Have you ever read a book where the characters seem so real it’s like they could step off the page and sit down for a coffee with you? Those are the kinds of characters I love - the ones you almost miss when the novel comes to an end. Unfortunately, too many books I read contain characters that seem little more than cardboard cutouts.
Being able to craft a protagonist in your story that is three-dimensional and totally “real” is a skill that a lot of novelists struggle with. If you find it difficult to create those kinds of characters, you’re certainly not alone - but it’s absolutely possible to learn this skill. And it’s not as hard as you might think it is! Keep reading if you want to discover powerful secrets for creating characters that jump right off the page.
What Not To Do
You’ve probably come across those questionnaires that many ‘how-to-write’ websites love so much. You know the questions I mean - the ones that are supposed to help you get to know your characters by having you fill in every detail of your character’s life. Where they were born, their middle name, how their parents met, their job, their hobbies… and so on.
Here’s my first piece of advice. Don’t rely on those kinds of questionnaires to bring your characters to life. Sure, it can help to have those details to hand when you’re writing, but I’m afraid they’re not going to give you three-dimensional characters. It’s not facts that bring your characters to life.
Getting Under Your Protagonist’s Skin
Being able to describe what your character looks like is useful, but it’s not what makes him come alive in your reader’s mind. Instead, you need to focus on what makes your character tick. To get under your characters’ skin, you need to know the answers to these kinds of questions:
What motivates him?
What is she afraid of?
Is she emotional, passionate and extroverted or placid, gentle and introverted?
What secrets does he have that he’s afraid that others may reject him because of?
What influences her decision-making?
What’s his life-story?
What makes her happy?
What makes him angry?
How does she present herself to others - and is that at odds at how she feels inside?
What are the experiences that have shaped his opinions and reactions to different situations?
The emotional details of your protagonist’s psyche are far more important than being able to describe the color of his hair or the layout of her home. When I write fiction, I’ve been known to spend more time getting to know my characters innermost secrets than I actually spend on writing the novel.
Taking the time to really get under your characters’ skin can be frustrating when you just want to sit down and write, but trust me, the effort is absolutely worth it. When I look at some of the stories I wrote before I discovered the secrets of bringing my characters to life on the page, I’m embarrassed by how two-dimensional the characters seem. I didn’t spend enough time understanding what made my protagonists tick, and it shows.
I’m going to take you through my own 3-step process for creating realistic characters so that you can easily follow a tried-and-tested technique that really works.
3 Powerful Steps Toward Understanding Your Protagonists
When you start the process of bringing your characters to life, I suggest you open a new document for each protagonist. This is where you can keep and organize all the details you ‘discover’ and have a handy reference when you start to write your novel. This technique also works for short stories, but you won’t need quite so much detail!
Step 1: Exploring the Psyche
The psyche of your protagonist and other characters is where their motivations lie. There are different aspects to this - both conscious and subconscious. While it may seem a little weird at first to dig into the subconscious of a character that you’re creating, investing time in this exercise really pays off.
To explore your protagonist’s psyche, you need to ask deep and searching questions and dig into as much detail as you can. If you find that you’re struggling with this exercise, you might want to try the ‘empty chair’ visualization. Put a chair opposite you and imagine that your character is sitting in it. Ask them the following questions, as you might do if it was a friend sitting in the chair.
What is your primary goal and why is it so important to you?
What is the deepest desire in your life?
Do you worry that you’ll never reach the point where that deepest desire is realized? If so, why is that?
What are you most afraid of?
What are your core beliefs about yourself, other people, and the world around you?
Do you believe in fairytales?
What are your views about marriage, divorce, happiness, success, and failure?
If you could sum up your fundamental beliefs in a single sentence, what would that sentence be?
What three values describe you the most closely?
What principles do you believe should always be adhered to?
What drives you to get out of bed every morning?
At the end of this exercise, you will have a pretty good insight into the conscious and subconscious things that make your character who they are. If there are other questions you want to ask, go ahead and ask them - this list isn’t an exhaustive one!
Step 2: Examining their Behavior
Knowing how your character will react in different situations can help you to craft scenes that really bring your protagonist to life. We’ll be looking at why they behave the way they do in step 3, so in this step, you need to focus solely on your character’s behavior and actions.
Instead of asking your character questions, this step requires you to really exercise your imagination. By the time you’ve finished with this step, you’ll be confident in knowing how your character will react in a whole range of situations, and it’s this kind of detailed knowledge that allows you to bring your protagonist to life on the page.
