Writing Characters: Know Them Well

in Articles On Writing/Featured

The characters of your story move your story forward. In order to create characters that are real, you must first get to know your own characters well. You need to know them so well that you get inside their heads.

What are their dreams? Their fears? Why do they react the way they do? What secrets are they hiding from the world? Like Thoreau said:

“Dreams are the touchstones of our characters.”
― Henry David Thoreau

The protagonist should have some flaws, some hang-ups that make him relatable to the reader. Life is not just black and white; we all have grey in-between areas. No person is just good all the time. If you can make the reader see that he is human, you make him someone they can be sympathetic to.

You want to create a bond between your reader and your characters. If your character moves you he will move the reader. Make them care what happens to him, that way they will keep on reading to see what happens next.

“No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader” – Robert Frost

In the same way, the antagonist is not just evil all the time either. Give him a weak spot, like a love of animals for instance. This will make him more relatable to the reader as well.

Create your characters first, decide on their personalities, their quirks, their weak and strong points. Are they shy, adventurous, underhand, proud? The possibilities are endless.

Live with your characters, become part of the story they want to tell. That way you will know exactly how your characters will act in any given situation. Now the fun part comes; place them in situations that are dangerous, stressful out of the ordinary. Then sit back and watch how they get themselves out of those situations. Like Hemingway said,

“When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”
― Ernest Hemingway

When I wrote my first novel, I got involved with each of my characters. I understood what made them tick, why they reacted the way that they did. I knew each one intimately, yet even as a writer I was surprised by the way they seemed to take over the story and run with it. I was just along for the ride, recording everything they did, and enjoying every moment of it.

At times it would make me laugh, or cry, depending on the situation that enfolded while I was writing. After editing the manuscript about 10 times, they still moved me.

Each character has his/her own unique way of speaking. Through capturing that, you make them living entities to the readers. As your characters move through the stories, be sure to show how different situations change them in different ways. Like Faulkner,

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”
― William Faulkner

For instance, my protagonist was a headstrong young man, not dependent on anyone for anything. He was actually quite cocky. As the story progressed, he matured into a man and his outlook on life changed.

The same goes for the antagonist. He was cold and aloof, but also lonely. When he found love his outlook changed. Then when circumstances intervened between him and his love, he became embittered and dangerous.

So figure out who your characters are; why they do the things they do, and what they want out of life. Figure out where they are heading and how they view the world, and let them live on paper. Most of all, have fun with your characters. After all, that is why we write in the first place; for the sheer enjoyment of telling their stories.

An author should know their character intimately, they should know their history, how they would react in a situation, they should know their look and mannerisms down to the smallest facial tick. Yet all of this need not be revealed to the reader.

— Aaron Miles

I am a South African writer with a passion for horror. I have written several short stories and novellas in different genres, and I am thrilled to be a part of this site!

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