How to Design Captivating Characters


Characters are the actors of your story. They are the people, places, or things that fill your story and act out what you wish to take place.

But for me, characters are my friends, neighbors, enemies, lovers, and strangers who wander around my head. They are apart of me and I carry them with me when I am working on a project. From my experience, I know that I see character different than most writers.

But not different than most readers. That’s because like most successful writers, I was a reader before I was a writer. Words stole me away and held me.

That type of captivation is what I aim to create in my own writing. It is how I approach thinking about my characters. Because I was a reader before I was a writer, I want to share my techniques and those of others to help you create better fiction, nonfiction, or poetry.


Types and Kinds of Characters

There are different types and kinds of characters that are all worthwhile and useful when it comes to crafting or designing a character. I’ll list them with their definitions and uses below, but do not take this as an exhaustive list. Search out and find new types of characters and forms of them by reading and consuming story widely.

The main distinction between a type of character and a kind of character has to do with their function. A type of character serves a plot function while a kind of character serves a story function. Consider it like this: A hero(kind) can be a main character(type), but they can also be a background or side character(type).

When I dive in to my pieces, I don’t directly think about what type or kind of characters I am writing. I focus on the story, but I’ve studied writing and characters for so long, I intuitively know where my characters fit. I got to this point by studying story and characters before writing my stories. Even now, before I start writing a new piece, I do a refresher in mechanics, publishing, reader interest, etc.

Constantly learning keeps me fresh and ever growing, so it’s a practice I recommend for any writer at any stage.


Types of Characters

  • Background Character: a silent filler character roaming in the background of your story.
  • Tertiary Characters: a minor role character that helps color and push the story forward.
  • Main Character: the character who the story is about and who drives the forward momentum of the story.
  • Deuteragonists: important secondary character whose storyline intertwines closely with the main character’s.
  • Dynamic Character: a character that undergoes a great amount of internal change over the course of the story.
  • Round Character: a character that has a fully developed and complex personality.
  • Static Character: a character that does not change throughout the story or who returns to their original stance at the beginning of the story.
  • Stock Characters: a stereotypical character that plays a known role in a specific genre.
  • Symbolic Character: a character that represents a specific theme or symbol throughout the story and acts accordingly.
  • Foil: character is used to contrast the protagonist or another main character.

Kinds of Characters

  • Hero: a character that has a trait or “power” that makes them standout from the rest of the characters and uses it to solve the overall story problem.
  • Villain: the exact same as the hero except they cause harm instead of good and usually are the cause of the story problem.
  • Protagonist: like a hero minus the special trait or power; a main character that moves the plot forward or is followed through the plot.
  • Antagonist: a character that works against the efforts of the protagonist; similar to a villain without the special skill or trait that makes them unique.
  • Love Interest: the character that is pursued either romantically or platonically throughout the story.
  • Sidekick: usually a close friend of the main character that works alongside and helps them achieve their goals.

There are also character archetypes, but we won’t get into those because they are extremely culturally linked. What archetypes might be prevalent in my culture, might not be in yours. So, if you want to learn about character archetypes, the best place to start is by reading a lot of folklore and myth in different cultures.

That’s also where I’ll go if I want to figure out how other writers and cultures tackle craft elements. Like in certain cultures, tertiary characters are more prevalent and expected than in others.

Like I’ve mentioned already, the above list isn’t a full or complete list. It’s a small sampling to get you started crafting basic characters and wrapping your mind around how to use characters. Your characters can be more than these roles and types and can exist outside of them as long as they are relatable.

Relatability is key when it comes to designing or creating characters. If your readers can’t relate to anyone in your story, then they won’t have a lot to grasp onto or care about. With relatable characters, writers can create unbelievable and otherworldly stories that still hold their readers because the characters help pull them through.

You can make your character(s) relatable by giving them motivations, goals, or intentions that are easily defined and seen.

At the end of the day, though, relatability comes down to who your target reader and audience is. That’s why it can get tricky and messy. What is relatable to one culture or market, might not be relatable to another. So, when crafting your characters, think about who your story is for.

What are they going through? What’s important to them?

No matter what genre or form you write in, character is important. It is what readers come to stories for — to see someone outwit, fall prey to or experience the ever-motion of the story’s engines.


