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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

12. Creating Believable and Well Rounded Characters (Writing for Success)

Note: This is part 12 in a series of 25 articles from my upcoming 'Writing for Success' series.

12. Creating Believable and Well Rounded Characters
Craig was tall and thin with short-cropped golden hair. His blue eyes shone like jewels when he smiled and he always had a kind word for the ladies.
Now, I’m sorry if this is the sort of stuff you like to read in your books, but it’s not what I like to read! Personally I’m thinking I don’t want to read any story that contains this Craig character! Now that’s not to say that your story can't contain someone who is just like Craig, but the secret is in how you introduce him and let him come alive in your book.

Character descriptions can be a good thing, but they can also hurt you. Generally readers only need enough description to get by; to distinguish one character from another. The rest will be things the reader makes up in their mind added to a dose of the character’s personality that comes across. So let’s try the description part again.
Craig entered the pub and made straight for the bar. He nodded to a couple of the regulars and took a seat on a stool between two women. “Rum and coke, please,” he said to the barman. He turned and smiled at the woman seated to his left. “Hi.” 
The woman smiled back at Craig and took a sip from her drink as she studied his face briefly. She couldn’t help notice the twinkle in his blue eyes. He looked like he could be the trouble she was looking for.
Now I’m not saying this is perfect writing here; I’ve compressed things down to make an example, but you get the idea. Do you need to mention the fact that Craig was tall and thin immediately? Or that he had short-cropped golden hair? These things may be necessary to the character of Craig but they can be introduced at a time that is appropriate in the story. This second example gives a much more rounded look and feel to Craig. He’s obviously a bit of a ladies’ man and he knows it too. And if that’s an important thing to get out, then get it out.

Creating believable and well rounded characters is something that is central to a good book. You need to create characters that readers can identify with and they each need to have unique personalities. What does this mean? Readers need to visualize your characters and know who is speaking and be able to follow along as you write. Just giving them a bland description won’t do it. Characters, like real people, need markers (or traits) to identify them. What is Craig’s marker? I’m sure it’s not his short-cropped golden hair or the fact that he’s tall and thin. It’s probably more that he’s trouble with women everywhere he goes. That’s what the reader needs to understand from the outset. That needs to be his marker. The physical description can be filled in as the story progresses. Most characters also have a unique phrasing as well. This means you need to understand how they speak and how they will react in conversations. I usually give major characters key words that they repeatedly use throughout the story. This also helps the reader with character identification.

So what makes up a personality? A lot of it is based on situational experience. This means they had a history that made them into the person they are. What are your characters’ histories? Where did they grow up? Who were their school friends? Did they live in a stable home? The list is endless, but to create a well rounded character you need to work all these things out. You need to be sure of exactly how they would each react in a situation. And it needs to be consistent. Don’t go changing the rules half-way through your book.

Real people have flaws too. So should your characters. Superman had his kryptonite. What do your characters have? And I state this point most seriously as knowing what flaws your characters have helps you put them in exciting plot situations and helps the reader become more engaged with the book. Let’s give an example. I have decided that Craig doesn’t swim and that is something that is established early on in the book. In fact it’s worse than that. He hates the water and won’t go in it if he can possibly help it. Once the reader understands this piece of knowledge you can use it to your advantage in many ways. If your Craig character is a good character then he may have to overcome his fear of water by helping a drowning woman. Or, if he’s a bad character maybe a potential girlfriend wants to go on a date with him and decides to take him to the lake. He will then do everything he can to not go in the water. Creating flaws in characters mean you already have great story points to write about!

So when you’re next sat down and thinking about the major characters for your novel, create that back-story about their lives, add a few personality traits, maybe some speech markers, and lastly their kryptonite. Creating believable and well rounded characters will help your books come to life by creating pictures in the reader’s mind.


  1. I have just done this with my heroine (fear of flying, by the way), and now I've got to flesh out the flaw(s) for my hero. Thanks for the reminder!! I feel like this has really helped with my female character.

  2. I loved to describe my characters to the slightest detail, until beta readers told me they don't like to be told how the character looks like. They want to be free to imagine him or her to their own liking. I try to make physical descriptions less detailed. This description thing is tricky but puts my brain to work.

  3. I like the suggestion on the key words and particular phrasings. Not one person talks exactly like another, so why should fictional characters do that? Thank you very much for the suggestion!!