What does it take to create a great character?
by Jason Black
First you need a fresh concept for the character, right? Sure. You
don’t want to be giving us the same cliché, central-casting
characters we’ve seen a million times. Then they have to be
admirable in some way that helps readers root for them. That is,
they don’t have to be likeable or nice, but there has to be
something about them we can respect. And we can’t forget to give the
character some flaws, too, so the character can experience personal
growth through the story. Naturally not. Besides, readers can’t
relate to characters who are too perfect. Oh, and a good, solid name
helps too, doesn’t it? Goodness knows we writers spend a lot of time
agonizing over finding the perfect name.
Those are all helpful things, but they’re not what it takes to create a great
Creating a great character takes you.
A great character is nothing more than a believable person, set down on paper.
It’s the believability that’s hard, because people aren’t simple. Real people
are complicated bundles of skills, fears, hopes, goals, beliefs,
misapprehensions, desires, attitudes, knowledge, experiences, history, and
personality. Creating a great character demands a writer who can deeply imagine
what it’s like to be another person, different and distinct from themselves in
all the elements of that bundle.
We have a word for this kind of deep imagination. For walking in someone else’s
shoes, if only within your mind: Empathy.
Creating a great character is an act of sheer empathy, of developing within your
imagination the ability to live a different set of skills, fears, hopes,
and all the rest, than your own. Can you do that? And can you do it for every
character in the book, all at the same time?
Fortunately, most people can. Or at least, they have that basic mental
capability. We humans are social creatures, and our ability to empathize is
literally hard-wired into our brains. (I won’t go into it here, but you can look
up ‘mirror neurons’ if you’re curious.)
Your job as a writer is to develop, through conscious practice, your skill of
empathy. As you do, your ability to invent believable people and set them down
on paper will improve.
Practice in your writing, yes, but practice in real life, too. As you encounter
other people in the world—the checker at the grocery store, the flagger
directing traffic around road construction, your kid’s teacher at school—try to
imagine what it’s really like to be them.
Observe the grocery clerk. How is she standing? How is she interacting with
customers? What kind of expression does she have on her face? Then try to be her
as you wait your turn in line. How do you imagine she feels when the person
ahead of you in line takes out a handful of loose change to tediously count out
price of a six-pack in pennies? Does that irritate her, like it probably
irritates you who are stuck in line behind that person? Or is the clerk perhaps
secretly glad, because at least for those two minutes while the person is
counting coins, she doesn’t have to do anything. She can just stand, relax, take
a deep breath or two.
Get in the habit of doing this as you go about your daily life, and you’ll find
that when you sit down to write you’re a lot quicker at figuring out how your
characters would feel and act in the situations you create for them. Your
characters will start to seem more like real people to you, because they are.
The more you can manage their complex bundles, as distinct from your own, the
more believable they will become.
This will be hard at first. Those bundles are so complex you won’t be able to
handle them in their entirety. Not all at once. But not to worry: at least
you’re starting somewhere, and any part of a character’s bundle you can’t handle
yet will be filled in with elements from your bundle. This means the
first characters you imagine will be more like you than not. But as you develop
your ability to empathize, your characters will become more distinct.
As writers, we’ve all heard many tips and tricks for improving our characters.
For example, to give your characters quirks and mannerisms that are based on
real people you know. Not to make clones of those people, but to pick and choose
interesting elements—a speech pattern here, an attitude there—from people you’re
very familiar with. It’s good advice, but it’s also shallow. You can make it
deep by recognizing the empathy that underlies it. Use all such advice, but as
you do, pay attention to the way in which it helps you to empathize better. What
it’s really doing is giving you hooks into additional elements of a character’s
Finally, too often I see writers forget that a character has—or should
have—their own complex bundle of hopes and desires and so forth. They stop
empathizing with the character, moment-to-moment, to figure out how the
character would naturally behave. In place of these natural behaviors, they
force the character to behave unnaturally for the writer’s own sake. They are
asking the question, “What do I want the character to do?” instead of the
question, “If I were this character, what would I do?”
If you are empathizing well, this should be an easy question to answer. After
all, through your empathy you are the character. But in that moment, you
are not yourself the writer. When you become your characters inside your
imagination, your own wants should fall by the wayside.
If I can leave you with one mantra, let it be this: Characters don’t exist
for your sake. Let them live and breathe and act for their own sakes, even if it
is you who must imagine every breath for them.
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