Five Essentials of Character Building

No matter the genre, every story has characters; otherwise you’d be writing a phone directory. Hold on. Bad analogy. I know plenty of characters in a phone book, and who in the wide, wide world of sports uses a phone book anymore anyway?

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Creating a memorable character doesn’t have to be daunting!

As I was saying, sans phone books, characters are an essential ingredient in a story recipe. There are lots of tricks to jazz up a character to make him memorable, but EVERY character needs some basic elements right from the get-go.

#1. FEAR

What makes your character scream like a little girl? Centipedes? The IRS? The threat of an alien abduction and subsequent probe . . . wait a minute . . . I’m scaring myself. And that, my friends, is the point. Everyone is afraid of something, fictional or not. Identify what terrifies your character so that you can use that fear to ramp up the tension.

#2. STRENGTH

I’m not talking six-pack abs here, though in the case of your hero, that’s never a bad idea. What sweet skills does your character possess? Is he a crazy freak with nunchucks? Can she hit a raccoon in the eyeball from fifty yards away with a slingshot? Maybe this character has x-ray vision and can see into people’s souls. Whatever. Give them something to work with. Even Charlie Brown excelled with his spirit of compassion.

#3. FLAWS

Perfect characters make readers want to punch them in the head. Nobody is flawless, so make sure your character isn’t either, even your super stud that swoops in to save the day and the damsel in distress all with one arm tied behind his back. This can be something as small as an inability to balance a checkbook, or feeding a gambling habit using stolen money copped from nuns. It’s not mean to give your character a flaw. It’s a necessity.

#4. A SECRET

Psst. Hey buddy. Come over here and I’ll whisper you some covert information because have I got something juicy to tell you! Are you leaning toward the screen? That’s because you want to know what I’ve got hidden. Secrets are like big, juicy nightcrawlers wriggling on a hook, irresistible to the reader fish. Characters with secrets reel a reader in.

#5. MOTIVATION

Everybody wants something. A brand-spanking-new Tesla. A mutton lettuce tomato sandwich. The stupid hangnail on your thumb to go away. Your character wants something as well. After you identify what it is, then dig a little deeper and find out why they want it. What drives them to go after their desire? That is motivation. I’m not saying you have to spell this out to a reader with a ton of backstory, but it’s important for you as a writer to know because it will show up in their mannerisms and even in the way they speak to others. Motivation manifests in attitude. What kind of aura do you want your character to portray?

These are the building blocks of creating a memorable character, someone who will stick with a reader long after they’ve read the last page of your story. What character haunts your head from one of your favorite authors? Chances are that the author used each one of these elements in his/her creation.

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2 thoughts on “Five Essentials of Character Building

  1. Good article! I’ll have to check my WIP and make sure I use these characteristics. And if one of my characters was a Mad Scientist, he’d want a Tesla–not the car, but the apparatus that creates lightning! Hmm. I’ll have to think about that.

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