How to not suck at crafting compelling characters

How to not suck at crafting compelling characters


I am a firm believer that character driven plots are really the only stories worth telling. Characters make the story work, no exceptions.

That’s going to net me frothing rage from certain writers who focus solely on plot and world building, but let me tell you — 99% of your readers don’t care

The attention span of humans right now is something like 8.25 seconds. 

No one has time to care about what your airship is called, or what language those “totally-not-elven” aliens are using.

Your readers don’t — and won’t — give a shit.

Especially if they don’t give two iotas of a crap about your characters as people. 

Every story has been told a million times before. Your idea is not unique. 

What remains unique are the struggles of people who you can relate to, are fascinated by, who challenge your worldview, or are very different than you are.

Nicholas Brown from the manga / anime Gangsta is super interesting. He’s the only example of a deaf character I’ve ever seen in anime that’s actually a main character. By the way, he’s signing “you and me together”, which is really charming.

Your intent is to engage, entertain and challenge. Yup. Don’t want to do any of those things for your readers? You might as well not be a writer. At least not a fiction writer, in any case.

So now that you know — and really should have always known — that your characters are what drives people to keep reading — how do you deal with it?

I’m going to give you some helpful tips on how to “get into the zone” (the autozone) and make characters truly worth caring about.

1.) Start with a song

Y Control by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs helps me get into a “horror” sort of mood. But it’s also a playful song and video, despite being horrific with some demon children and vampires thrown in, so that’s helpful.

Does this sound like weird advice? It is weird advice. But it works.

Imagery and music are both amazing on their own. They elicit responses in the human brain that conjure and craft moods, make you think, and delight or terrify the senses. 

Adding them together means you get a visual and aural painting of who someone might be.

Have you ever been down in the dumps and blasted a song on repeat? 

Take that power of emotional affect and weave the idea of a person.

Now that you have that, think on where you’d place this person for maximum impact.

2.) Make a mood board on Pinterest

This is where I got this. But they should really be crediting the original creator of the last panel. Allie, from Hyperbole and a Half.

Another weird-as-hell tip, but this also works.

Stuck on what a character looks like or who they are? Use Pinterest to gather together settings, scenery, objects, and something known in the RP world as “faceclaims”. 

And make a damned mood board.

I’m about to get really nerdy on you, so please forgive me in my moment of weakness.

I started writing and participating in roleplaying games in college. You know, the forum ones where you write paragraphs and someone else writes the next part.

That’s where I first heard the phrase “faceclaim”. A faceclaim is an actor, illustrated character, musician, model — whatever — that embodies what your character looks like.

By holding their image in your mind, and crafting a Pinterest board around their interests, it’s going to be easier to refer back to them when you get lost.

3.) Write from what you know, or at least write from what you can understand.

This might seem contradictory to one of my earlier statements. The one about writing characters that are unlike you or challenging to your worldview.

However.

I personally think that in order to understand a character, you need a bit of “method actor” in you, insofar as to sit in their shoes.

Sit in their shoes, stew in it, and try to articulate why they do what they do, how they do it, and how it makes them feel.

Just don’t sit in it for too long. Method writing can go too far, just like method acting.

Not to say you are a writer incapable of disengaging from your characters, but let’s be real and take a hint from the method-actor-meltdown playbook and break up the chaos with something pleasant like petting cats and eating cookies.

4.) Research how different people speak. Bad or unrealistic dialog kills even the best of stories.

I’ve been writing my main character’s various escapades for 8 years. He’s going to star in an actual novel soon, hurrah.

I know what he sounds like, and how he talks. I have the benefit of many years of working his character over.

You probably don’t have that in your tool belt. And even if you do, I see the mistake of crafting crap dialog used over and over again even by the best of writers.

No person really ever talks this way:

“I think that besmirching Ingrid is the best possible way to ruin her life and therein take her down to the level of less than a grain of sand. In order to do this, I need to blahlhahbalhsohdo manipulatiofhdfhdhdf dfhdf hf words words dgg n words,” he said with a smile.

My character would never speak that way, and most people don’t. And no one is going to pay attention to 12 paragraphs of dialog.

Because something something, attention spans, something.

This is more likely:

“I’d have a lot of fun breaking Ingrid. And I know just how to do it,” he said as the corner of his mouth twisted into a self-satisfied smirk. 

That’s a hell of a lot of information about his character in just one jab.

You need to use language to portray personhood, not use language to assault your readers with words you like

Listen, I get it. If you’re writing some sprawling fantasy novel, dialog probably does sound flowery.

But not that much, and that’s too much telling and not enough showing.

I don’t like that rule, personally: “show not tell”. I don’t like it because sometimes telling is important, and it really depends on the writing style and how you craft stories. 

Sometimes it works. Other times, it’s really better to let your reader fill in the blanks. 

Holding their hand during an entire stream of dialog is infantilizing for your reader. It turns people off.

5.) Giant character sheets or backstories are boring and limiting. Stop doing it.

Obviously this is from eBaum’s world. Obviously.

I see this on Reddit all the time. Writers of r/Writing get so very excited about sharing each and every tiny detail of their character and they end up being about as interesting as a bucket of off-brand mayonnaise

The minute you start zeroing in on the smallest of specifics or outlining gigantic swaths of their history in a huge spreadsheet is the minute you lose a bit of flow.

By not giving wiggle-room to the cerebral or emotive qualities of your character, and by staunchly lodging them in a dry timeline of events, with copious amounts of technical and world-related references, you lose something.

