Character Building

The following is an excerpt from Writing Short: The Craft and Commerce of Short Story Writing, a nonfiction book I'm currently working on.


This chapter includes: How to make a character engaging, believable, and memorable.

Whether they’re by Dickens, Austen, Twain, or Tolkien, one thing that all classic stories have in common is the presence of memorable characters. Settings are important and wonderful, but without characters, they’re just empty stages.

So, what makes a character compelling, interesting, and memorable? You’ll be glad to know that there are a few different ways to achieve this, and I’m going to tell you what some of them are.

First, though, a word on how not to write a character. The least memorable, least engaging characters are those who are generic.

By “generic” I mean that they are pure stock characters with nothing to distinguish them from a thousand others like them. They are the absent-minded professor, the wise-guy private eye, the kickass urban fantasy chick, the big dumb thug, the damsel in distress. The reason they are unmemorable is that, as humans, we are good at putting things (and people) into categories and acting as if they’re all the same, blurring any differences that may exist. This is one way in which people can be racist: once they’ve assigned a category of “belongs to Race A” to someone, that person is no longer an individual to them. It’s the downside of a coping mechanism that enables us to learn from experience, so we don’t have to, for example, figure out how to use every chair we encounter from first principles.

Imagine a composite photo made by superimposing a great many similar images. Blurry, isn’t it? That’s how a generic character is. You’ve seen characters like them so often that they’re not sharp and distinct; they have a hundred mental associations, which all merge together, like a soup made with too many ingredients. I should mention that it’s not utterly fatal for a story to have generic, unmemorable characters, if other aspects of your story are strong, but all else being equal, you will do better to have a character people can imagine vividly, who they’ll remember long after they finish reading.

An original character, even if they belong to an archetype, has something crisp and distinctive about them. Even a well-drawn character that has been imitated many times will retain some sharpness; think of Long John Silver, the archetypal fictional pirate, or James Bond, the archetypal fictional spy, or Sherlock Holmes, the archetypal fictional detective. They have quirks and distinctive features which make them so powerfully themselves that writers can (and do) produce widely varying alternate versions of them who are still recognisably that character. Besides the two very different modern TV adaptations of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock and Elementary), there’s at least one collection of short stories (221 Baker Streets) which plays with alternative versions of Holmes in a wide variety of times and places, some of them genderswapped or otherwise greatly altered, yet all of them recognisable.

Often, too, a great character has something about them that is unexpected, that breaks them out of the generic mould. It can be something they’re good at, something they love, something they do or wear or think or say. Think about some of the memorable people you know, and identify what it is about them that’s unexpected for the type of person they are.

How else can we make our characters memorable, distinctive, and, above all, engaging for the reader? In what follows, I take as my jumping-off point several episodes of the Writing Excuses podcast (beginning with episode 13 of season 9), which identify some character “sliders” that you can adjust for reader engagement with your characters. Brandon Sanderson, who originated the idea, identifies three sliders: competence, proactivity, and sympathy. He also talks about these in the second of his series of lectures from 2016 at Brigham Young University (available on YouTube).

Competence, first of all. We engage with a competent character because we subconsciously want to be like them. Turning the slider down and having an incompetent main character is good for comedy, but ultimately (unless you do something with one of the other sliders) bad for creating a satisfying story. This is because, unless you show the character gaining competence, any resolution will have to come through luck, or intervention by someone else (deus ex machina). Turning the slider too far up, so that the character overcomes all their obstacles with ease, is good for wish-fulfilment fantasy, but also bad for creating a satisfying story; we like to see people have to work for their successes.

One way to get around this is to have your character highly competent in one area, but give them challenges that either push their competence to its limits (which we like to watch, as the popularity of competition-format reality shows demonstrates), or else challenge them in an area in which they’re not competent. We’ve all seen the genius who can solve any technical problem but struggles with relationships. We’ve seen it, in fact, to the point that it’s a cliché, and has lost a lot of its impact; but the principle is sound, and can be applied in other ways.

