How to Create Interesting Characters

Writing phenomenal characters is arguably the most crucial part of your novel. Readers want to connect with the protagonist, and you want your main character to be memorable. 

Think about some of your favorite books. How often to you cite them as your inspiration for becoming a writer? Do you ever hope that someone will say the same about you and your characters one day? It’s a great dream to have – I think most writers want this. 

Sometimes, it’s not even the main character that sticks in your brain. I know one of my favorites from Stephen King is Holly Gibney. Though she only had a role in the second half of The Outsider, she stuck with me. I related to her, because of how eccentric she was. There were little actions she would take that turned me into the “haha, I do that” vine. 

She single-handedly made me want to read the Bill Hodges trilogy, because I wanted to see more of her. 

You can write great characters that leave a lasting impact on your reader. It’s (thankfully) incredibly easy. 

When you come up with a character, you need to think of who they are as a person. 

“But Jam, why does this matter?” 

Creating real characters is essential for having readers connect and fall in love with your story. 

Because the story isn’t just the plot. The best books are character driven. 

If your characters seem like real people, your readers begin to relate to them. They become invested in the main characters’ problems, and they care about how the character overcomes their struggles. With more depth to a character, you give your readers something to grasp onto. 

So what are some ways to make your character real? 

I have a couple tips, all of which I use every time I come up with a new character. 

1.) Personality Traits 

I know. Duh, right? 

You would be surprised how many writers don’t think of this. Sometimes, they commit the cardinal sin of inserting themselves into their story. Except it’s not them, per se. It’s everything they want to be – regardless of how little all those traits make sense. 

Think of Twilight. 

I know it’s popular to slam dunk on this series, but I have every right (I was a fan, as a tween). Bella is everywhere. She’s anti-social and awkward, but she’s the life of the party and just so loved. Nothing is earned for her. She has no real taste in anything – no favorite movies, no favorite songs, no sense of humor. 

Any details about her possible personality are just set up as a board for Edward to bounce off. 

Now think of Harry Potter. 

He’s a quiet kid, with some incredibly sassy (and rightfully so) thoughts. He – for the most part – can hold his tongue because he knows to pick and choose his battles. We know this stems from living with the Dursleys, and we see how it translates through the rest of his life with teachers and classmates. The same can be said for his modesty. 

Both have their positive traits, but there is one glaring difference. 

Bella’s negative traits aren’t truly treated as negative. Harry’s ignorance to the wizarding world can be a problem from time to time, and it does hold him back. One of his defining Gryffindor traits is ABSOLUTELY the cause for Sirius not being able to become a free man (fuck being the bigger person, he should have let Sirius kill Peter, and the whole story would’ve changed). 

You have to be able to let your characters be hated as much as they are loved. Those complicated feelings are what make them so memorable. Making everything black and white is a huge disservice to your readers – give them something to argue over. To discuss

2.) Habits 

Whether good or bad, people have habits that make them stand out from others. Maybe your character whistles when they’re nervous and they get on everyone’s nerves. Maybe they like to stress bake, or stress exercise, or stress eat. Maybe they don’t show that they’re stressed and they’re just annoyingly happy all the time. 

Figure out what your character does in response to normal, everyday events. This can translate to reactions to events in your story. Do they get angry over the slightest inconvenience and physically lash out? Or would they shut down completely and bite their nails down to the nubs? 

Think of the characters that are comically bad at handling coffee. Think of the ones who hate affection and prefer fighting. Think of the person who smokes a cigarette over only the biggest problems. 

Tell your reader (in so many words) how they burn off steam, grieve, or celebrate the small victories. Keep these responses in line with their personality traits, and you’ll notice how the characters begin to peel from the pages and take their shape as real people. 

3. Flaws/Damage/Overall History 

Uncovering your character’s flaws is important. Delve into their backstory and figure out what makes them work the way they do. 

The goal is to make the characters like real people, and that means they are products of their past. If you’re scared of intimacy, it’s time to buckle up, because we need to get very intimate with our character’s backstories. 

No, they’re not always tragic, but we still need to know. 

Did they participate in their fourth-grade play? Why or why not? Did someone hold them back, or did they get a taste for the spotlight? 

Any wounds (whether emotional or physical) will likely shape who your character becomes – it affects their choices, how they see themselves, and what they believe in. The damage could go as far as to interfere with how they handle relationships, or themselves. Sometimes, it even keeps them trapped in false beliefs. 

Those could potentially be the source of conflict for your character, as a novel is about the journey from point A to point B. These flaws could be destructive, or stall the growth and happiness of your character. By the end of their journey, readers want to see the protagonist get their happy ending. In this case, you want to figure out how they can get there. What needs to happen to help your character heal and grow? 

Now, if your character had a perfectly dandy childhood/life, that’s fine. You’ll just need to find your conflict elsewhere. 

By using these three methods, you’ll be able to flesh out a captivating character that makes your book nearly impossible to put down. Readers will be glued to the page, because it feels like they know these people.

