Episode 62: Building Characters from Scratch


The best characters are the ones who make us uncomfortable, inspire us, and turn our stomachs. These are the literary creations who come so close that we can’t look away. They breathe life into dim rooms and shine an intense beam of light from page to reader with nothing more than motes of dust between us and our aspirations and flaws.

Personality alone does not prove utility. An interesting minor character may add comedy or drama, but the purpose of any character is to push a story forward. Consider these points carefully as you revise:

  • Need to be: I confess to minimalism, so I’m biased. But always weigh each character. Could some of the minor roles be combined into one character? Combining allows you to create one stronger individual that the reader recognizes. But don’t stop there. Make sure that your main characters are necessary. Janika may talk in every chapter, but does she have to be there? Don’t be afraid to cut anyone.
  • Reader concern: Concern is not limited to protagonists—even antagonists need to have motivation enough to draw the reader in. On the other hand, just being the “good guy” doesn’t guarantee that we care. Boring characters who are too perfect, too static, or too whiny turn the audience off (there are always exceptions, but this is a good place to start). Show us their scars, but show us why we need to know what happens to them. Tell us what drives them (the whales they’re chasing); reveal the quirks that make them endearing or memorable; open our eyes to what they tell us about the human condition.
  • Contributors: Some characters are dead weight. They may make us laugh or cry or whatever, but they do nothing for the story. Characters are plot—they are the agents who make conflict happen and solve problems. If you want a reader to invest time and emotional energy into any character, there needs to be a payoff. Try removing a character hypothetically to see what that does to the plot. If nothing changes, either change the character or send her packing.

How do you come up with characters? Any favorite characters from movies, books, short stories, etc.?

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