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Creating Compelling Characters

“The first thing that makes a reader read a book is the characters.” – John Gardner

Your novel can have a great premise and riveting plot, but if your characters are weak, boring, or undeveloped, your book will be quickly rejected by agents and acquisition editors. As Elizabeth Lyon points out, “Characterization is the bedrock of fiction and the reason most people read it. What endures in our hearts and minds over time is the heroes, heroines, and villains. Less often do we recall their plots. ” (A Writer’s Guide to Fiction)

Unpublished authors very often have written a good story, but have neglected to develop their characters sufficiently. Your protagonist needs to be likable, charismatic, and complex enough to be interesting. He needs emotional depth and a few flaws and insecurities. And he needs to be able to draw on inner strengths and resources to take on adversity and overcome odds. If your character is annoying, boring, too perfect, or a wimp, you’re dead in the water. And don’t make your villains 100% evil, either.

No annoying protagonists, please!
Your main character can and should have a few faults, but overall, she needs to be sympathetic and likable – not whiny, ditzy, cold, immature, or annoying. Your reader wants to be able to identify immediately with your lead character. If the reader doesn’t care about your protagonist and what happens to her within the first few pages, she will put down the book and go on to another one. As James Scott Bell says, in fiction, “readers will respond only if they are connected, bonded in a way to the lead character.”

In his Revision Checklist section, James Scott Bell has these questions to ask yourself about your protagonist: “Is my Lead worth following for a whole novel? Why? How can I make my lead jump off the page more? Will readers bond with my lead because he:
  • cares for someone other than himself?
  • is funny, irreverent, or a rebel with a cause?
  • is competent at something?
  • is an underdog facing long odds without giving up?
  • has a dream or desire readers can relate to?
  • has undeserved misfortune, but doesn’t whine about it?
  • is in jeopardy or danger?
A perfect character is insufferable.
Don’t make your main character too good to be true. Nobody likes a “goody-goody two-shoes.” As Mittelmark and Newman so aptly put it, “Perfect people are boring. Perfect people are obnoxious because they’re better than us. Perfect people are, above all, too good to be true. Protagonists should only be as nice as everyday people are in real life. Making them nicer than the average reader will earn the reader’s loathing, or make her laugh in disbelief. (How Not to Write a Novel)

No cardboard characters, please!
To avoid flat, superficial characters, you need to create an interesting backstory for each of them, including their secret fears, insecurities, and desires, as well as their strengths and triumphs in life. As Randy Ingermanson says, “Characters are the most important part of any novel, and the time you invest in designing them up front will pay off ten-fold when you start writing. For each of your major characters, take an hour and write a one-page summary sheet that tells:
  • the character’s name
  • a one-sentence summary of the character's storyline
  • the character’s motivation (what does he/she want abstractly?)
  • the character’s story goal (what does he/she want concretely?)
  • the character’s conflict (what prevents him/her from reaching this goal?)
  • the character’s epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change?
  • a one-paragraph summary of the character's storyline."
It’s also important to get to know your character’s fears or insecurities, secrets, attitudes, quirks, talents, likes and dislikes. Elizabeth Lyon gives some specific advice for deepening your characters:
Diagnosis 1: Underdeveloped characterization that produces inadequate depth, dimensionality, believability, or interest; in other words, flat, boring characters.
Treatment 1: Check and revise for these key areas of character development: a clear story yearning, a traumatic past and a near past; a prominent and heroic strength and primary weakness; a host of unique personality traits, habits, likes, dislikes, talents, hobbies, attitudes, and quirks; strong emotions and motives; fears and secrets, and one or several contradictions that can be explained.
Diagnosis 2: Insufficient relationship, chemistry, contrast, or conflict between characters.
Treatment 2: Increase the relatedness of your characters, and you raise the level of emotions and potential of conflict. Think Peyton Place, where everybody is involved in everybody else’s business. Make your characters essential in each other’s worlds.” (A Writer’s Guide to Fiction)
In addition, a sure-fire way to deepen your characters is to have them react more to events. Show how they’re feeling, through their words, actions, and body language.

Your protagonist needs charisma.
“Grit, wit, and it.” — That’s James Scott Bell’s answer to the question: “What makes a great lead character?” Here are a few of his points about each of these essential attributes:
Grit: Let me lead off with the one unbreakable rule for major characters in fiction: No wimps!
A wimp is someone who just takes it. Who reacts (barely) rather than acts. While a character may start out as a wimp, very early on he must develop real grit. He must do something. He must have forward motion. Grit is guts in action.”
If your character starts out as a wimp, don’t go on for too long about it, or you’ll turn your readers off and they’ll put down the book in disgust. No one wants to read about someone with a million different phobias or who’s wallowing in self-pity or afraid to make a move to improve their life. As Bell says, “Know your character’s inner lion. What is it that will make her roar and fight? Bring that aspect to the surface early in your story and you won’t be hampered by the wimp factor.”
Wit: Wit can rescue a character from a moment that can become just maudlin self-pity, or be overly sentimental, almost sappy, and will enliven even a negative character. As Bell says,
“Find an instance when your character can gently make fun of himself. Work that into a scene early in the book. This makes for a great first impression on the reader.”
It: It means “personal magnetism, sex appeal as well as a quality that invites admiration (or envy) among others. Someone who walks into a room and draws all the attention has ‘it’.”
Bell gives several suggestions for making sure your lead character has “it”, including:
“Work into your novel an early scene where another character is drawn to your lead character. This can be because of sex appeal, power, or fascination. It can be subtle or overt. But this will set 'it' in the minds of the readers.” (Revision & Self-Editing)