There’s a wonderful episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Disaster,” Season 5, Episode 5) that exploits this approach, for example. An emergency on the starship traps members of the senior crew separately and far from their duty stations, and confronts them with challenges that they would normally rely on other team members to deal with. The gruff warrior Whorf has to deliver a baby, the crusty Captain Picard must keep up the morale of a group of children while helping them to safety, and gentle Counsellor Troi, stuck on the bridge, has to make a difficult command decision. Because, by this point, their competence in their own areas was well established, this episode worked well, showing not only how they behaved under pressure and their ability to rise to challenges outside their comfort zone, but how much they’d learned from each other. It also takes the characters and puts them in completely the wrong roles for their archetypes, which is guaranteed to produce something interesting and not generic.

As Brandon Sanderson points out in the second of his 2016 lectures, there are several kinds of stories to tell about competence. One is the “out of your depth” story, in which the character isn’t really competent enough to face the challenges that come along, but is driven so powerfully by their motivation that they have to keep trying anyway. Another is the story of someone very competent who we just like to watch being amazing as they deal with epic challenges—we don’t doubt that they will succeed, but we enjoy the process. And then there’s the story of someone who’s competent in one area and must adapt that competence to a completely different challenge.

Proactivity is something else that we subconsciously want to be a part of our own character, and we will identify with a character that demonstrates it—even if they are not especially competent or sympathetic. We like to see people who care about things and take action to achieve their goals, even if we don’t necessarily approve of the goals (which is why heist movies work so well).

Motivation and desire are important components of proactivity; there must be something either pulling or pushing the character to take action. I’ll talk about those in detail in the next chapter. For now, just be aware that they need to be present to justify the character’s proactive stance.

The problem with a character who is purely reactive is that they won’t take action to solve their problems, and that doesn’t compel the audience as strongly to want to see them succeed. Many characters, though, do start out as reactive, and only become proactive when their motivation has been sufficiently established. In the Seven Point Structure, which I’ll discuss further in the Structure chapter, the midpoint is the key moment when the character shifts from reacting to events into proactively attempting to change the situation.

Sympathy is generated when we see the character struggle, either because bad things happen to them or they are placed in a bad situation, or else because we like them for some other reason. In fact, I’d like to break sympathy down into a few other factors.

Likeability is when you see a character you’d want to spend time with, have as your friend, work with or generally have around, because they’re a nice person. Likeable characters are often cheerful, kind, funny, and helpful, though occasionally not too bright. This tends to make them better sidekicks than heroes, though it’s certainly possible to have a likeable hero. Merry and Pippin in The Lord of the Rings are, once they grow up a bit, likeable, as are many of the secondary characters in the Harry Potter books (Luna Lovegood, Hagrid, and Professor Lupin all come to mind). The reverse of the likeable character is the annoying, difficult, humourless, unhelpful, snarky, complaining or mean-spirited character.

Admirability is different; it’s when the character is a morally good person who acts on their convictions, who will risk their own wellbeing for the sake of others and resist being corrupted by self-interest. It could also be called “nobility,” but I prefer not to use that term, because so many real-life nobles were complete bastards. Captain America in the Marvel movies is an excellent example of an admirable character.

A straightforward way to characterise a villain is to show them being the opposite of admirable: benefiting from, or even just rejoicing in, someone else’s suffering or loss. Ebenezer Scrooge, who oppresses his clerk Bob Cratchit, therefore isn’t admirable at the beginning of his story.

Haplessness is when we want the character to succeed because of sympathy for the underdog. Usually through no fault of their own, they have bad things happen to them, or start out in a low position, and they struggle to rise above this, to succeed despite their handicaps. (Brandon Sanderson distinguishes usefully between flaws, which are faults in the character they need to get over as part of their development, and handicaps, which are difficulties in their situation that they have to work around but which won’t go away. Handicaps can include external constraints, like poverty; internal permanent weaknesses, like mental illness; moral positions that they won’t deviate from but that rule out easy answers to their problems; and commitments that they have to others which make them vulnerable. The last two of these are also elements of admirability.)