What Makes a Character

Characters, for me, come down to their motivations, style, and voice. Even if they are flat, static, or stock characters, I design my characters to have all of those things. Unlike most tutorials or articles on writing, I don’t think of motivation, style, and voice the typical way.

When these craft topics were introduced to me in high school and again in college and throughout my adult life, it was always done in this way that felt disconnected and hollow. So, I broke away from that and put together my own understanding of motivation, style, and voice that helps me create characters that are seen as full, real, and captivating.

Motivation

When motivation is normally talked about it is stated as the goal or driving force behind the character. That usually leads to a lot of the same type of stale characters who come into the story with these basic and straightforward wants, needs, and goals.

For me, motivation is more than that. Motivation is a character’s personality. Yes, their wants, needs, and all that are included, but instead of using those to push the character through the story, I use them to create a whole identity and personality that lives on outside of their basic wants and needs.

By thinking about a character’s motivation as the whole of their personality I can make connections to other aspects of who they are. In a past published project, I used my character’s want to keep a distance from her father, her need to seem in control and in charge of her life, and her goal of proving herself to her father to create a character that acted, behaved, and held herself in a way that showed all of this backstory without her having to say much.

Her want to keep a distance made her not only keep a physical distance from her father in any scene they were in together, but it also steered how she responded to intimate relationships, how she negotiated space with others, even down to where and how she lived. With her need to be in control, she responded to the world and situations in a type-A manner. And her goal not only made her willing to help a person she didn’t want to be around (conflict!), it also is what led her to love, to getting into a position of power.

Her basic wants, needs, and goals fueled more than her trajectory through the story. It helped influence and fuel her background and her whole being.

I don’t stop there when it comes to character creation. A person who is all motivation and drive is just a car without a driver. After figuring out motivation/personality, I move on to my character’s style.

Style

Like motivation, I think about a character’s style a bit different. To me, it is more than the way they dress or appear to the reader. I think about style more as the character’s choices and actions.

Style and choice or action should be closely aligned to create depth of character. That’s at least what I’ve picked up from all the stories that I’ve consumed. It also works out with my own characters as well.

For example, in my current novel in progress, when I’m designing and working with a certain character, the way they dress is in line with the way they live their life. For my double agent character, they are either dressed in company garb or garb made to appear like one of the people they are trying to portray.

It also decides how they enter into a scene. More often than not, they are going to do things by the book. When they don’t, it is because they are trying to show their darker and more devilish side to win over the main character. Their style dictates how the show themselves to the world. Whether that be through their clothes, actions, dialogue, etc.

At this point, my characters are starting to come together and feel like people that are worth following through a story. They feel almost whole. The last part of the puzzle is voice. This completes my characters and fills my story with noteworthy people doing memorable things.

Voice

A character’s voice are the words they choose and in how they choose to order those words. But it’s also about how they choose not to use words. It’s about how they show themselves to the world. A character’s voice is how they express themselves.

If you’re paying attention, you’ll realize that all of these things (motivation, style, and voice) all play into each other. That creates a character that is more than function, more than just a person on the page. They are coherent, consistent, and believable.

My characters’ voices are an amalgamation of their personality and style. They speak the way people with their background, approach, and outlook would. For the character from my book that is the double agent, they speak in code-switches and fragments.

The ordering of their words and how they say them are all very much the bad and pretend side. They speak like the people they are pretending to be, but they don’t use the same words in the same ways. The sentence structure and slang mimics that of one side while they use the words in a prescribed and analytical way.


Techniques to Use

The way I approach character works for me, but it’s not the only way out there and people learn different. I wanted this to be a guide that helps everyone, not just people like me, so here are other ways of creating, designing, or getting to know your characters. I’ve learned these styles from other writers, different methods I’ve tried in the past, and from all the resources I’ve read on the crafting of characters.

Motivation, Style, and Voice

Used above, this trick of designing a character begins with figuring out your character’s role within the story. What do they want? What do you plan to have them accomplish within your story?

Using their basic wants, needs, goals, and arc, begin developing character traits related to their style(dress, actions, choices) and voice (how they express themselves). While doing that, keep your story’s and character’s overall arc and storyline in mind so that you are choosing traits that add more to the story, not distract.

Character Interviews

When I first started out writing, I used job and relationship interview or intimacy questions to better get to know my characters and world. I’d spend sometime imagining a scenario where I would be able to interview my character(s).