30 Day Character Building Challenge

Day Thirteen

“The Same, But Different.”

Formulas work, and you can fight me until you’re blue in the face, but you’d still be wrong. Clichés are clichés for a reason – they’re popular, people are attracted to them. Regardless of how generic, those things work.

But you have to make it stand out.

THAT is the key to making clichés and formulas your bitch.

Read through your WIP and find the clichés; see what you can take out, or (if you’re absolutely married to it) see what you can improve with a little personal flavor.

Keep in mind: everything has already been done. There is nothing original left. With this in mind, you can write fearlessly. Write exactly what you want, because while it’s all been done before, it hasn’t been done in every flavor. That’s where your story comes in.

30 Day Character Building Challenge

Day Twelve

Naming Your Babies.

Admittedly, I ride the struggle bus on this a lot.

In the original draft of my book (The Cuddle Project), Ozzie’s name was Reggie. Ultimately, I had to axe a name I liked for the character, because it didn’t work with his surname. Ozzie Bellrose rolled off the tongue easier.

It also said more about him. The name was spunky and different, just like Ozzie.

When selecting names for your characters, don’t think too hard about giving everyone a wacky name. Save the weird stuff for the weird people. Average names aren’t a bad thing to have. This applies to side characters especially.

Find names that fit the character; don’t pick a boring name unless the character is boring. Take some time to dig deeper into the meanings. Name them something that means the opposite of what they are, if you’re going for irony. Name them something grand if they’re supposed to save the world. You get the picture.

Another piece of advice – try to avoid using the same initial too often. This, I personally feel, applies more to YA. You don’t want to confuse your reader. John, Jacob, and Joseph don’t need to all be characters. There’s a million names in the world, and twenty-six letters in the alphabet. No need to stay stuck.

30 Day Character Building Challenge

Day Eleven

Remember, the villain is a dick (to the main character).

Describe every little thing the antagonist can do to keep your character from achieving their outer goal. Figure out how it works in your story, and what’s worth keeping.

Dig deeper and list all the ways the antagonist can pick at your main character’s wounds (inner or external). Why would they want to play a psychological game, specifically?

Keep these things for your outline – the most you explore the characters, the more your story may evolve and change. This is a good thing! Exploration leads to discovery, and you might be surprised by what you find.

30 Day Character Building Challenge

Day Ten

Understanding your villain.

Yes, this story belongs to your main character, but what are they without a supporting cast?

The antagonist has goals too, and we need to understand why.

Ask the same questions you would ask of your main character.

What is their relationship with their parents? Were they adopted? Raised by mountain lions?

Did they have friends or were they a loner? Was this by choice?

Describe the most unforgettable moment in their childhood (good or bad).

How does the villain cope? Where did they learn these coping methods?

Do they trust people?

What makes them cry?

30 Day Character Building Challenge

Day Nine

Protagonist vs. Antagonist

Every great story has an antagonist, whether big or small (actually, most stories generally have both).

Think about your character’s relationships with their enemies. Do they ever try to understand each other? Or do they both push headfirst with their own goals in mind?

How do they talk to each other?

Figure out their similarities and differences.

Over the next couple days, we’ll focus on this relationship and the villain themselves.

30 Day Character Building Challenge

Day Eight

What scares your character?

I don’t mean jumpscares or spiders. It’s easy to say that someone is afraid of heights or bugs. Don’t give me that – it’s boring!

We’re gonna revist day six, so get those tissues ready.

When I asked what makes your character cry, I thought about something I heard in class once. A professor told us, people might cry because they aren’t brave enough to change. I believe it was in reference to a class discussion, where some of the students got pretty passionate.

A few people heard things they didn’t necessarily want to hear.

You can apply this to real life – but right now, we’re focusing on your character.

Write a letter as your character, to the person or event that inflicted their inner wound/caused their inner turmoil.

Let those emotions guide you – do not go easy on your character or yourself. Embrace the anger, the sadness, the pain. This is where your character can safely air out their grievances, and you can observe how they feel afterward. That feeling is the goal. That’s where they should be near the end of their journey.

Think about what would happen if they did change. What’s the worst that could come of it? Why should they go ahead and grow?

30 Day Character Building Challenge

Music.

After the deep dive yesterday, I imagine we’re all a little emotionally raw. Remember, sometimes it takes years of therapy to hit the root of the problem. If you’re still working on that section, take all the time you need. Don’t rush it too much.

Today will be much more fun.

Build a playlist for your character and side characters. Avoid your own personal biases. Sure, we’re three dimensional human beings with a vast array of taste and preference. Yes, we want our characters to be three dimensional.

But this particular exercise is a little different.

You might listen to the Top 40s Hits more than anything else. You might listen to the 90s station the most. You might like some obscure band that only has two albums, yet somehow they’re in your “top streamed of 2020.”

Figure out what songs your character would latch on to the hardest. Perhaps they don’t like music at all (in that event, I must ask, what’s wrong with them). I would even go so far as to suggest you make two playlists. One as the character, and a second as songs that you would want on the soundtrack of their life.

