Introduction to creating compelling characters
One way to start generating a story is to come up with your character(s). From this point, you can develop a plot and fill in other key details like setting and mood. This article will cover some of our top tips for creating compelling characters, characters who will win you marks for originality in your creative writing exam.
General tips for writing characters
Here are questions you should ask yourself when creating any character:
- What do they look like?
What are they wearing? What is their eye colour? Are they human? These are all details you can think about when designing your character’s physical appearance.
You may relate some of these details to their personality; for example, if you describe your character as wearing a neatly-pressed uniform, it may suggest they are tidy and sensible, whereas if you describe them as wearing a shirt with a missing button and a tie that is too short, it may suggest they are scruffy and chaotic.
- What is their past?
Particularly for protagonists and antagonists who will have more major roles in your story than the secondary characters, ask yourself what their past was and how it impacted the way they are. Providing this context can make your characters more believable; the reader may better understand why your character has developed a specific strength or weakness.
- What makes them unique?
Try giving each character a unique aspect, a quirk, which makes them more memorable. Perhaps they love collecting snow globes, hate lemon cake, or always wear purple nail polish. It also makes the character more empathetic, as all humans have quirks, so readers relate more to the character, even if the character is not human.
The 3 key types of characters
We will consider three types of characters: the protagonist, the antagonist, and the secondary characters.
The protagonist is your main character, the hero you follow through the story’s plot. There are various aspects of the protagonist you should consider when brainstorming ideas before launching into your story:
- What are their strengths?
In other words, what is your character good at? Consider what skills they may have that make them heroic; are they a superhero who can fly or run fast, or an everyday hero who is good at caring for animals, the environment, or other people?
- How are they flawed?
On the other side of the coin, what are your character’s weaknesses? Are they afraid of the dark, or can they sometimes be arrogant? Great characters are multi-dimensional, with a balance of strengths and weaknesses.
As previously mentioned, humans relate to characters who showcase human qualities we can empathise with. In this sense, a reader empathises best with characters with imperfections, as humans are imperfect and make mistakes.
- How do they grow?
It is important to consider how your character progresses through your story, to consider how they are different at the end of the story from the start and how that reflects what they learnt along the way.
Think about what challenges your protagonist may have to face to overcome their weaknesses or boost their strengths. If they stay the same throughout the story, you risk making the story seem pointless – as if the character has learnt nothing and, thus, that there was no reason for telling it. There must be a good reason if your protagonist does not show signs of change.
The antagonist is the character who opposes the protagonist, the villain. Their actions may set up challenges or obstacles the protagonist must overcome to prove their heroism. Here are some factors you should consider when creating an antagonist:
- How are they a threat to the protagonist?
A well-written antagonist needs to threaten the hero somehow; this creates a space for conflict and drama in your story when the two contrasting types of characters interact. Think about the opposing goals the protagonist and the antagonist may have; maybe the protagonist wants to save the environment, and the antagonist wants to burn it down.
Is the antagonist’s threat physical (are they incredibly strong or a powerful mage) or emotional (are they cunning or manipulative)? Does the antagonist use the hero’s weaknesses against them? In relation to this, you may even consider how the antagonist may tempt the hero to divert from their path of goodness.
- In what ways are they good?
In the same way that a complex protagonist has flaws, a complex antagonist may have good qualities. You can add some humour here; maybe they want to take over the world but also love making shortbread for their grandmother.
Instead of making the antagonist someone your protagonist needs to take down, you may decide to resolve your story with your protagonist, bringing out the good in the antagonist.
- What kind of villain are they?
Here are some different examples of villains you may choose to make your antagonist:
The Supervillain: In contrast to the above, you may create an antagonist with no good qualities, a purely evil character.
The Anti-Hero: You may choose to turn your antagonist into an anti-hero by the end of your story, a character who seems bad but actually does good things. Perhaps the protagonist misjudged them, and their conflict came about from misunderstanding.
The Betrayer: You may choose to disguise your villain as a good character. They may appear to be a friend to the protagonist before it is revealed through an act of betrayal that they were the villain all along.
The main question you should ask yourself when creating secondary characters is how many secondary characters you need to write. If you overwhelm your story with too many secondary characters, it may confuse the reader. This is why it is essential that you consider what each secondary character adds to the story:
- What is their purpose?
Ask yourself these questions to figure out what the purpose of your secondary character is and if it is worthwhile having this character incorporated into your story’s plot:
Does your secondary character help progress the plot of your story by helping the main character(s) show off their strengths/weaknesses?
Do they bring out the good or the bad in your main character(s)?
Are they there to guide your main character(s) like a Yoda or Gandalf-type character?
Are they there to add comic relief (to break up more heavy moments in your story with light-hearted humour)?
Are they a friend providing emotional support for your main character(s)?
11+ Creative Writing Course
We hope you found these starting tips for creating compelling characters useful and that this article may have inspired you to push your creative writing skills further by signing up for our Creative Writing Course starting this October 2023!