#5onFri: Five Tips for Creating Engaging Characters

by Bethany Henry
published in Writing

We love, hate, and cry over fictional characters. They can be our best friends, first loves, and most inspiring mentors. So how can we, as writers, make sure our stories are populated by characters readers care about?

It’s not enough to have so-so characters, and we definitely don’t want them to be flat or boring. Fortunately, there are a few ways we can ensure our characters have depth, spark interest, and that our readers can connect with them. Here are five tips. 

1) Give Your Character an External Problem (Goal)

Things should not be all happy and rosy for your hero. Whether he’s fighting for his life, for respect, for rent money, or to perfect his fried rice recipe, each character should have a problem he needs to solve.

At times this goal may seem pretty obvious and integral to the central plot of the story. (For example, he needs to save the world.) Yet it’s important to personalize this problem for each character. What reasons do each of them have for trying to save the world? What are their roles in that?

Smaller goals can also add interest and create empathy for our characters, such as trying to fit in with a group or struggling to learn a new skill. As Kurt Vonnegut famously said, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

2) Give Characters an Inner Problem (Baggage)

Along with their external issues, a character should have personal baggage she’s bringing along with her.  We all have faults. No one likes a perfect goody-two-shoes who never does anything wrong. We resonate with flaws.

Our characters need to make mistakes because of their faults. They need to fail when they try to solve their problems. After all, if they solve their problems and achieve their goals on the first go round, they weren’t very big problems now, were they? Their eventual success and growth will be much more meaningful when they need to work for it.

Giving flaws also adds depth and tension to interactions. They will clash with each other- even when they’re on the same side. They will argue and have different ideas of what is right. (Sort of like in the real world.) That’s good. None of our characters should be cookie cutter perfect and even the good guys shouldn’t always agree. 

3) Give Characters a Talent

So far we’ve given our characters problems and baggage, now it’s time to give them some redeeming qualities. What is it we like about them? Are they spunky in the face of danger? Loyal and caring? Good with numbers? Expert swordsperson?

Having a strength can help us respect the character and see her as valuable. It makes us want to relate to her more because we admire those strengths. While flaws do help us connect (as seen above) we still want our characters to be likable and talented in some way.

4) Make Characters Different

There should be more to our characters’ description than hair and eye color– we want them to be vibrant and alive.

If we aren’t thinking about this intentionally, it can be easy to create characters who are all alike and often are like ourselves. But there are so many different people in the world, each with so many unique characteristics. Creating diverse characters strengthens and enriches our stories and enables us to connect with our readers in powerful ways.

We need to be careful not to stereotype, especially when writing about people who are not like ourselves. We need to do our research and approach the topic with humility and due diligence. But we should definitely be striving to make our characters represent all types of people, and seeing how that fits into our stories in interesting ways.

Regardless of the specifics, each of our characters needs to be distinguishable and unique from each other so that readers don’t get confused. Good descriptions help readers picture characters more clearly and make them come alive.

5) Make Characters Change

Change is a big part of life and it makes our characters stronger when they aren’t static faces on a page. Instead they should be interacting with things around them, developing new strengths, being challenged, and ultimately being realistic individuals that readers can resonate with.

Characters may start with baggage but as they learn new things they evolve and grow. This evolution is often called their character arcs. Some characters may grow to be more caring, may discover new ways to do things, and hopefully ultimately they can overcome their problems. Others may grow bitter, selfish, or refuse to change for the better. (Hopefully that’s your villain, not your protagonist.)

Character arc is an important aspect of creating powerful characters -and ultimately powerful stories- that readers can resonate with.

Bonus Tip! 

Our heroes shouldn’t be the only engaging and dynamic characters in our stories. Even minor characters should want something and be more than just a stereotype.

This is especially true of our antagonists! Dynamic, relatable, and engaging villains make the entire story stronger.

What about you? What are your favorite tips for creating engaging characters? Share below in the comments! And best of luck with your writing today!

Bethany Henry writes YA fantasy and blogs about writing and living well. You can often find Bethany on the frisbee field or at the local library with her two little girls. Check out her website at www.bethany-henry.com or follow her on Pinterest and Facebook.

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