Building Your Characters


Keeping your reader engaged in your story can be challenging. In addition to a good plot line, scenes with plenty of conflict, and an active language style, you must develop the characters in your story effectively. You want the reader to develop a desire for the character to persevere and triumph in the end. Relating in this way keeps them engaged, even when the story reaches a plateau.

First, think about the character’s background. This does not require a full biography, only those events and experiences that help the reader to understand who this character is. Some events can create attitudes, preferences and beliefs that drive the character’s behavior. Some events leave permanent marks in the character’s psyche, which can ignite a passion or instill a long lasting fear.

An encounter with a growling male boxer dog at the age of four can create a fear of large dogs that lingers. Conversely, after not being selected for the team, an unexpected opportunity to play baseball and then score home runs can ignite a passion.

Not all of these background development events or links to the past need to be covered in the first chapter. Many such links can be integrated into the storyline to provide background and expand the character beyond the place and time in the story. For example, O’Brien reached up onto the top shelf of his closet and carefully brought down his old Zeiss box camera. The camera was a gift from his uncle John, who became a second father to him, when he graduated high school.

Second, think about what the character does very well, and what he or she does not do well at all. In other words, describe the character’s strengths and weaknesses. Some of these are derived from experiences or events and others are simply innate abilities or weaknesses. Weave these abilities into the story so that the character performs consistently as the reader expects. Heroes who make mistakes or who fail to excel at some things are more endearing and more real to the reader. A hero who is unfailingly successful throughout the entire story will become predictable and less believable. However, it is a good idea for the character to be very good at something, and to develop and use that skill throughout the story.

Third, regardless of whether the character is good or weak at something, describe a specific passion that drives the person’s behavior and bring that into the story as well. For example, O’Brien was a construction project manager, but his real passion was photography. He spent many hours of his time away from work capturing images of trees and birds. Even better, use this passion to help solve a key puzzle in the story. The reader will want to follow the development of this passion as it adds an interesting dimension to the character and the story.

Finally, think about the nature of the character. The character may be an honest, clean living individual. To make it more interesting, have this character do some bad things occasionally. Likewise, a character prone to mischief and bad behavior can surprise the reader by doing something good for someone else. Develop a consistent style for describing the character’s behavior and dialog to help the reader recognize the unique individual. Extend this to how the character generally relates to other people. This may include a confident attitude, an air of superiority, shyness, or any manner that is reflected in interaction with others. These attitudes will also result in specific ways that others respond to the character.

No character is perfect, and the reader wants to relate to specific elements that make the character and the story unique. Too little character development leaves the job of developing the character to the reader. If you’re lucky, the reader will get to the end of your book. Unfortunately, each reader will have a unique perspective about who this character is. To make your book sell easier, and to open the door for a series based on the same character, take the time to develop the character your way.