What Makes a Good Character?

That depends. What’s your story about? What emotions are inside the plot? What’s the backstory under those emotions?

Spring is about digging in deep and seeing what’s been hibernating, finding what we can unearth from the dirt, and caring for what grew on its own. We’re all thinking of ways we can clean up winter.

No doubt your book could use a spring cleaning too.

Every character – no matter protagonist, antagonist, or supporting – they all want something, they’re all people with goals and fears, preferences and parents. The character doesn’t need to be completely self-aware, but you, the author, need to know everything.

Now is an opportune time to organize all of your thoughts on each aspect of your book.

Consider a protagonist like a blank slate, this is so the reader can place themselves easily inside their head. The protagonist’s friends and minor foes tend to be more archetypal and colorful, they are more two-dimensional friends. Ron is funny, Hermione’s smart, Harry reacts. Harry has emotions and he is brave, but these are both reactions, as a result, he’s more three-dimensional, he’s universal, which is another way of saying that he’s empty – a blank slate – so we can relate and through the power of good storytelling, we become Harry.

Some authors outline everything from the start. Some have no idea what they’re going to write next, they let the characters talk for themselves. Whichever side of the spectrum you find yourself, a great way to simplify your writing craft is to have character portraits of all significant someones in your book. (Maybe even settings too, because a good setting is a character.)

Of course, not every character detail needs to be in your finalized book. But the more you know, the more specific the details surrounding the character will be, and the more alive the character will become.

Some questions for your portrait ::

Where did they grow up? From what class? What’s their relationship with their parents like? Are they religious? What are their principles? What are their red lines? Do they have habits? Ticks? What’s their relationship with food like? Are they in love? Are they in pain? And most importantly: What do they want? What are their dreams and desires?

Be as detailed as you like answering these questions. Ask some more even. Include whole swaths of scenes or memories. Make it a book! Include photos or cut outs of what your characters could look like. Or draw them. Such a better way to combat writer’s block than falling down internet holes.

If you want, here’s the character questionnaire I give my clients ::

If you make your own, basically, make a stat sheet, like something you’d find in a child’s book on their favorite tv show. Because once you have a roster for yourself, it will be easy to add any details to your scenes to really bring your book to life.

I know someone who once said he took his character for a walk. He walked with their eyes and wrote down what he saw. Not a bad exercise.

If you need more specific help on a character, email me. I edit with exactly this kind of stuff in mind.

Happy writing!!

Cathy

Published by Cathy Borders

Writer. Book Midwife. The Republic of Letters. Waterline Writers. Omnia Vanitas Review.

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