We will cheer on a hapless character until we are hoarse. Harry Potter is consistently hapless, particularly in the early books (though he’s also admirable, as most hapless characters are; we generally don’t want to see a selfish character rise above their circumstances, because they’ll do it by stepping on other people). Oliver Twist is another classic hapless character. The flip side of haplessness is being the kind of villain that keeps pushing the hapless protagonist down, and who therefore becomes low in likeability. Often, this villain holds a high position despite being undeserving of it; think Draco Malfoy (whose father is rich and powerful), or Dolores Umbridge.

Identification is the element of sympathy we have when we feel the character is like us. This is why so many characters start out being “everyman”. The more like us someone is, the more we want them to succeed, which has unfortunate real-world consequences sometimes but is a fact of human life. Establishing that your character is ordinary, but then (before the audience gets bored) giving them extraordinary challenges to overcome, is a tried-and-true method of winning sympathy. The risk you take is that the character can easily become generic.

While the reverse of the other qualities gives you a good way to characterise villains, I don’t suggest using lack of identification as a way to make them unlikeable; this is “othering,” and it’s at the root of prejudice and discrimination. Time was when you could make someone a villain just by mentioning their swarthy skin, but that lazy and ethnocentric means of characterisation is rightly frowned on nowadays.

It’s possible to adjust the sliders in various combinations, of course. You can have a character who’s competent, proactive and sympathetic, though if they’re too competent they don’t need to be as proactive, and risk not being as sympathetic. You can have a character who’s unsympathetic—who’s privileged and/or a jerk—as long as they are either competent, proactive or both. I’ve noticed when watching cooking contest reality shows that even when there’s a contestant who I don’t like, I’ll still sometimes want them to succeed if they can show me either that they are a really good cook, or that they are working as hard as they can to win because it means a lot to them.

You can have a character who’s incompetent but sympathetic (though they’d best be proactive as well by the end of the story, or it’s likely to fall flat). You can even have a likeable, competent character who spends all their time reacting to events; it’s a classic hero type, and allows you to keep telling stories, since if a highly competent character is too proactive there will be no problems left to solve. Superheroes are often reactive in this way.

The Big Five Personality Traits

Those are some ways to make your character engaging to the audience. But how can you make them distinctive and “real”?

The Big Five personality traits are reasonably well established as real psychological phenomena (unlike, for example, the Myers-Briggs types or the Enneagram types, though those can still be a useful structure for discussing individual differences). They form the anagram OCEAN, standing for Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. Because they’re part of how real people are, they can be useful for constructing interesting characters.

Openness to experience: A character who is high on openness to experience can be curious, adventurous, imaginative, independent, a lover of learning, and may appreciate art, entertainment, or new sensory experiences to a high degree. They are easily bored and seek out novelty and intense stimulation. Obviously, this can lead to risk-taking behaviour, addiction, irresponsibility, wildness, impracticality and unreliability if not balanced out. The Sherlock Holmes of the original stories was high on this trait, whereas his companion, Doctor Watson, was much lower, and was pragmatic, reliable, persevering and conventional. Putting two characters who differ along one trait together often works well, since it builds in conflict to the relationship, and also provides a necessary balance, so that their different strengths can contribute to solving a joint challenge.

Conscientiousness: A character high on conscientiousness will be well-organised, dependable, self-disciplined, dutiful, and a careful planner, but the dark side of the trait is that they can be obsessive and stubborn. Mr. Monk, from the TV series of the same name, is high on conscientiousness (and neuroticism) to the point of suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. People of low conscientiousness are flexible and spontaneous, or sloppy and unreliable, depending on your perspective and the consequences of their actions.

Obviously, a person high on conscientiousness but low on openness to experience is likely to be a dull character to start out with, but what if they are swept into adventure despite themselves? And what if you have high openness to experience but also high conscientiousness, so that you seek novelty, but in a very organised way? Or the reverse—low openness to experience and low conscientiousness, the classic “slacker” character, stuck in a minimal-effort rut until forcibly hauled out of it, whose strongest motivation (at least at first) is to get back to his comfortable life?

