Building Characters


January 29, 2013 by Julia

Fictional Characters via someecards / Oosa Book Club - peoplewhowrite

I’ve always been interested in figuring out what makes the best characters of literature or film so awesome. I’m talking about the characters that walk into a room and instantly everything becomes interesting. They are witty, they are smart, they are brave, vibrant, larger than life – yet so specific so that his or her particular idiosyncrasies become permanently lodged in our brains. They are supremely flawed, sometimes fatally so. And we love them, in large part because their flaws give us insight into human nature. Without good characters, we don’t care about what happens next, and even the best plotting falls flat.

So what characteristics do the most memorable characters possess? Here’s what I think:

Strength and vulnerability in equal parts

Think about the kind of people you want to hang out with. We don’t really trust the people who appear to be perfect and beautiful in every way, because we know that’s not possible. Also, BOR-iiiiiiing. This is basically how I view fictional characters who appear to be perfect and beautiful. By the same token, we don’t want to spend an excess of time with someone who never showers, watches TV all day, has no opinions or values, and throws pity parties for themselves every two seconds. I mean, if they were funny, I’d hang out with them. But let’s just say there’s not much brain activity going on, beyond whiny navel-gazing. Obviously, this is not a fun person to read or watch, either.

The tension between strength and weakness is where all the drama lies. One of my favorite characters is Luther from the BBC show of the same name (played brilliantly by Idris Elba). His strengths are passion, a sense of justice, cleverness, charisma, boldness…all traits that make him so entertaining. But he also has an out-of-control temper, no sense of boundaries, and a wrecked home life. Without the flaws to balance him out, his valor would ring hollow. The show would not satisfy us on the same level.

Let me add that a character’s flaws need to be real. Not some dumb pretend flaw, like when the beautiful high school girl is wearing glasses and is considered a nerd until she takes them off and everyone’s like “Whooooaaaa…she’s hot?? We had no idea!!” Also, clumsiness does not count as a flaw, all you gorgeous girls of literature. So you dropped your books. Big frickin whoop. You look like Natalie Portman, and yet keep tripping over your own shoelaces! Get a real problem, honey. (Bella, this includes you.)

Unique mannerisms, habits, or appearance

Preferably these details are inspired by real life people – not clichés that you’ve read in books or seen in movies. My main point here, really, is to avoid as many cliches as possible. No detail is better than a cliche detail.  We all know a boy who smiles “devilishly” or “crookedly” is a love interest, though of course the girl won’t realize that until at least two hundred pages in, possibly because he has tousled hair (another obvious fake flaw). How many women do you know who bite their full, red lips when they think they’re in trouble? When was the last time you met someone with amber or violet eyes, or a man with hair that you would call a “mane”? I mean, they’re out there, but not as many as you’d think, based on fiction.

So what constitutes good specific details? Anything that feels real. I think you just have to go with your instinct, and keep checking that you’re not lazily falling back on cliches. Also, I think unique details are better revealed through action or dialogue, in small doses, rather than a paragraph of description. In the pauses between dialogue, let your character jingle his keys in pocket to show his impatience, or let her rip the label slowly off her beer bottle into tiny pieces to show her underlying anxiety, or apply black lipstick in the bathroom at Applebee’s, to make us wonder why the heck someone with black lipstick would be at Applebee’s.

Crazy good skills

Awesome characters are often really good at something, whether it’s Harry Potter with his predisposition for powerful magic (not to mention his Quidditch skills), or Carrie Mathison (played by Claire Danes) on HBO’s Homeland, doing incredible work as a CIA operative. Both characters take huge risks that only sometimes pay off, but they are using their talents and pushing forward to the absolute best of their ability, which is pretty darn good. It’s inspiring to watch, and it’s fun to live vicariously through these heroes. A job well done makes the world a better place – and it will make a story better, too.

Undeniable plausibility

If we aren’t buying the character, we aren’t buying the story. So even though they might be amazing at something, and have a distinctive personality, we need to constantly ask ourselves, “Does this ring true? Would they (or anyone in real life) actually do or say this? Does this person have the breath of life in them, or are they a bunch of ideas thrown together, not forming a complete picture?” I want characters to be so real that I miss them when I finish a book. That’s how I felt at the end of A Prayer for Owen Meany (by John Irving), and at the end of The Anne of Green Gables TV miniseries. (Loved those books by L.M. Montgomery, too.) It was heart-wrenching and bittersweet to say goodbye to these “people,” who I still consider to be real, in a way – they live separately from their authors, on their own, because they were given the breath of life.


Clearly, humor is pretty hard to manufacture. It’s sooo subjective. But when it’s done well, it can lend a spontaneity and joy that can have the same effect on us as music – it lifts the spirits, it inspires affection, it surprises us, and enhances what is already there. Can you imagine the original Star Wars trilogy without Han Solo’s wisecracks? I have a theory that the Superman remake of 2006 (Superman Returns) failed to soar in part because the script had not an ounce of the bumbling humor between Christopher Reeve (disguised as Clark Kent) and the smart n’ sassy Lois Lane (as played by Margot Kidder) in the original. We all want to be around the funny people. Ooh, one more – Lorelei of Gilmore Girls. She’s the best. I miss her.

A few more quick thoughts I’ve had over the years:

  • A main character has to be at least as smart as the audience – preferably smarter. I know the audience usually has the benefit of omnipresence, and can tell what is really going on better than the characters, but isn’t it annoying when you can see things coming from a mile away, and the characters just have no clue?
  • Please don’t be too good looking, unless that’s an important part of a whole shtick. There really aren’t that many casually gorgeous people in the world who have no idea of their effect on others. And it’s harder to take stunningly beautiful fictional characters seriously…that is their lot in literature. I am biased against them, personally. Boo-hoo, cry me a river of glistening-in-the-moonlight tears. They’ll get over it when someone equally gorgeous shows up to gently caress their cheek.
  •  Dialogue is so important. I just re-read the beginning of Pride and Prejudice (one of my favorites of all time), and you can tell what Elizabeth Bennett’s parents are like by the way they talk to one another. It’s brilliant and funny how revealing their opening conversation is. When you can “hear” someone’s speaking voice as you read their words, I’m pretty sure it’s easier to “get” them than by reading lots of description of them. Plus, dialogue is loads easier to read than paragraphs of description. I always want to skip ahead to the talking, where the action is.

…You know how someone says, “Yeah, they’re a real character,” and it implies so many things? Like, they’re interesting, they’re funny, they’re colorful. And it’s said wryly, but admiringly. I’m going to aim for that when I start writing fiction again.

5 thoughts on “Building Characters

  1. katmwehr says:

    This is a great summary of what makes an awesome character. I may have to reblog it sometime this week! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Great post – a lot to think about as I move forward in my writing. My characters are always in motion, but I haven’t learned how to develop them with any depth.

  3. Karen says:

    I’ve never read Pride and Prejudice, but as I was reading your take on dialogue it reminded me of the scene towards the end of The Sun Also Rises, where Robert Cohn is about to fight for Lady Brett’s “honor” and all the characters are shouting at one another and Hemingway does not use any dialogue tags, yet, because each character has been so carefully depicted, you know exactly who is saying what.

    So anyway, that’s a goal. To write dialogue without dialogue tags. 😉

    • Julia says:

      That’s a great goal! In a similar vein, I think Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible gave each character such a distinct inner voice that I always knew instantly whose perspective she was writing from, as she began each chapter with a different character. That book gives the best example of expressing the “voices” (both inner and outer) of vastly different characters that I can think of.

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