You lose the ability to have them evolve over time. Or your perceptions of them. Or your reader’s perceptions, for that matter.

Don’t agree with me? Too bad.

Every reader everywhere would much prefer to follow a character’s exploits, even in flashbacks, from an emotive standpoint. I don’t give a crapnugget if you think that’s not the case. 

The #1 way to lose reader interest is to spew character info out in a matter-of-fact timesuck lore bologna sandwich.

No one is going to bother eating it, sorry.

6.) Not everyone is the hero of their own story.

Let’s talk character motivation for a second. 

The naive but driven protagonist who saves the world through sheer force of ‘special kid’ or ‘impossible optimism’ is a boring trope.

Everyone thinks they’re the hero of their own story. Literally everyone. But that doesn’t mean they are.

Write some assholes. Write some douchebags. Write some unlikable ladies. Write some people who are totally inept. 

Although no idea is really unique or original, execution is everything. 

And a part of your formula for crafting something truly genuine and engaging is making characters who interest readers.

We’ve all had enough of “boy hero saves the world because he is super duper special”, thanks.

7.) Include a diverse cast, but don’t be hamfisted about it.

This point might ruffle a few jimmies, but I need to say it:

There are a shitload of other people in this world unlike yourself. Your readers are not all going to be exactly like you. It’s just a fact.

Knowing the above, if you want the world your characters operate within to be relateable to more people, you should probably not have everyone be a pleasant shade of mayonnaise, for example.

To shove an anecdote in here: I was given criticism on a story idea a while back on Reddit, the very story idea that ended up becoming the blueprint for my science fiction novel.

They warned me not to make my novel so diverse it was like a “packet of skittles”.

And they gave me this warning because the main character is a bisexual male, at some point there are lesbians, and I have a Puerto Rican character.

When I read this, something happened to my body.

I eye-rolled so hard my eyes fell out of my face, became magnetic ball-bearings and ripped the silverware out of the sink and smashed me in the head, causing me to blackout for a couple of hours.

When I came to, I had the distinct feeling that it was now my duty to make my novel a packet of fucking skittles.

Like I wrote earlier, your novel is for other people.

Not everyone who reads what I write is going to be like me. And I want to write their stories. Because they are told far too infrequently.

On the flipside of the diversity in literature issue: do your damned research.

If you’re going to include other cultures in your story that you’re not a part of, people who have other sexual orientations or identities, speak other languages, or anything like that — do your research.

A big one I see is having a character with a mental illness that glorifies / misunderstands the illness, so the writer can feel like they did something unique or quirky. That’s lazy, and it’s cheap.

An even bigger one I see is when female writers (sorry not sorry) write homosexual male characters and lodge them firmly in stereotypes. This bothers me, a lot.

Please, bring the diversity in a meaningful, well researched way. 

And remember that your readers are not all straight white guys. 

8.) Don’t be lazy with love interests

Check out the women in refrigerators trope for more info. It’s annoying, so stop doing it please.

Writing a female character that gets killed off to further the growth of a more important male character is pretty lazy. And boring.

I’ve used this trope plenty of times in my writing, but I reference the trope always. Always, I bring it up, and point at it like: y’all this is stupid. There has to be a method to your madness, here.

If a female character has to die to get your male protagonist to take action, you should probably not be allowed to write female characters.

That sounded really mean. It did. I know.

But I don’t care.

Death is something that happens. Death is emotional. Death can be dramatic. Death of a loved one is many a story’s bread and butter

But a character shouldn’t be so one-dimensional that they were just an excuse to get someone off their ass, better themselves, take action, or save the world.

This can be done in a tactful and classy way that doesn’t make the “literally a plot point” character feel cheap. 

But it’s incredibly rare I see it done well enough to be meaningful. It just ends up becoming a running joke. (If you’re in on the joke, then that’s pretty fun, so do that please)

9.) Make some normal people, please.

Fry from Futurama is extremely mediocre and sometimes exceedingly brilliant and stupid, at the same time.

Not everyone needs to be a magical warlord alien fire-breathing mecha magical girl. 

There has to be some normal person, somewhere, that has normal reactions, like:

“Oh shit, that’s a fucking werewolf.”

“Holy crap, everyone is on fire?”

“I am totally not going into that abandoned demon-house, sorry.”

“Yeah. I don’t have any super powers. Yeah. I know. Lame, huh?”

Fantastical things are really fun. I know, I get it. I fall into this trope and idea often too, mostly because I write science fiction, horror, and fantasy.

But there has to be some hapless character, somewhere, that isn’t an amazing super-beast.

Because if everyone on the cast is an overpowered Godling, there isn’t really a barometer for exactly how powerful they are.

And then your world is just populated by people who can blow up planets, and it doesn’t feel as impactful when a planet is really, well, blown up.


To conclude this gigantic writing-rant you probably bailed on half-way through:

Your story isn’t unique. How a character interacts with a story, is.

Characters are what drives stories. How they interact. How they operate and function within their world. The challenges they face. Their victories, their failures, their flaws and their virtues.

Characters are the lifeblood of stories.

Our job, as writers, is to entertain, engage and challenge our audience. And in 2019, our audience is more keyed-in and easily-distracted than ever.

So make your characters truly, truly count.

If you have any questions or want to bounce some ideas off of me, feel free to respond below.

Happy writing, nerds.


Kira Leigh is a snarky marketing nerd, writer, and artist. See her work hereand send her a message if you want to work together with her amazeballs team.

Special thanks to Renato P. dos Santos for his continued support.

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