The things to pay attention to when doing this are:

  • how do they answer your questions (voice)
  • what answers do they give (backstory/personality)
  • how do they give these answers (actions/mannerisms)
  • are they hiding or fighting anything (conflict)

Use your imagination to explore what type of person your character is. This is also useful if you have a fully developed character and want to further flesh them out. Where I often fell short of creating good or even workable characters from this method was by not taking enough of myself out of the interview and by putting too much of the character on the page.

When I first started out writing, it was hard to separate myself from my characters, so too much of me would show in the characters’ responses making them all just different versions of myself. That doesn’t make for great fiction. The other pitfall is putting too much of the character’s actions, backstories, and appearance onto the page.

The reader should be able to glean from the character’s dialogue, story beats, and interactions all of the info about their histories and that jazz.

Spend the Day With Them

My other favorite way of designing and creating a character is to spend a day hanging out with them and both the real world and their world. For example, when I know who my main character is, but I’m not sure who they really are outside of their role, I spend a whole day with them inside my mind.

I spend part of my day imagining that we are together in the real world. They’re right beside me, witnessing and going through my day. I pay attention to how they act and respond to things that I encounter. Around midday, I switch to spending the rest of the day in their world. I have them show me their world and how they approach life where they are from.

Dungeons and Dragons Character Sheets

Even if you’re not writing fantasy fiction or playing D’n’D, using a worksheet from the classic table top role playing game is a great way to get your creativity flowing. I was a writer before I was a D’n’D player, so when I first came across the player worksheet, my heart fluttered.

On a D’n’D character sheet, you have space to think about the character’s backstory, allies or organizations they may belong, and more. You can also get more detailed and use the list of stats to broad stroke your character’s intelligence, charisma, and more.

Contrasting Cast

I use this technique with shorter stories and is better used when I already have a general idea of who my cast of characters are. Starting with 2–3 characters, I create other characters that are the opposite or contrast with the original set.

Many writers and instructors say that this is the best way to write a story with a lot of conflict and tension. The main reason is because all of the characters will be butting heads or in constant conflict with their opposites. From experience, I have to agree.

Character Sheets

Like with the D’n’D character sheets above, standard character sheets for fiction help writers create characters fast and hassle free. There are so many to choose from out there that it kinda becomes overwhelming, so I don’t usually use this method.

In the past when I would use character sheets, I stuck with finding one character sheet template that I liked and used it to create all the characters in my story. This kept things clear and consistent with my characters. I will note that using character sheets is becoming more frowned upon due to their cookie cutter style.

Use Your Real Life

I caution writers about using this method because some have actually stolen people from their life and simply transplanted them onto the page of their story. This is not the best way to do this, but the quickest way to become too close to your work.

Whenever I pull a person from my real life to use as a character, I use the real person as a jumping off point. I take their top qualities and their worse qualities and use that to create a character that is different, yet the same to their real life inspiration. Or I’ll use a real person’s physical appearance to help design what my characters will look like. I never do a complete transplant, however.

Begin With an Archetype

Above I mentioned that there are character archetypes found in many cultures that can be used in your own fiction. To go about doing this, research into the culture you want to use an archetype or figure from and learn about that person and their ties to the culture.

Like with borrowing from your real life, don’t do a complete copy and paste — unless that is your intention — but use the archetype as a jumping off point. I consume stories featuring the archetype and see which ways they are used and what common themes, symbols, or motifs are attached to them.


Continued Learning

My methods work for me, but that doesn’t mean that they will work for you. I’m a huge supporter of giving writers the tools they need to discover their own methods, so have rounded up various resources about character. You can use these to begin or deepen your understanding of character.

Articles

Videos

Books

Podcasts


Aigner Loren Wilson is a queer Black SFWA, HWA, and Codex writer. Her work has appeared in Tordotcom, Better Humans, The Writing Cooperative, and more. She strives to help writers reach their publishing goals and attain their dreams. Subscribe for access to masterclass courses in writing, editing, and making a living as a writer.

2 thoughts on “How to Design Captivating Characters

  1. I have to admit that I don’t really put much thought into my characters, and this was a great post to at least keep me cognisant of what I’m missing. Thanks for sharing!

    Like

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