Interesting and engaging characters are an essential element of any good story, but creating them can be a challenge. In this week’s post, Insight writer and English teacher Leanne Bondin offers her tips and strategies for creating vibrant characters in your imaginative writing.
Strong character development is one of the most important aspects of imaginative writing. In fact, characterisation is a key narrative convention, so creating believable, engaging and relatable characters that readers are genuinely interested in forms the basis of any good story.
So how can you write about characters in a meaningful way? Drawing from Insight’s Guide to Writing: A student toolkit, this post outlines some of the main strategies that you can use when crafting the characters in your narrative writing so that readers find them interesting and engaging enough to keep reading to the very end!
- Have a clear understanding of who your characters are. What do each of your characters look like? How do they interact with others and the outside world? What do they fear? Think about what they most value and how these values affect their attitudes. It can be a good idea to develop a character profile that records some of the physical and personal attributes and traits of your main characters.
- Draw inspiration from people around you. Consider the friends and family members that you are most interested in and try to pinpoint what makes them so intriguing or engaging. Is it their unique appearance? Their unusual occupation? Their fascinating upbringing? Choose a range of interesting character traits from these people and combine them to form a new and complex character.
- Develop a detailed backstory for your main character. It is important that you know your characters inside and out – this includes their personal history before the events of your story. Build a time line that traces your character’s life events leading up to the central narrative of your story, focusing on relevant moments that directly shape the character. In the narrative itself, only reveal aspects of this backstory where they are relevant to the unfolding plot. Be careful not to give away too much too quickly; instead, try to drip feed details of the backstory to the reader to keep them interested and curious.
- Establish your characters’ primary motivation. Decide what it is that drives each of your characters – for example, a desire to be better than their peers at something or to have their voice heard. A clear idea of your characters’ motivations will help to inform your choices about their behaviour. Once you have determined your character’s main goal, develop some believable challenges or obstacles that they must overcome to achieve it. These could be external obstacles, such as an encounter with a villain or a challenging test they need to succeed in, or internal obstacles, such as those created by feelings of unworthiness or jealousy. The way a character overcomes an internal conflict often serves as an excellent storyline.
- Ensure your character’s physical appearance reflects their personality. Describing your characters’ physical appearances can help your readers to easily remember them and to differentiate between them. Remember that a character’s appearance encompasses more than just their physical attributes. Describe the way each character moves, their mannerisms or their style of dress. Ensure that the way in which your characters present themselves reflects or reveals their values, motivations and interests.
- Craft your characters as complex, multidimensional and memorable. Remember that your characters, though fictional, should reflect real people. So, rather than relying on stereotypes such as the awkward teenager, the grumpy old man or the spoiled brat, develop nuanced characters with contradictions and surprising qualities.
- Consider including personal props, symbols or accessories associated with the character that recur throughout the story. Try to link these to the personal values and attitudes of the character so that they work to consolidate the reader’s understanding of their personality, backstory or motivations. For example, a character unsure of their direction in life might carry a compass their father left them before his death.
- Make your characters dynamic by giving them a clear developmental arc. Your characters should undergo significant change over the course of the narrative, rather than remaining static and unchanged. Elements of a traditional character arc include: the goal, which drives the characters; the lie, which hinders them from achieving their goal; and the truth, in which they either succumb to or overcome the lie. The change in the character can be as simple as coming to an important realisation.
- Ensure that your characters are relatable. Well-drawn, authentic characters are those that are believable to readers. Start by creating an empathetic character, and help readers to understand their struggles so that they want to read on to discover what happens to them.
- Show, don’t tell. Use indirect characterisation, in which a character is described through their thoughts, actions and speech, as well as through the speech, actions and reactions of other characters, to reveal the protagonist’s personality. For example, instead of saying that your character has a crush on someone, you could show it in the way they become tongue-tied every time that person is near.
As in most successful writing endeavours, developing interesting characters that effectively engage readers takes practice and perseverance. Take the time to experiment with characterisation using some of the strategies listed above – this will help you to skilfully craft narratives that readers really care about, relate to or are interested in.
Need help with your writing skills? Insight’s NEW Guide to Writing: A student toolkit is designed to equip students with the tools they need to become capable and confident writers. Aimed at middle-years students and supporting the Australian Curriculum for English, this combined textbook and workbook explores the four main types of writing: imaginative, persuasive, interpretive and analytical.
Image credit: Cristina Conti/shutterstock