You’re going to be putting your protagonist (and other key characters) into a range of hypothetical situations, so this step can take a while! You don’t have to go through all the scenarios at once, though - it’s something you can come back to later if you’re short on time.
Your protagonist leaves the office and rides the elevator to the underground garage to get their car to head home. As they’re pulling out of the garage, a black sedan comes hurtling towards them and rear-ends their vehicle. What does your protagonist do?
The phone rings in the middle of the night. Your protagonist sees that it’s an ‘unknown number’ and ignores the call. In the morning, they check voicemail and learn that a friend or family member has been involved in an accident. By the time they get to the hospital, the person has passed away. How do they react?
Your protagonist heads out on a hike one Saturday morning after a busy week at work. After a couple of hours, they come across an abandoned campsite. There’s a still-smoldering campfire that suggests that it’s not long since someone left in a hurry. Suddenly, your protagonist hears the sound of someone sobbing. What do they do?
Your character spends several hours at a family picnic attended by extended family and friends. They have a secret that they thought no one is aware of, but then their cousin makes a comment that suggests the secret is out of the bag. What does your protagonist do?
It’s vacation time, and your protagonist is vacationing in Jamaica. While they’re lazing by the pool, a stranger asks a too-intimate question. How does your protagonist respond?
New neighbors have moved in, and the whole neighborhood is talking about them because they’re not the kind of people who normally live in this part of town (for whatever reason, it’s up to you!). Your protagonist is mowing the front lawn when the new neighbors come out of the house. How does your character respond to them?
Your protagonist discovers that they have a stalker. What aspects of their personality emerge in response to the chilling situation?
At work, your protagonist’s line manager is deported because she’s breached the terms of her visa. Suddenly, your character has to step into a leadership role that they’ve never been trained for. How do they respond, and what kind of leader do they make?
Your protagonist is talking to a friend when they suddenly realize that they’ve caught their friend in a lie. How do they react? (You can flip this one and imagine how your character would behave if a friend discovered that your character has been lying to them).
There’s a freak storm that knocks out the power and phone lines and leaves your character stuck in the office, unable to get home because of flash flooding. Their twelve-year-old child is home alone. How does your character respond to the crisis?
If you want to try more scenarios to delve even deeper into your character’s behavior, feel free to create your own!
Step 3: Understanding their Influences
Now that you understand your character’s psyche a little more, and you’ve delved into the way that they behave, it’s time to start exploring the things that have shaped them as a person. To a certain extent, this is similar to knowing your character’s backstory, but in this exercise, you’ll be delving a bit deeper and exploring facts that might never be revealed in your novel.
Backstory is usually used as part of the novel in some form or another, but many of the details that you’ll be uncovering in this exercise are about helping you to understand your characters, rather than providing the context in a story. You can use the empty chair technique again to ask your character about the things that have made them who they are.
What is your earliest memory?
How have your early experiences impacted on your personality? For example, have they made you:
Tell me about your childhood.
What kind of relationship do you have with your parents and other close family members?
How old were you when you had your first kiss?
What were your experiences at school like?
Were you encouraged to express yourself as a child?
Can you tell me about the 7 most challenging and/or life-changing events you’ve experienced in your life? How have these events shaped you?
Do you find it easy to trust other people? Why/why not?
Who was your first crush, and why were you attracted to them?
When you are faced with a threatening situation, is your immediate response one of fight, flight or freeze?
Again, this isn’t an exhaustive list of questions, so feel free to add others that you think will deepen your understanding of your character(s).
Real Characters Require Real Effort
It would be great if there was a quick and easy way to create characters that just leap off the page, but unfortunately, there isn’t. Cutting corners when you’re creating characters leads to two-dimensional characters that your readers will quickly lose interest in and forget about once the novel is over.
If you want characters that are going to stay in your readers’ minds and give you a solid fanbase for future books featuring the same characters, then you’re going to have to put the time in. Trust me, you won’t regret it. What’s more, if you’re planning a series then you only have to get to know your protagonist once, so future novels will be ‘easier’ to write.
About the author:
Ariella is an experienced copywriter, editor, and digital marketing consultant. Driven by a passion for writing and content creation she takes pride in producing articles that deliver the latest information in an engaging manner and marketing campaigns that deliver exceptional results. Ariella has a BA (Hons) in English Language and Creative Writing (First), an MA in Theology and Ministry, and is a published author of three novels and a bestselling non-fiction book. A creative at heart, Ariella has 14 years’ industry experience and always aims to keep abreast of current trends and developments. She lives in the UK with her three beagles Zeke, Hope, and Sandy, who always make life interesting.