Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Dig Deeper for Your Characters

By Karen Albright Lin

We hear it all the time: create characters that are sympathetic, at least interesting. But how exactly do we do that? Consider these ideas for going beyond that simple formula.

Avoid subtlety. Many of us feel more comfortable when we dodge conflict and high risk behavior. We often don’t want to stand out, especially if it involves ruining our reputations. We want life to be easy. But instead of attempting to make a character’s choices safe and believable, make them bigger than life. Just as readers crave living vicariously in worlds in which they can’t live, readers want to take a 300-page journey with people who will do things they would never do. Shoot for cataclysmic decisions, external or internal. It may feel uncomfortable to put your characters through what would be horrifying to you. It may feel too big, but write it big with the knowledge that you can always trim it back. And take Donald Maass’s advice: make your character do what he would never do.

Go beyond the basic history we learn through sprinkled-in backstory. Create “headlines” for your characters, even your secondary characters. Think of a “headline” as a personal theme. Examples might be: Ann reacts to situations the way Jesus would. Paul was raised with, and acts out of, guilt. What unique experiences have they had that few others have had? These will often inform their thoughts and actions.
Consider his moral code. Is he sober, trustworthy, impulsive, principled? What are her dreams and ambitions? Is she like the character, Juno, who wants to find a good family for her out-of-wedlock baby? Even if those goals don’t play out in your plot line, readers will sense them. What’s her inner life like? Her self-talk, her fantasies? How does she express herself?

Even your hero has a shadow side. What are his demons and difficulties? Where is he powerful? Is it his sexual prowess? His alpha nature? Are these his real strengths or his feigned strengths? Is there a cultural component? I’ve modeled characters after my husband and his family members, all very superstitious because the Chinese have accumulated countless magical beliefs over the course of 5,000 years. Consider writing a meaning web. How do their beliefs and opinions, politics and religion meld or conflict? How do their careers guide or inhibit, enhance or burden their lives?

A great trick that can enrich a personality theme is to give the hero at least a smidgen of the worst trait you find in the antagonist. That way it’s like he’s battling himself. That gives you one more potential inner conflict and possible arc.

Will your protagonist meet his goal? He doesn’t have to. He can instead learn that it shouldn’t have been his goal. In When Harry Met Sally, Harry’s original goal was to prove women and men couldn’t be just friends. She believed they could. By the end of the movie, Harry and Sally have worked through numerous conflicts over attempts to be friends and come together as lovers.

Use plot tricks to enlighten us about your protagonist and antagonist. These will lead to arcs. Try creating a conflicted character or situation and work backwards. Change points of view at key moments. Consider sprinkling humor throughout a serious book and somber moments in humorous novels. Whatever traits you’ve given your characters, use them to guide their actions and be sure there is payoff.

Have big surprises, plot twists and reversals come from the actions of the hero, not by accident. In the course of the book, reveal something about the human condition; give readers the opportunity to laugh, cry, worry, feel uplifted, or inspired to be someone better.

Understand what is exceptional about your protagonist, antagonist, even your secondary characters. Readers forgive plot difficulties, but if they aren’t interested in your characters they’ll put the book down. You want them to stay up all night reading and then immediately buy your next one. Fascinating and nuanced characters will do that.

About the Writer:  Karen is an editor, ghostwriter, pitch coach, speaker and award-winning author of novels, cookbooks, and screenplays. She’s written over a dozen solo and collaborative scripts (with Janet Fogg, Christian Lyons and director Erich Toll); each has garnered international, national and regional recognition: Moondance Film Festival, BlueCat, All She Wrote, Lighthouse Writers, Boulder Asian Film Festival, SouthWest Writers Contest, and PPW Contest. Find out more at


  1. Great post, Karen! I especially like the paragraph about "A great trick that can enrich a personality theme is to give the hero at least a smidgen of the worst trait you find in the antagonist..."!

    1. Happy, Frank, that you read and enjoyed my take on characters. Thanks for your comments! It is a terrific trick since we battle ourselves and it makes for more realistic characters. Think about it, what are we most defensive about - the thing we know is true...what do we project onto others? Our own faults.

  2. Wow! I love this article because you told me it's okay to do what I do, but feel conflicted about. I like characters larger--or goofier--than life who make sudden and unexpected decisions. Ignatius Riley in John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces is a good example of such a character. Oddly, his butt is saved out of the blue, not by his own efforts, but by his friend, Myrna Minkoff. It works because Ignatius is a passive guy.
    Thanks for the great advice!

    1. Dear anon. Thanks for your comments! What are we most defensive about - the thing we know is true...what do we project onto others? Our own faults.

  3. Happy anonymous and Frank read and enjoyed my take on characters. Thanks for your comments!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.