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Crafting Compelling Characters: Understanding What Makes a Good Character in Writing

As authors, one of our most important jobs is bringing characters to life on the page. Characters are what make stories resonate with readers and leave a lasting impact. But crafting characters that feel three-dimensional and true to life is no easy feat. It takes an understanding of human depth, complexity, and motivations.

In this post, we’ll uncover the secrets of crafting characters that resonate deeply with readers and breathe life into your stories. We’ll share insights and techniques on developing relatable characters with depth, goals, flaws, and inner lives that keep readers engaged until the final page.

What Makes a Good Character in Writing?

At their core, compelling characters have wants, needs, flaws, and personality traits that make them feel authentic and human. Readers need to care about what happens to your characters to stay invested in the story. So when crafting characters, focus on these key attributes:

Goals and Desires

Every character should have clear goals and motivations that drive the plot forward. Think about what each character deeply wants and is willing to struggle to achieve. The conflict stems from characters pursuing competing goals.

Backstories and Past Experiences

Give characters rich backstories and formative past experiences that shape who they are. Hint at past traumas, failures, relationships, and events through their behaviors and inner thoughts.

Flaws and Weaknesses

Characters should have realistic flaws or negative traits to make them believable. These imperfections create challenges, character growth, and complexity, making the characters feel genuine and relatable.

Unique Voices and Personalities

Distinguish characters through distinctive speech patterns, behaviors, attitudes, beliefs, and decision-making styles. Make each feel like a whole person through their individual quirks, worldviews, and ways of interacting.

Inner Lives and Thoughts

Help readers see inside your characters’ heads. Reveal how they perceive events, what insecurities or hopes secretly motivate them, and how past regrets or dreams shape their choices in the present.

Layers of Depth

Give characters multiple dimensions. They should have contradictions, ambiguities, shades of gray, and room for growth rather than being single-trait archetypes. Continually reveal new layers as the story unfolds.

With these elements, you’ll create authentic characters who earn the readers’ empathy and make them root for their hopes and journeys. Grounded, realistic characters with inner complexity are the heart and soul of any story.

Character Arcs and Growth

Strong characters don’t remain static – they undergo meaningful change. Think about crafting a character arc that tracks a character’s emotional and psychological journey over the course of the story. Perhaps they:

  • Overcome a defining flaw or weakness
  • Learn a difficult life lesson
  • Gain self-awareness
  • Heal from past trauma
  • Rediscover their purpose or passion
  • Open their heart in new ways
  • Achieve a dream against all odds

Focus on milestones that signify progress on the character’s arc. Arcs don’t have to result in total transformation—characters can subtly evolve in relatable, imperfect ways through exposure to new perspectives and experiences. Growth makes characters memorable long after finishing the book.

Grounded, realistic characters with inner complexity are the heart and soul of any story

Bringing Characters to Life on the Page

It’s not enough to simply conceive rounded characters – readers need to viscerally experience them through sensory details:

  • Physical descriptions convey a sense of physical presence. How do characters look, carry themselves, dress, etc?
  • Mannerisms, gestures, tics, and habits capture their personality. Do they bite their nails, click a pen, and have a signature laugh?
  • Emotions are shown through body language, expressions, and physiological responses like blushing, sweating, or a racing heart.
  • Unique speech patterns, accents, or vocabularies for each character’s “voice.” How do they communicate?
  • Sensory details of what characters hear, smell, taste, and feel keep readers immersed in each moment through their perspective.
  • Inserting occasional interior thoughts, dreams, and memories gives a window into their inner lives and what secretly drives them.

Vivid sensory and emotional storytelling brings characters to three-dimensional life on the page in a way that feels real and leaves lasting impressions.

Additional Character-Crafting Techniques

Beyond the core attributes already discussed, here are some other character-building techniques to enrich your toolkit:

  • Give characters distinctive motifs, objects, hobbies, or talents. For example, a musician character might carry their instrument or fiddle with guitar strings when anxious.
  • Contrasting pairs of characters highlight different traits. A dynamic duo with opposing personalities, values, or backgrounds challenge each other in fun ways.
  • Use character archetypes initially but complicate them. For example, a classic “bully” character may have deep-seated insecurities driving their cruelty.
  • Build in hidden depths or surprises. Maybe a shy, unassuming character has a courageous history they don’t openly share. Leave room for revelation.
  • Show how backstories shape worldviews through formative events. Characters will react and interpret based on their lenses and experiences.
  • Incorporate character foil types that highlight different strengths. A free-spirited character may envy a more responsible friend’s stability.
  • Consider love interests not just as romantic partners but as whole people with unique personalities and arcs of their own.
  • Challenge stereotypes by subverting reader expectations of gender, age, race, or other traits in dimensional ways.
  • Experiment with character perspectives beyond the expected protagonist through multidimensional minor characters.

The more layers, textures, and dimensions you infuse into your characters, the more readers will relate to them on deep, emotional levels. Take risks to develop characters in fresh, compelling ways.

Character actions

Charles Dennis’ latest novel has authentic characters that stay with you long

Charles Dennis’ Balm of Angels Is a Must-Read

In summary, memorable characters are what makes novels unforgettable. With a focus on depth, relatability, individual voices, and a dynamic arc of growth, your characters can truly jump off the page. Take time to understand each character’s inner journey and ground them with vivid details that draw readers into their perspectives. With practice and experience, you’ll get better at crafting characters that move readers in believable, satisfying ways.

If you’d like to see these character-writing techniques in action, we highly recommend picking up Charles Dennis’ new novel Balm of Angels. Readers have praised Balm of Angels for its authentic, emotionally powerful characters that stay with you long after the final page. You can order your copy today.

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