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Shay’s Writing Guide: How to Write Effective Characters

Shianne Henion | October 13, 2021

When it comes to creating stories, whether you’re a novice or master of the craft, you need to have characters. They drive the story forward through plot, personality, conflict, romance, and worldbuilding. In my experience, nothing about a book can work without character. Stories are always going to relate to humanity, because they are written by humans, for humans. In this piece, I am going to show you how to break your characters down, especially when you’re struggling to create them.

Think of your piece as The Sims, a life-simulation game where you control your character’s life. You, the player, are controlling the whole thing. You have a Sim that you give an identity to, by name, dress, body size, personality, and other physical attributes. This is the same as creating a character for your story, because of the baseline: you are creating. Sims have a profile and a background of traits and aspirations. Your fictional character should have that, too.

Finding Your Character

It is important to know a character’s goals and aspirations. Most humans have a set of desires they wish to achieve. If you are writing a character who is there only to fill space on the page, they fall flat - especially if they’re the protagonist. With every character that is introduced, you need to make them motivated. Turn that blank canvas into something useful, because a stagnant character will not help, but hurt the overall story. It also gives the writer a harder task of trying to make their writing sound interesting.

A good exercise for finding your character is to set up a fake interview with them. Ask them what their dreams are. Start at a surface level before working your way deeper into their personality. Of course, you are creating the whole thing yourself, but oftentimes (for me, anyways) this helps differentiate characters from acting the same.

Pretend I have created a protagonist for my story. Their name is Lucius, and right away I know that they are non-binary, and that they have bright blue hair. This is a great starting point. Now, imagine I sit with Lucius at a coffee shop, like Stacks Espresso in downtown Albany. It is quiet, and the two of us sit with our drinks. I ask them what their favorite coffee drink is, and Lucius explains that they prefer green tea instead. I continue to ask them questions, such as why they do not like coffee. Lucius could explain it is because of an incident where a bully spilled it down their shirt, or maybe their mom used to drink it all the time, or maybe they simply dislike the taste. Do you see where I am going with this?

Another useful exercise is putting your character(s) into high stress moments. Figure out what they would do during this time. A perfect scene to shove them into is in the middle of a bar fight. Is your character in the brawl, or trying to escape it? Do they sit back and watch the fight play out? Are they desensitized? Whatever the matter may be, what the character does in those moments defines their purpose throughout the rest of the story.

You want to figure out enough information for your character to become three-dimensional. When they are going through conflicts in the story, their personality will impact the way they solve an issue, or do not solve. It is also a fantastic way to interweave a character into the romance of the book, if you wish to include that, or other aspects of the plot.

Character Tropes

Character Tropes are important within every story that is written. This is a vast and somewhat complex topic when crafting characters. There is a large variety of character tropes, but know that tropes always play off a character’s personality. For example, continuing with the character Lucius, they are kind to all, a bit close-minded, shy, yet brave. What would you think of them? What if Lucius is thrown into conflict where they are the only ones who can stop the evil antagonist from destroying the world? This is called the ‘Chosen One’ trope, and usually in this trope the hero has to suffer, tackle rigorous tasks, and is victorious by the end of the tale. They may also become more confident and open-minded throughout the story. That is known as a character arc.

I bet you thought of several stories where the main character becomes the chosen one. A perfect example is Harry Potter, as he is the one with the lightning scar. He is the only one who can stop Voldemort. Another character is Clary Fray from “The Mortal Instruments” series, and she is blessed with gifts to stop the demonic forces that threaten her world.

Modern readers separate these characters into tropes, and it is another way to categorize books. This is seen with romance, such as the love triangle (Twilight) and enemies-to-lovers (Serpent & Dove).

Character tropes are not inherently a bad thing, but oftentimes can be overly-saturated. Readers, and publishers, are constantly looking for the next best thing. It is important to question yourself with what you are offering to a demanding market, if you are looking to publish your work.

The Character Arc

This is the most important aspect of character writing. Throughout the story, your character has to undergo conflict that changes them. In the beginning of the story, your character has to be established. A great way to do that is to put them into scenarios where they have no choice but to react, and hone in on that reaction.

A strategy that has been listed already is to write a scenario where your character is in the middle of a bar fight. This is usually a moment that they do want to be a part of, unless they are the ones instigating it. But depending on the character you are writing, that is for them to decide. Not only is this useful when figuring out their personalities, but it is a great way to sculpt their arc dynamics. Let’s work through one together.

For the sake of this scene, we will continue with our character Lucius. The setting of this bar fight is in a high fantasy-styled tavern. This tavern is dank, outdated, with missing shingles and rickety tables. I have established a scene in the reader’s head, so that they can see what type of place our characters are walking into.

Let’s dive in:

“Lucius locks eyes with the guard across the room. There is a flash of recognition, and instantly Lucius is up from his stool, striding to the front door. They should have covered their blue hair, lest they be recognized by the kingsmen. Lucius had made it this far outside the city without being uncovered, how idiotic to think they were safe now.

They had a memorable face, especially when they were wanted for thievery. Lucius had the door slightly ajar when a hand came down above them, slamming the tavern door shut. Sweat pricked at the nape of their neck, down the center of their spine. There was no way out of this one.”

Here, I have established the baseline of the scene. Lucius has been recognized by a guard, and because they are wanted, they have no choice but to confront this foe, especially when there is no room for escape. We know Lucius is shy, lacking in confidence, and that they may not be so good at self-defense. In this pivotal moment, you want to mold Lucius to break away from those traits, especially when they have no choice but to raise their fists and fight this guard.

Given the climate of your worldbuilding, the conflict your character goes through, the resolution, and the overarching plot, there should be a moment where your character bends. And in this example, Lucius will have to bend.

Continuing on:

“The guard grabbed the color of Lucius’ shirt, hauling them away from the only escape. Their feet scraped across the wood, before the guard threw Lucius to their knees, putting the sole of his boot on the base of Lucius’ spine.

‘You are under arrest for taking the King’s crown,’ The guard sneered. ‘You’ve gone too long under the guise of freedom. But no more. I will see to it that you’re brought back to the city in chains.’

Lucius bit the bottom of their lip, withering at the skin. Their heart started to pound against their chest, because there was nothing Lucius could do except to fight back. This guard would never understand why they took the crown, and it wasn’t like he was willing to lend an ear to the outrageous story that was currently Lucius’ life.

So, they channeled what strength they had left, which was quite little, and turned to look at the guard. Then, they laughed. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. Can’t a person simply go to a tavern for some ale without being mistaken for a thief?’ The voice that came from their lips sounded nothing like them, nothing like the shy person they knew themselves to be. But the lie came easy enough. Lucius was surprised at themself. Surely they weren’t this good of a liar?”

If the scene were to continue, you would see Lucius and the guard fight with one another, and Lucius would escape. But, what has been established thus far is that shift, or bend in Lucius’ character that is crucial for their change in personality, in plans, and in choices.

That is just an example of a character arc. Here is the complicated part: your character can go through more than one, and all at once. The idea of overcoming challenges, or fears, or any sort of obstacle is to partake in a character arc. And if you wanted to, you could make them all intertwine with each other.

It’s building character.


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