So don’t model your hero after someone you know. He needs to be stronger, braver, more resourceful and more intelligent. As Jessica Morrell puts it, “fictional characters venture into physical and emotional territory where most of us would fear to tread.”
In conclusion, make sure your protagonists aren’t boring, perfect, annoying, or wimpy. Give them charisma, flaws, likeable traits, and above-average moral and physical strength and inner resources.
Jodie Renner is a former English teacher and librarian with a master’s degree and a lifelong passion for reading, especially fiction. For the past several years, Jodie has been running her own freelance manuscript editing business, specializing in fiction. She is also the copy editor for two magazines. To find out more about Jodie and her business, please visit her website at

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  1. Peyton Place! I want to change that to Knots Landing! But that's just me. Thanks for the refresher as my characters come together!

    Breakfast Every Hour

  2. I just blogged about how I made these mistakes regarding my own stories! I look forward to correcting my mistakes with this excellent advice.

    Marc Vun Kannon

  3. Wonderful advice. A great character can carry a weak plot, but very few plots are strong enough to carry a lousy character.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  4. WOW! You really nailed it, Jodie. Great characterization is so vital to a story if we want to hook our readers and keep them turning pages. Fiction, in particular, demands reader identification and participation.

    Remember sitting in a movie theatre and bursting into applause when the hero entered the scene to save the day? Or booing the apparent victory of the villain? Characterization is a version of the same processes that inspired those responses. The main difference is that we writers must create the scene and build the characters so vividly in the minds of our readers that they cheer, gasp, boo, laugh, cry——do all things we do in the theatre because our story is playing clearly on the silver screen in their minds. The secret to making this happen? Strong characterization.

    The information in this great "how-to" post is a keeper. Thank you, Jodie, for sharing.

  5. Great advice. The characters are so important to the story. Not only do they have to carry the story, they sometimes have to carry a series. Will your readers want to stay with them through 400 pages? Through 5 books?

  6. It's not always easy to get the right combination together
    to make your main character likeable. Thanks for the tips.

    Morgan Mandel

  7. Great tips, but an awful lot to absorb in one read through. This is one to save off to refer to again and again.

  8. Thanks for all your great comments! And my apologies for not responding sooner. I actually didn't realize my post appeared today until about an hour ago. Sorry about that!
    Yes, there's so much to say about creating compelling characters, and characters are so critical to the success of a novel, so we'll definitely have to revisit this topic again.

  9. Character is probably the most important element of a story. It affects every other aspect: plot, action, theme, conflict, etc. Create a character the reader can identify with, and you're on the right track.

  10. Great article! Very useful for the aspiring writer!


  11. Great blog topic and information, Jodie.
    I was happy to see a check list of possible things to look for in my protagonist.
    I'll certainly be returning to this blog. Thank you.

  12. Hi Jodie:

    Thanks for sharing this useful article. I've used it with my writing students and my clients for whom I edit. They have all improved their writing through using your suggestions.


  13. Lots of great hints and guidelines for 'creating compelling characters' here.

  14. Thanks, Carina, Gail, Anonymous, Paparazzi and Della for checking in to Blood-Red Pencil on your Sunday and reading our articles. Glad you found this info helpful! I hope to someday be reading about your compelling characters!

  15. Thanks Jodie.
    I'll be sure to re-visit a few of my short stories to assess the GRIT, WIT and IT in the main characters.
    Great advice. I like you're point- form format and the fact that you're not afraid to quote others who have good advice.

  16. Thanks, Emily. I think the point-form helps readers find the information they want, and also to easily check back later to re-read certain points.
    And I think it's important to credit my sources, not only to avoid plagiarism, but also so readers don't think these are just my opinions - they're backed up /inspired by movers and shakers in the field!

  17. How found your blog thanks to Stina for posting a fabulous link about you and compelling characters. It's so funny that you posted on this considering today over 160 people are participating in a blogging experiment all about compelling characters to see if others thoughts are truly different!

  18. *hugs this post*

    Thanks so much for this--a very, very helpful checklist.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  19. Thanks, Jen and Angela! And thanks to Stina for posting a link to this. Much appreciated. I hope my article helped in the blogging experiment, Jen.

  20. Thanks so much for this. It's been 15 + years since I began my last WIP. (I'm a slow writer/learner.) I've forgotten just how hard this part of the process was. I'd begun to feel like I couldn't do it again, but these tips are so helpful!

  21. Excellent tips! And wild - this was posted a whole week before the Creating Compelling Characters blogfest.

  22. Great practical suggestions for writing characters with more dimensions than two.
    Thank you.


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