Writing Tips: Create an Interesting Character Part 2

If you missed it, you can read part 1 here.

So, you’ve figured out a major event that shaped who your character is, and you’ve thought through what they want in this scene. That’s good! Here’s a couple of additional questions to tackle.

Who were/are their parents?

My acting coach always used to ask me the names of my characters parents. It seemed ridiculous. But her point was, who doesn’t know the names of their own parents? Naming your characters parents may not bring anything of value to your story, but knowing about them will. Like it or not, all of us have been shaped by our parents. Some of us were shaped by never knowing them. Others were shaped by the incredible love their parents showed them, or perhaps by neglect or abuse. Whether your character’s parents impacted them positively or negatively, they add a vital layer to who your character is now, and what they’re about to do.

This gets into your character’s background. Where have they been and how does it shape who they are now? Much of this detail may never be revealed in the context of your story, but it’s important because it shapes the choices your character will make.

Where are they conflicted?

I’m not asking where they face conflict. Your story should be rife with that. I mean, where are they at war with themselves? Take me, for example. I’m a very honest person. Being truthful is something I deeply value. Except on those rare occasions when I lie. I love my wife. She’s amazing. My passion for her is hard to quantify. Except in those moments where I put myself first. We humans are a writhing bag of contradictions. When creating a character, my natural impulse is to point them in a straight line, wind them up and let them go. But real people aren’t like that. Somewhere we all have those hooks, those wounds, those bits of damage that will pull us off course. And there are other things, issues about which we just can’t make up our mind. Give your characters those sorts of contradictions and struggles.

What weird things do they do?

Hobbies are great. Your character should have one. And mannerisms. What do they do that’s kind of odd? What are their compulsions? I’m loath to admit this publicly, but good writing is all about honesty and self revelation, right? I have a difficult time bypassing a q-tip. If I see one, I’m compelled to clean my ears. It doesn’t matter if I just did it. And if I don’t see one, I could go a month without cleaning them. Here’s another one: I grew up with parents who told me to clean my plate. When I was in elementary school there was a terrible famine in Ethiopia and a lot of people were starving to death. In my mind, I still have a responsibility to eat everything served to me, and not throw away food. I’ll often catch myself scraping at my plate trying to get everything off of it.

Maybe your character bites their tongue when they concentrate, or they make little whistling sounds without realizing they’re doing it. These traits do two vital things for you. First, they help your audience to tell your characters apart. Don’t be Robert Jordan and make every female sniff in annoyance and pull her braid. (I’m a huge Jordan fan — but that was one of the weaknesses of his books) Let each character have their own unique quirks. It helps us keep track of who is who. The second thing this does for you, is it reveals something about who they are. If you do this right, their quicks give us hints at the things that shaped and drive them. And that can become another mystery we want to unravel. So we turn to the next page and keep reading.

Of course, there’s a ton more that goes into creating a good character, but I don’t want to commit to another episode right now. I’ll probably circle back to this eventually, though.

In the mean time, what questions do you ask yourself as you seek to make compelling and interesting characters? Please share them in the comments.

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