Writing Characters


I’ve been thinking a lot more about characters as I edit, because it’s one thing I can probably never refine enough. Here are the points that I’m really focussing on with mine these days. (Pic kind of unrelated by the way, I just saw this brutal memorial when I was in Chicago a couple of weeks ago).

1. Contradictions
Your character could be a football hooligan… with a promising career in marine biology. Or a high achieving career woman… with a thing for old Romero zombie movies. Contradictions help to humanise characters, break stereotypes, and they can even help create interesting conflicts (his criminal record could impact on his academic life, and her thing for zombie flicks could influence her willingness to sign off on the next rabies weaponisation protocol that her boss is so keen on…)

2. Alignment
Dungeons and Dragons style yo. That Gaigax knew what he was on about when it came to working out Good and Evil, and the sliding scale from Chaotic to Lawful. I’m not going to replicate the system here, but you can find it all over the interwebs. One way I’ve been using this is to make an array of different big-bads in my story world, one Chaotic Evil, one Lawful Neutral, and another Lawful Evil. My protagonist ends up fighting his battles more against the champions of law and chaos, in the name of Neutral Good.

3. Role
There are so many to pick from, Protagonist, Antagonist, Sidekick, Plumber (eg. Mario). Knowing these helps you know what else to think about for that particular character, and whether you need them in the story at all. As well as the Pro and Antags, and Sidekick mentioned above, some of the others I use are: Mentor (Yoda), Tempter (The Emperor), and Skeptic (Han at the beginning)

4. Greatest Fear
What’s the one thing that sends them into wall-climbing panic mode? (other than clowns, because that’s a given). You need to know this because you’re going to take whatever that thing is, and put it in your character’s closet, back-seat, or underwear, at least once per tale. People do their most interesting stuff when their pants have been scared off.

5. Description
And I don’t want a freckle count, or a thesis on their #286A6A coloured eyes. Unless those are the things that make them stand out, because that’s what we’re going for: – the one or two things that stand out. Eg. the crisp demarcation of gorilla chest to shaved neck, and his too-big business shirt. Also, your character description should fit in the space of a tweet, any more than that and you’d probably be better spreading details of their description over several encounters.

6. Emotional or Logical
It can be useful to ask this question about your characters (and remember the answer whenever the proverbial hits the fan), otherwise all your characters might be one or the other. Even worse: they might flip-flop back and forth in between scenes. A story full of rational characters is about as gripping as recycled post-its, and a tale full of emotional characters will make you want to climb onto the page and slap some sense into them. Why not have a mix, and let your logical characters do the slapping for you?

7. Arc
If you care about the character at all (and definitely for your protagonist) they’re going to need a story arc all of their own. This can be boiled down in lots of different ways (some say in seven stages, or twelve, and have fancy-pants names for these), but here’s a mega simple way that you’ll actually stand a chance of keeping in your mind along with the other thousand things you’re writing about (Disclaimer: this basic idea I got from Chuck Wendig’s blog Terribleminds. Go there later and be merry):

A) Problem
Your character is launched into the solar death race with naught but a rusting bathtub and a jetpack. Whatever, you’re setting them a dilemma, and this is what breaks their status quo at the beginning of your tale, removing them from their quiet life as a marriage insurance salesperson…

B) Solution
… and they’re going to use their experience as a deep sea welder to shape that bathtub into a hull of glistening majesty. This isn’t necessarily the best solution, or the one that involves them growing as a person. No, instead it’s the first solution that springs to mind, or maybe the easy way, the familiar way, the thing they’ve always done in the past…

C) The Conflict Between These Two
Well, simple engineering smarts aren’t going to save you every time, and our beloved space-rocketeer is going to learn that the hard way. The bathtub will slow them down, their fuel will run low, and they’ll need to make a choice. Sometimes you need to learn to trust others, or believe in your other abilities. Maybe our Spacetronaut needs to control their fears and ditch the bathtub altogether, and just strap that jetpack to their puffy metallic spacesuit. As long as they’re facing their problem in a new, challenging, growth inducing way, they are earning their victory by the end, and that’s what we want to see.

Unless you’re writing a negative character arc, in which case sure, let them choose the wrong way, or the familiar way, let them hew to their welding. They’ll wind up as a meat popsicle drifting in slow orbit towards an eventual impact with the sun, and we’ll know as their tears crystallise inside their helmet… that they could have chosen otherwise. They could have chosen GLORY.

That’s all I’m focussing on for my characters right now, but let me know if you think there’s another magic ingredient that I’m forgetting about!

Best regards,


About D.R.Sylvester

A Clinical Research Associate by day (google it), writer by night, D.R.Sylvester lives in Sydney, Australia with his patissiere wife and Siberian Wolf. His interests include travel, music (predominantly Metal), reading, & archery.
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9 Responses to Writing Characters

  1. I love these tips! I definitely plan to keep these things in mind when I am thinking about refining my characters.

  2. Great post! I will say thought that I enjoyed the personality archetype system of Vampire the Masquerade more than I did the alignment system of Dungeons and Dragons. I felt the alignments, while very useful were just as limiting to roleplay because of the strict definitions. Honestly, the best thing in my mind would be to try and combine the two in some sort of Zombie Frankenstein fasion. The bonus of alignments is that it is easier for people to deal with who have little experience in the idea.

    • Thank you! Really appreciate it.

      I absolutely agree that they’re limiting, but to me that’s the whole point: I’m an arrogant atheist metalhead dork in real life, so my roleplay as a paladin is about as natural to me as slipping on a spandex chicken suit. I can wrap my head around “Lawful Good” though, and slipping that on suddenly becomes a lot easier.

      Looking at the archetypes for Vampire, these are kind of like pre-made characters almost, or character templates. Could make a great starting point for you to mash-up and make something fresh from them? A Lawful Good Bon Vivant would be interesting for example… like some kind of Hedonistic White Knight?

      • The Archetypes system is deeper in a way, because they have a Nature (defining the true nature of the character) and the demeanor (What you show people daily). They can be in total opposition to one another as well, creating some really interesting roleplaying opportunities.
        I can clearly concede the advantage of the simplicity of the alignment system. I am curious though, now that you are aware of the nature and demeanor, which would be bon-vivant? and what would the other be?

        It’s funny, I’m an opinionated (I wouldn’t go so far as arrogant, but that may be because of arrogance, lol) athiest, industrial freak, computer geek myself.

      • Oh damn, what was I looking at then? I just googled up Vampire Archetypes, but I didn’t get anything that sounded like that. So you’re supposed to pick two, and one is your Nature while the other is your Demeanor? That sounds like an awesome system.

        Never got massively into industrial, but I’ve seen Ministry live at Wacken, listened to old NIN… kinda dabbled a bit. Probably some good stuff in there if I had more of a look.

        Hurray for computer geekery. I’m looking forward to helping my nephew build his own PC when he’s a bit bigger. My daughter is going to get robots for christmas in a few years… building my skynet mwuhahah

  3. For some reason there wasn’t a reply link on your comment there. The old NIN and ministry was great stuff. Since you’re more of a metalhead though, I’d recommend taking a look at the older Angelspit stuff, (Krankhouse, Nurse Grenade,Blood Death Ivory, and Hideos and Perfect) they’re great. It’s like super heavy industrial. They put on ten times the show NIN did. I’ve seen them both.

    Good luck on getting your skynet running! Just make sure to keep something over them, otherwise they might decide they don’t need you anymore…. 😉

  4. Wonderful post–and comments!

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