked – glowered, glared
longingly looked – gaped, ogled, stared
quickly looked – glanced
loudly talked – shouted, bellowed
softly talked – whispered, mumbled
sat slowly – perched, rested, settled
sat quickly or angrily or clumsily – plopped, plodded
Whenever you see an ly word, look up the verb it describes in the thesaurus, and see if you can find a stronger verb to convey the same thing without the adverb.