When you’re creating a character from scratch it’s a good idea to know her name, her hair color, and how she takes her coffee…but those elements are just the start.
If you want to create truly compelling characters—the kind that leap off the page, the kind that really get into your readers’ bones—you’ll need to go beyond the superficial stuff and dig deep into your character’s internal landscape.
You’ve probably seen character checklists, worksheets where you fill out your character’s name, appearance, mannerisms, and such. Here’s a list of six things to consider to help you create fully fleshed-out, living, breathing characters:
Characters need a goal. A deeply felt desire. This is something they want, and they want it badly. You can also think of your character’s goal as a personal yearning. And it’s a driving force in the plot, as well as the character. Will your character achieve her goal? That’s the exact question that will keep your readers turning pages.
Jay Gatsby’s goal was to win Daisy. The Count of Monte Cristo’s goal was to get revenge against the people who wrongly put him in prison. Katniss Everdeen’s goal was to survive the Hunger Games.
Does your protagonist have a deep, burning desire for something? No? If you need a little inspiration, here’s a list of universal human needs.
Universal needs are only a starting point, however; they’re too abstract to be fully formed character goals. You’lll need to take the theme of the need, and make it specific for your protagonist.
Pro tip: While one goal is good, two is often better—specifically, a surface goal, and a root goal. Otherwise known as The Thing He Wants and The Thing He Needs (but just doesn’t realize it yet). Even better? If these two goals are in direct conflict to one another (see conflicting goals/inner contradiction, below).
Now, where did your character’s Goal come from? Often it springs from the Past Wound…
In screenwriting they call this The Ghost. It’s the thing that haunts your character, and it often becomes the thing that drives them to achieve their Goal.
Essentially, something bad has happened in your protagonist’s past. It affected them deeply, and it influences their decisions and actions now.
Wounds tend to give way to a great big Lie. It’s the thing your character believes—mistakenly—and it drives them in the present-time story. It’s something your character needs to face, to come to terms with, before they can see the truth.
Harry Potter’s parents were killed by Voldemort. It shaped the person he would become, and drove the story through the entire series of books.
In the film Good Will Hunting, Will was brutally abused by his parents when he was a child, which had a major impact on his ability, in adulthood, to form relationships and trust people.
Ebenezer Scrooge was surrounded by a whole collection of ghosts (literally): the death of a beloved sister, a wretched childhood, a lost love. Once he faced those ghosts (er, again, literally) was he able to become a complete man.
Where to get ideas for past wounds? Here, try this post about past wounds. It lists 7 common wound themes:
One further hint about this type of backstory: you may feel tempted to reveal the truth of your character’s past wound early in the story. Resist this temptation.
A fear is often the thing that drives your story. It is the basis for the stakes of the story (i.e. what your character has to lose), and it’s an excellent motivator. Consider these examples:
Disney’s Finding Nemo plays upon every parent’s greatest fear. Marlin is a father who, in a horrible accident, loses his wife and all their offspring—except one, Nemo. Naturally, he is completely protective of his one precious son, and his biggest fear? That something terrible would happen to Nemo. (Which, of course is exactly what does happen—or almost happens, and it’s up to Marlin to save him.)
In the movie The King’s Speech, George has a speech impediment and a crushing lack of confidence which adds up to an extreme fear of public speaking. What’s the worst thing that can happen to a man like that? He unexpectedly becomes King. During a time of War. (And yes, our protagonist here wasn’t a fictional character at all but a real person. It still makes for a great example.)
In The Hunger Games, Katniss was motivated by fear to survive the games. But it wasn’t a fear of death, not really. It was a fear of leaving her sister to fend for herself.
Another advantage of giving your character a meaningful fear (or two, or three) is that fear humanizes your character, and helps us identify with him or her. Indiana Jones—charming, brave, smart, physically capable, handsome—is made much more human by having a crippling fear of snakes.
In Divergent, the character Four—gorgeous, strong, cool—is likable and identifiable because he has distinct fears many of us can relate to: confinement, heights, having to kill someone, and fear of an abusive father.
So, need some more inspiration? Here are some important, and common fears:
More? Here you go, 110 common fears.
To design a character who is compelling, you want to create a sense of push-pull through inner turmoil, conflicting needs, layers of motivation.
Because in real life, who among us is a one-note song? In my own life, I live with contradictory goals all the time. I want to spend more time with my kids, yet I need to work to pay for the mortgage. Those two things are in direct contrast. I crave a bag of chips, yet I also want to maintain a healthy weight. BAM. Conflict.
When a reader encounters a character with internal conflict she feels that tension. She wants to know: how is the character going to resolve those conflicting goals? And that want to know causes her to keep reading.
In the movie Amadeus, Salieri is Motzart’s greatest—and often only—fan. Yet he’s consumed by envy and feels compelled to destroy him.
In Anna Karenina, Anna struggles with an impossible choice: her lover or her children. An agonizing dilemma that eats away at her.
Another way of creating that sense of push-pull is to create inner contradiction. Characters with layers. Characters who are more than they appear.
Take Scarlett from Gone With The Wind. She is vain, spoiled, and self-centered—but she possesses an iron determination to survive. Terrible things happen to her, but she stays strong. Even if you don’t love Scarlett, how can you not admire her?
Or Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Outwardly, she’s a surly, irresponsible teenager. But under that, she’s more than just a reckless punk—she’s highly intelligent, capable, and a talented computer hacker.
Nothing creates intrigue like a secret. And a character with a secret to hide…well, that’s a motivated character. A deep, dark secret adds suspense and tension to a story.
In Gone Girl, both main characters are rife with secrets and lies. Gillian Flynn reveals each twisted secret at just the right time, compelling us to keep reading and discover the next secret as we went deeper and deeper into the story.
Satine in Moulin Rouge is dying from consumption, but she keeps it a secret for many reasons. When the secret is finally revealed, it has devastating consequences.
Jean Valjean has a secret he carries with him throughout Les Miserables: his shady past as an convicted, imprisoned criminal. It’s a secret with the potential to destroy many lives, and Valjean is motivated to keep it buried and evade the man obsessed with hunting him down and bringing his secret to light.
Your character’s Secret may be the same thing as your character’s Past Wound, but it doesn’t have to be.
Nobody likes a perfect character, primarily because we just can’t relate.
Plus it’s boring.
Even superheroes have flaws. Superman has a vulnerability to kryptonite (and geeky, caustic female reporters). Batman has a dark side and a serious chip on his shoulder.
Han Solo? Gorgeous and brave but self-centered. James T. Kirk in the latest Star Trek reboot? Charming and clever but reckless. And although Jane Austen’s Emma has it all (she’s beautiful, delightful, and rich), she’s also stubborn, vain, and meddlesome.
A subtype of the Flaw is the Fatal Flaw. It’s something your character needs to conquer. And when we watch the evolution of that process? Character arc, baby.
A clear example of this is found in the movie Cars. Lightning McQueen is fast, young, and cool—but he’s also cocky and arrogant. He’s not a team player. He doesn’t place much stock in friendship. And that’s the whole underlying theme of the movie. Through much adversity he overcomes this tragic flaw—not to win the Piston Cup, but to win at pretty much everything else.
For more inspiration, check out this list of character flaws.
So there you have it. Six elements to consider when creating compelling characters.
Now I want to hear from you—do you have any favorite characters from books or film? What was it about that character that really pulled you in?