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As a follow-up to last week’s post about writing short stories, I was encouraged by a few of my Twitter followers to compose a guide on how to go about writing strong characters. It makes perfect sense–you write a solid story with careful planning, so of course you want strong characters to inhabit the world that you worked so hard to create! So let’s take a look at how to build convincing, strong characters for a story of any length. Be forewarned, I’m going to get a little ranty, and don’t forget that these are just my views and my opinions–you can take them or leave them. 🙂
Why Should You Care About Character Development?
Because almost everyone cares about character development.
As a writer, you hear over and over again that you need to “write strong characters.” To me, this phrase has just become one of those regurgitated soundbites that goes in one ear and out the other. Of course you want to write convincing characters! Do you even know of any writer who proudly shows you his or her manuscript and says, “Don’t you love my two-dimensional characters? I really tried hard to make sure they were as bland as possible!”
Of course you don’t.
Quite possibly the only genre that doesn’t bother with any character building is the straight-up pornographic work; I’ll let that one slide because we all know the reason for that.
But for those of us who want to create masterful character-driven plots full of tension, emotion, and unforgettable people–people who, by the end of the story, the reader feels like they truly know and love–we want to get this character development thing down.
So how do I make sure I’m doing this right?
Honestly, there’s no one way to do this. The best way to ensure you’re writing strong characters is to a) read your genre and b) listen to your fans. I’m a fan of science fiction, and I can tell you that there is a lot of content out there with stiff, unbelievable characters; however, science fiction isn’t alone in that department. I know that is not a particularly innovative statement, but it’s really important that you consider these avenues when writing your characters.
That being said, I certainly have a handful of tips that will make you truly consider the choices you’re making in developing your characters.
I’m going to start with women first, because this is a common question people have when writing.
Writing Strong Female Characters (TM)
Another soundbite. Another thing that goes in one ear and out the other. You hear this over and over and OVER again until it’s reached that point of saturation where you just default to calling any and all of your female characters “strong” without stopping to consider what writing strong female characters even means.
First of all, writing strong female characters doesn’t mean that you write a woman who is a ball-buster who secretly–or not so secretly–loves sex. I’ve seen so many people who claim their main female character is “strong” because she takes no shit from men and is proud of her body, and isn’t afraid to use it as a weapon to get what she really needs. She’s independent! She’s sexy! She’s got brains… and no real personality!
She’s basically a man in a dress.
Making a woman “strong” doesn’t mean you make her into a man. I’ve actually heard authors give advice like, “Write a man, but change all of the pronouns to feminine. Boom, you got a strong lady.” That’s terrible advice. In fact, I suggest you replace “strong” with the word “believable” or something along those lines, so you don’t get the idea that you must make a woman exhibit a man’s ideas of what strength *really* is to be a valuable character.
To write a strong (or believable!) female character, you must write a character with real flaws as well as real strengths. Insecurities, hobbies, phobias, education, training, extro- or introversion–all of these things contribute to making a strong character. So how do you make sure she has “real flaws and strengths”?
Simple. Ask yourself this: “Is this flaw actually a strength in disguise?” and “Is this strength a trope?”
Let’s go over an example, starting with strength masquerading as a flaw.
Your protagonist Elle is a little bit too nice. This is supposed to be a flaw because it gets her heart broken a lot and causes her to suffer for the sake of dramatic tension! But I wouldn’t necessarily call it a real flaw, and here’s why:
You know how in a job interview, you disguise a “flaw” as a strength? (I am so attentive to detail that sometimes I take too long to get things done–but I always do things perfectly!) That’s how I see this situation.
But that doesn’t mean that you can’t write Elle to be kindhearted to a fault. You just have to develop it more. You could try something like this:
Elle bears the emotional burden of others because she doesn’t feel valued unless she gives life-changing advice. She gives so much of her energy to others that she neglects her own issues and ultimately alienates herself, despite trying so hard to care for others. People often use her as a shoulder to cry on, but it’s easy to take advantage of her seemingly unending fount of empathy.
Does that constitute being “too nice”? Yes. But it gives Elle a real personality flaw that can be worked into a wonderful story.
I’ll provide an example of “strength as a trope” in the next section.
Writing Strong Male Characters
Writing men can also be a challenge. Though men have been the focus of storytelling for most of history, it’s still easy to write them in an unconvincing way. In this section, I’ll address a few tropes/cliches that I have noticed and provide examples of how you could easily improve your dude with just a little bit of effort.
Trope 1: Chick Magnet. This guy gets all the ladies. They fall all over him. He exists and they flock to him because, well… there he is, the man with all those one-liners and totally hot pecs. I mean, what else do you need? A personality? NOPE. NOT THIS GUY.
