How to Conceive a Great Character

August 12, 2020 by Evan Braun


This post is part of our special series that unpacks the criteria we consider when evaluating manuscripts. For novels, we carefully consider the characters within the manuscript, so today is the first post of our two-part series on character development. (See also part two, on character motivation.) Whether you are in the midst of writing, or have already received feedback from us, our hope is that this series will provide the insight you need to make your manuscript even better. View the full series here.

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What makes a great character? This is a question for the ages, and one that you can find a lot of conflicting advice about. But one thing pretty much everyone can agree on is that characters should be rich and textured.

Well, easier said than done!

I think a good starting point for conceptualizing and building a memorable character is to produce a character sketch. Except I think the very term character sketch is a bit of a misnomer, since a sketch implies something that’s drawn up hastily and is likely to be incomplete or lacking in detail.

The kind of character sketch I have in mind is one that is absolutely exhaustive in terms of its details. No amount of information about a character is too small or insignificant to include in a character sketch. Why? Because characters live and breathe in their little quirks and foibles.

When writing up a character sketch, use all five senses. Many people instinctually focus in on visual details—hair colour, eye colour, height, etc.—but what do they smell like? Feel like? Sound like? If you were to give your character a kiss, what would they taste like? A focus on the senses will give you plenty of fodder.

Also in the area of visual details, there are a few things you might not think of—such as their mannerisms, the way they move, and what they wear. Leave no stone unturned.

Next, using all these attributes you’ve just identified, focus on the character’s actions. It’s easy to say “Adam is tall.” But that’s a rather bland statement. You can show the reader that Adam is tall by saying “When he got into his friend’s car, Adam’s head brushed against the roof.”

Another way to think about your character is to identify the ways in which they are unique from everyone else around them. While there’s something to be said for focusing on characters that the average reader will be able to relate to, you can take this too far and create people without any memorable characteristics. It’s the things that make your character remarkable that a reader will best remember.

Also, give some careful thought about how they speak. I talked about this back during my posts about dialogue here and here a few weeks back, and it’s relevant again here.

Now, think about the character’s manner of speaking. Maybe they speak poorly and have a low vocabulary. Maybe they speak unusually quickly. Maybe they grew up speaking a different language and therefore have an unusual accent or cadence. Maybe they speak multiple languages, and words from those other languages slip through into their English.

There are a lot of interesting possibilities to take into account. A good way to workshop this might be to free-write some dialogue exchanges involving your character. These discussions probably won’t ever make it into your actual book, but they will give you the opportunity to figure out the answers to some important character-related questions.

Figuring out your character’s background will also lead down some interesting paths. If your character grew up in another part of the world, for example, this might lead to some notable cultural quirks. There are some cultures in the world where it’s rude to make eye contact, for example.

Here’s another example. It is a peculiarity that people from Latvia very rarely smile. They are, speaking generally, of course, unlikely to engage in a lot of small talk with people they don’t know well. Indeed, visitors to that country might be mistaken in thinking that Latvians are rude, but that’s not true. The actual reasons for their famous reserve are obviously much more complicated than that.

So do extensive research into your character’s background! These are the sort of character details that will make your story come alive with possibility.

Finally, it may sound, at first blush, like the advice in today’s post pertains only to fiction writers, but you’d be wrong in thinking that. Non-fiction is full of characters—the only difference being that those characters happen to represent people who actually exist in the real world. The same advice absolutely applies when it comes to bringing non-fiction characters to life as opposed to strictly fictional ones.

About this Contributor

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Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.