This can help you figure them out as people. Sometimes, dissecting lyrics inspires me with rich story for a character’s background.

Coping With Literary Rejection

Professional rejection is worse than romantic rejection. Fight me. 

I say this because at least with romantic rejection, your wallet isn’t as heavily impacted. For writers, we’re putting the hopes of our careers on the line. When you put your future dreams on a publication (or a person, or a job), being turned down can destroy you. 

Suddenly, you wonder what it all was for. You wonder if you wasted your time. Should you bother trying to follow through with this career? 

It’s nice to reminisce about the times you enjoyed writing, but thinking of those times can also break your heart. All that time amounted to nothing. 

See how easy it is to wallow in the self-deprecation? 

Stop. Don’t do it. You’re not a teenager. 

You’re a grown writer, and your work is separate from you. 

I understand how anyone critiquing your work is like critiquing your parenting skills. Your manuscript is your baby. 

Except it isn’t. It’s a piece of work that you believe in. That’s as far as it has to go. 

When you let rejection rule, you create needless anxiety. 

Personally, I don’t believe you have to spend time feeling, unpacking, and analyzing such a simple moment in life. Especially a writer’s life. 

If you’re trying to break into the business, rejection is going to be an everyday occurrence. Sometimes your promotional work won’t get recognized. That tweet you spent an hour crafting to boost your email list only gets three likes. You’re ghosted on by potential employers, only to see someone else posting about their first day on the job you applied for. 

You get the “dear john” rejection letter from the big publishing houses. 

It’s going to happen, just like the scrapes on your knees from when you were a kid. 

You never identified with the scabs and bruises, because obviously, you’re not the same. You’re a whole person. The rejected work is just the rejected work. 

Maybe you do need to fine tune your project. Or maybe the reader just wasn’t your target audience. Always remember that some people like yucky tomatoes, and other people have taste. You might be the tomato to one person, but a nice ice cream sandwich to another. 

I’ve discovered some key pieces of dealing with rejection, as my writing life goes on. 

1.) Separate yourself from your work. 

I mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating. A rejection isn’t personal. They aren’t saying you’re trash and should quit. Nobody said that. Probably just you said that. Dust yourself off and stand back up. If you lie on the floor and cry about your rejection, you’re wasting time that could be spent sharing your work elsewhere. 

Being a writer means you need to be malleable. Roll with the changes, and keep writing. Which brings me to the next point. 

2.) Commit to your creativity! 

Set aside time every single day to write. Be creative. Challenge yourself and expand your skills and thoughts. Use spare minutes to come up with stories. If you’re always practicing, you’re always fine-tuning your craft. This way, you’ll always have content to stay fresh and relevant. It doesn’t completely matter who reads it, as long as you’re heard. That alone is a success. 

Don’t sell yourself short. 

3.) Treat yourself with kindness. 

The cheesiest piece of this pizza, yes. 

But it’s true. 

You can’t waste time doubting yourself. When you start with the train of negativity, you slow yourself down. Then what happens? Two months pass, and you’re thinking, “if I hadn’t wasted my time, I could be in a different place by now.” 

That only leads to more wallowing, and the vicious cycle repeats. 

DON’T DO THIS TO YOURSELF! 

So what if you’re rejected? 

Open a tub of Ben and Jerry’s, turn on some familiar comfort TV, and take the night to yourself. Remind yourself that you have talent, because you wouldn’t try if you didn’t believe that. 

When you find yourself caught in that loop, breathe in and step back. Handle your inner artist like a toddler, which means gently, rather than critically. Speaking kindly to yourself and about yourself can have a massive effect on your resilience. Treat yourself the way you would treat a friend who experienced the same issue. 

You wouldn’t encourage them and agree, “yes, you’re terrible.” You would remind them that it’s only one rejection letter. A couple no, thank yous. A handful of ghosted messages. 

There are still so many more opportunities to take, and one day, you’ll look back on the rejection… and still probably be bitter. 

But you’ll find a win somewhere along the line to make that bitterness a tiny pill to swallow. Hell, you might even chuck the pill off a bridge and ride your lightning while you can. 

30 Day Character Building Challenge

Day Six

Inner Turmoil.

It is crucial to understand the psyche of your characters – I can’t stress this enough. This goes beyond our earlier exercises. Take your time with this one, because without rich characters, you have no story.

No one cares about a boring character – at least, not in a good way. If your goal is to have your story meme’d on and made fun of, then by all means, leave this post.

A character needs flaws to be relatable. In order to reach a satisfying end, they need to achieve their outer goal OR evolve as they overcome inner wounds that may hold them back.

If you read through some of your favorite characters yesterday, you surely must have noticed their inner turmoil. What held them back in the beginning? What drove them and their actions? How can you make your version of inner turmoil original and interesting?

Try to answer these questions for your character, with a more introspective eye.

Do they trust people? Why or why not?

What person had the biggest impact on them (positive or negative) and why?

Where did they learn their coping mechanisms?

What makes them cry?