Thursday, October 11, 2012

7 Five Tips for Writing the Characters that Readers Love to Read About

Photo by Wayseeker2000
What makes a character GREAT? What makes readers fall in love with a character in a book? What makes people talk about, think about, want to spend time with a character?

To find out how to write a great character, I asked Nicole, the brilliant book blogger from Word for Teens. If you haven't seen her reviews, stop by. You'll quickly become addicted. She's one of the most respected of all YA book bloggers, has interned for Bloomsbury USA, and has even been featured in Publisher's Weekly. Her blog is insightful, professional, and witty. So without further ado, here's what she has to say on characters readers love. Read on, and when you're done, chime in and tell us what you think makes a character great?

How do you characterize somebody to make them brilliant?
by Nicole

Let's get something out of the way first: what makes one character a great character isn't going to make another character a great character. Katniss and Peeta are on two different ends of the spectrum, yet they're both brilliant characters.


There's a handful of things that I've noticed that characters - truly strong characters - have among them.

One: They're fleshed out. 
I'm not talking about having actual flesh, because I'm certain that a skeleton could be a strong character if written properly. I mean that they're a person and not just a cardboard cutout inserted into a story to move a plot along. Characters have a history, even if you don't know it. They have likes and dislikes. They have pet peeves and things that set them off as well as things that they love. These all don't have to be incorporated into a story in any direct way. People can mention that they've met somebody in the past before; they can favor a certain color in their wardrobe; they can freak out when they're near something they don't like.

Two: They have a personality.
Mind you, this doesn't have to be a personality we even like. They just have to have some semblance of personality, something that makes them their own identifiable characters. This is why characters, often referred to as Mary Sues, who have a 'fill-in-the-blank' personality don't fly very well when I'm reading them. They become that cardboard cutout, something there for the sake of the story, and not an actual character, an actual person.

Three: They move the plot; the plot does not move them.
A character shouldn't be forced to do something that's out of character for them - something that doesn't match their history or their personality - for the sake of the story. It doesn't make sense and it ends up making the story disjointed, which takes away from a character; a character who chooses their action or fights or worries or objects (even internally) to an action that doesn't suit them seems a lot stronger. This isn't to say that they shouldn't grow with the plot - character arcs are important; having a character who stays exactly the same throughout an entire story is boring. But don't force them to change because it's what's needed. Change because it's what they would do.

For the above three points, think about Bella Swan. What do we know about Bella's personality other than what is told to us over and over and over again? She likes Wuthering Heights. She's clumsy. And… um… that's it. She's witty and intelligent and stupid and unclever and loyal and disloyal and everything under the sun, because she doesn't have a personality that sticks with her through the entire story. Her actions are there to simply move the story along, not because she is in-or-out of character. She doesn't have a character.

Meanwhile, Katniss Everdeen's entire plot revolves around her personality rather than having her personality revolve around the plot. It's her actions and her personality as a protector that create everything - her protection of Prim, Rue, Peeta are in character for her and make the plot move, rather than the plot moving and a character doing something to catch up to it.

Does that make any sense? Plots should add to the character, not take away from it.

Four: See that bit about a personality? That means they're not perfect. They have strengths and weaknesses.
Characters are people; people are characters; people and characters are one and the same. People are not perfect. Nobody I've ever met is Superman; they have more than Kryptonite as their weakness. People aren't going to be perfect. They're going to have flaws and strengths and weaknesses. It's part of the personality. They can be quiet and docile with a hidden spine or loud and obnoxious in an attempt to hide a weak heart. They can cry and get angry.

Five: And the final bit of a great character? They elicit some emotion.
Make me hate them, like them, pity them, want to be them, but make me feel something about them. Professor Umbridge is a fabulous example of this. Everybody hates her. She has a history, and a personality, and she moves the plot along; she has weaknesses and strengths. But most of all, she's scary and I hate her.

That's GOOD. The best characters aren't necessarily the ones whose arcs we can perfectly track; they're the ones that make us feel the most. It's why I love Bertie and Widdershins and Artemis and Holly and Puck and Merlin and Rhiannon and Alexia and Maccon. It's why Sean Ferrell was able to rant about his love of Neville Longbottom.

Strong characters aren't necessarily strong. They're people.
And that's why we love them.

* * *

Bio: Nicole runs WORD for Teens. She has blonde hair and a love of dragons. The rest changes without notice. You can find her on Twitter at @wordforteens. For more of her opinions on characters - or more about characters in general - check out her new blog series Characterize.


  1. Thanks for all the great tips on great characters. It's all so true. Loved your examples too.

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  2. Great tips! I've found that if I love a character, I can usually get the reader to love them, too. I've been converting my critique group into fangirls of one of my heroes, for exactly the above reasons--he has weaknesses and the story is his battle with them.

  3. Excellent advice. Having the characters move the plot is so important in making the whole thing work! :)

  4. Oh cool. I'm excited about the bucket list series. Sounds like a really good method of exploring characters.

    So true about eliciting emotion, I think that is much harder said than done.

  5. Yes! Thank you so much for this. A great character is someone I think about long after I've finished reading the book. The trick is to write great characters :)


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