This guy is celebrated across genres–think of the “James Bond” type–and of course there’s no need to get rid of a character that people recognize and love. But there is a limit to how long I can watch this guy do nothing interesting (or worse, act like a complete jerk) and yet be rewarded for it. Why doesn’t he ever suffer consequences for his actions? Why doesn’t someone grow a backbone and tell him he’s a selfish jerk? I don’t know. It never seems to happen.
Trope 2: The Can-Do-No-Wrong Guy. This guy is smart. Handsome. Educated. Totally badass. Does he need to learn a new skill to push the plot forward? You bet he’ll learn it without an issue. Does he need to overcome a big obstacle–fight a strong foe, save his lovely lady friend, or sneak into a top-secret location? Yeah, he’ll do it all no problem. He’ll even do something that goes completely against the laws of physics and pull it off because… because… magic. Yes, magic.
This guy is boring. Also, he’s not even remotely realistic. He’ll be rewarded for everything he does, and he’s really learned nothing, despite giving the appearance of having truly struggled and grown as a man.
Let’s go over a quick example:
Jack is a renegade police officer. He’s about to track down the druglord he’s been hunting for what seems like eons, and along the way, he’s lost his family…and perhaps his sanity. He tends to go against the book, and yet everything seems to work out in his favor. No matter how many laws Jack breaks, everything’s A-OK because he’s going to avenge the death of his family, who really only existed in the first place to make him seem relatable and therefore tragic. Cool.
Jack has far too many strengths. He needs to have consequences for his actions, and he must have more than just a tragic back story. He has to get the crap kicked out of him and will definitely need to suffer through some serious self-doubt. No one is perfect, not even a renegade, druglord-hunting police officer who is out to avenge the death of his perfect family. Also, he will need the help of allies–Jack absolutely cannot do all this on his own.
In fact, every character will need help at some point. If your character can slaughter all the baddies and solve crimes on his own, you’d better be writing a parody.
Writing Strong Characters Should be Fun.
Think of the people you know and love (or hate!) in your life. What are their strengths? Where do you think they struggle? Whether you’re writing a good or bad character, there should be both strengths and flaws. There should be both good and bad–no one is purely good or evil. Writing strong characters is like getting to know good friends. Once you have their personalities planned out, they begin to take on a life of their own in your works.
For more tips, or to ask me questions, follow me on Twitter! I post something inspirational about writing and editing every day, and I’m happy to try to give you advice if you seek it.
Shawn E. Crapo says
Very good advice, and very accurate. There are way too many infallible heroes out there.
Absolutely. Such a pet peeve of mine! Glad you enjoyed the post! 🙂
I love this post!! One of the best summaries of writing strong characters I’ve seen in a while.
Thank you, Nicole! Glad you found it helpful. 🙂
My Digital Superman novel is written about Clarke Unger, a soldier coming back from Iraq with some special abilities – he was raised in a foster home with a black foster mother of great character and compassion along with another foster child, a young girl he loved like a sister growing up, but began falling for her when he returned home – he and his foster sister Kayla (I never gave her last name in the book) actually begin to fall for one another – but the barrier is that their belief systems don’t mesh the way Kayla would like – Clarke is a dynamite soldier and computer programmer, but he can’t get the chainsaw started when it’s time to cut firewood, and he’s fairly easily tricked by a young girl who makes him believe she’s in trouble, and he loses his car in the process. Kayla is mechanically adept and virtuous, but was taken advantage of by a camp counselor when she was a teenager. A powerful defense contractor who wants what Clarke has (he thinks it’s a machine rather than Clarke’s brain) kidnaps Kayla and intends to use her to get what he wants from Clarke. Your post made me think and re-think the way I developed the characters (including the bad guys) in the book. Thanks so much for triggering my thoughts – I published the book back in 2008, (and I have other books on Amazon for Kindle), but now I’m thinking more carefully about character development.
Glad to hear from you, Richard! Your novel sounds intriguing, and it seems like you put a lot of thought into your characters. 🙂 I’m really happy to hear the post helped you–developing compelling characters is a process we must all hone over the years as writers. Best of luck to you in your future writing projects!
Joyce Scarbrough says
Great article! In the example you gave about the strong female character being “too nice,” I’d add that you can always make something like that a trait the character herself feels is a weakness and tries to hide from everyone. She is constantly struggling to “stay hard-boiled” every time she feels compassion for people she’s supposed to be tough on or doesn’t like, so she often shows her kindness anonymously.
That’s also a good example. In fact, I think I do that myself sometimes. 🙂 Thanks for commenting, Joyce!
Robert S. Eilers says
I woke up this morning with a character and story in my head. Sat down to write a character sketch when I saw your tweet about character building. Thank you. I know character building is an important part of any story. I hope I can do Emeralda Rose justice.
A great way to wake up 🙂 I wish you luck, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post!