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Writing Tips: Characters

Protagonists, antagonists, heroes, villains, they all need to be fully characterised for the reader really care about them. We need to care if they have a sad ending or a happy ending. We need to care if they get what they want. So here are ten tips on how to make that happen.


o Don’t just ask yourself what your character is like, ask yourself why. They love animals, but don’t have any pets. Why? They prefer working the night shift even though it’s a bit anti-social. Why? They used to play an instrument at school but don’t anymore. Why? Ask these questions, don’t take your characters for granted. And don’t assume you know everything about them already. Let them surprise you. If you can’t surprise yourself every now and then, how will you surprise your audience?


o Don’t set out to make your reader feel a certain way about a character. Decide for yourself what your character is like and write them. If you try too hard to make a character likeable, it will show and suddenly they won’t feel as real.


o Don’t fall into a rut when describing your characters. Pick something to identify them, but don’t always make it their hair or the colour of their eyes. These can be strong descriptors but they get boring if you use them too much. Try describing real people in the way you would a character, if you’re a bit stumped for ideas. You might be surprised how many interesting things there are to notice about people.


o Don’t try to describe every character in deep detail. Your reader will forget. Likewise, don’t try to introduce and describe too many characters at once, it becomes overwhelming. Stick to one trait each if you’ve got a lot of characters, at least until your reader has got to know them better.


o Don’t let your character be too passive. Don’t just let the plot happen to them. Your character’s choices are what makes them interesting. Readers don’t get much of a sense of what passive characters are like and that makes it much harder to connect with them. Force your character to make choices, the tougher the better.


o You don’t need to dive deep into your character’s psychology to write them. But you do need to know a little. Start with what they want. Does this change? What does it say about them? Is it what they need?


o When writing any main character you need to know what’s important to them. Who is important to them? Who do they love? Who do they hate? It doesn’t have to be romantic love, it can be platonic or it can be familial. And the hate doesn’t need to be on epic proportions either (at least at first).


o It may sound obvious, but you need to understand your character’s motivation for trying to achieve their goals. Is it personal or professional pride? Are they, or someone they care about, under threat? Is it an issue of personal identity? You might find it more interesting to have a character with layered motivation. They might suggest one reason for their actions and although it may be somewhat true, they might also have other reasons that they choose to keep hidden.


o On naming characters: there are a few approaches. You can apply highly symbolic names if that appeals to you, or you can choose something a little more obscure. Just make sure that your chosen names fit in the genre and culture in which you are writing.


o Your character feels a little lacklustre, or a bit one-dimensional, what do you do? Re-evaluate the things you’ve assumed about your character. All of them. Including their gender, sexual orientation and ethnicity. You might find that making a change in one of these areas makes a big difference because suddenly your character subverts expectations and stereotyping. You might even challenge some of your own assumptions in the process.


There are a few points to start from. Pick whichever seems most relevant to you and your writing rather than trying to tackle them all at once. Just remember that nothing you write has to be set in stone. It can all be changed if that's what's best for your story.


In the meantime, happy writing and may you be free from unnecessary adverbs!

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