Extraversion: A character high on extraversion will be energised by spending time with other people, will often express positive emotion, and will be active, sociable, talkative, and assertive. The dark side is aggressiveness, insensitivity to others’ internal states or wishes, and attention-seeking. Low extraversion is reflected in a reserved manner, a habit of being reflective and solitary, and, on the dark side, being aloof or uninterested in other people.

Extraversion or the lack of it can give a very different feel to the other personality traits. For example, I am high on openness to experience, but I’m also low on extraversion, meaning that I seek intellectual novelty rather than extreme sports or stimulating environments.

Agreeableness: A highly agreeable character is compassionate, friendly, cooperative, trusting, helpful and well-tempered, but can also be naive or a doormat. A character low on this trait can be suspicious, uncooperative, competitive, argumentative and untrustworthy, but also analytical and difficult to fool. An extraverted, agreeable character is classically likeable; Bertie Wooster from P.G. Wodehouse springs to mind (he’s also low on conscientiousness). An introverted, disagreeable character makes a good antagonist, though it’s possible to make them a hero as well—look at Sherlock Holmes. But it’s also possible to be extraverted and disagreeable (the insensitive, competitive type), or introverted and agreeable (the quiet, compliant milquetoast).

Neuroticism: Neurotic characters are easily angered, saddened or frightened, their emotions are unstable, and they may have poor impulse control. They can be reactive, excitable, insecure, and, at their best, dynamic and passionate. Characters who are low on neuroticism are stable, calm, and confident, but may seem dispassionate or unconcerned, even insensitive.

Being in the middle of all of these factors makes for a well-balanced person, adaptable, moderate and reasonable, but they can also be seen as hard to read, unprincipled or calculating. This goes to show that you don’t have to be especially high or low on one or more of the traits to be an interesting or engaging character. In fact, any character—any person—can be interesting or engaging in the right circumstances, which is where Sanderson’s sliders come in.

I’ve given a few examples as I’ve been explaining the traits of how they might combine. I’m sure you can think of others. What might an agreeable, neurotic introvert look like, for example, and how would they differ from an agreeable, neurotic extravert?

When setting out to create a vivid character, pick two or three of these traits and play around with the levels. Don’t neglect the dark side, the weaknesses that go along with the strengths (or vice versa, of course). Remember, though, to show rather than tell your readers that they have these traits, by what they do, what they say, and what they react to, pursue, value and think about.

Read some classic stories with characters everyone knows, and watch for the telling moments of characterisation. Sherlock Holmes, when bored, shoots the Queen’s initials into the wall above his fireplace with a pistol (“The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual”); this simultaneously tells you that he’s patriotic, unconventional, doesn’t care about possessions or keeping his environment tidy and pristine, and is a good pistol shot, and characterises him as high in openness to experience (he’s bored), low in conscientiousness (he shoots up his flat), and high in neuroticism. Other, nearby passages show that he’s low in extraversion and agreeableness, hence his suspicious, unsociable nature and brilliant analytical mind. But all of this is shown through something unique, telling, memorable; just a few details that both convey who he is in terms of personality and also make him distinctive.

It’s a bad idea to copy a whole character from a single real person. Not only are they likely to be upset if they find out, or feel excessive ownership of the character, but the risk is that you’ll not put in the factors that make them real on the page because they’re already real in your head. What you can do, though, is take a single quirk or real-life incident from someone you’ve met, perhaps change a couple of the details and make the facts tighter and neater, and use all this to illuminate your fictional character and make them memorable. While you’re looking for story ideas, look for incidents, moments, that illuminate character.

Being able to convey character in vivid, compact ways is a highly useful skill, regardless of the length of the story you’re writing, and it’s worth spending some time and effort to master it.

A character’s personality traits influence what motivates them and what they desire in life, and that’s what we’ll cover in the next chapter.

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