top of page

Writing Characters

a group of characters in costume
See one you like?

Great characters can elevate a lacklustre plot, but even the greatest story will fail if you don’t have the right cast. Here are some tips on creating compelling, memorable and relatable characters.

In this article we’ll look at:

  • Creating believable characters

  • Borrowing from real life

  • Values and ambitions

  • Conflict

  • Keeping in character

  • Identify your character's motivations

  • Give characters inner and outer motivation

  • Make your protagonist sympathetic

  • Give characters flaws

  • Find interest in minor characters

  • Characters and story arcs

Creating believable characters

It’s important to make your characters as real as possible in your own mind. If you can’t imagine your characters in sufficient detail you won’t be able to describe them convincingly in your writing.

When thinking about characters give them a back-story, detailed information about their life history. This background won’t necessarily be revealed in your story, but it will help you create a rounded, believable individual. A back-story should include information about a character’s parents, their education, love life, whether they’ve suffered any trauma in their lives...The more detail you can pack in the better. 

Well-rounded characters develop a life of their own. Instead of having to scratch your head and puzzle out what your characters are going to do or say in a scene, you’ll find yourself describing what your characters would do in the situations you present them with. Charles Dickens visualised his characters in such detail they almost became real to him; he would often say he never wrote anything by himself, simply jotted down whatever his characters told him to.


Once you’ve sketched out a character in your mind, put them through their paces and imagine how they’d behave in everyday situations: what would your character do if someone pushed in front of them in a cinema queue, or they got lost in a strange town? Thinking through scenarios like this helps you build up your characters till you know them as well as your best friends.

Borrowing from real life

An alternative to making up characters is to take them from real life. The next time you’re out take a look at some of the people around you. What can you tell about them from the way they’re dressed? Can you guess what sort of personalities they might have from the way they look and behave? Try to put them in a story. What if the sweet old lady standing next to you was on her way to rob a house? How would she be feeling? What would she be carrying in her handbag? Why does she want to rob a house in the first place? Does she need the money? Perhaps she has a grudge against the owner for running over her cat! See also Coming up with ideas.

Values and ambitions

A rounded character needs three things:

  • Personal values: traits, such as courage, they believe they posses and think are important.

  • Ambitions: the things they want out of life.

  • Goals: the short-term objectives that will help them realise their ambitions.

It’s important that your main character’s core values and ambitions are similar to those of the audience, otherwise they’re not going to take to them. We should admire the main character (more on this below) and even envy them, and once we’ve identified with a character it’s surprising how unpleasant and immoral they can become before we start to dislike them (think of all the anti-heroes and colourful villains you’ve found yourself rooting for).


A way of adding extra dimensions to a character is to give them internal conflicts; or delusions about themselves that lead to rude awakenings once they’re put to the test.

Take the old lady mentioned above. The local miser has killed her cat so she decides to exact revenge by robbing his house (it could happen…). We can admire this woman up to a point as she appears to have courage and the strength of will to undertake an audacious plan. The internal conflict in this case could be between her sense of justice and her ingrained honesty. Now let’s add a twist to the tale and reveal that the miser did not kill her cat after all, someone else ran it over. The old lady’s principal motive has now been negated, but what if she’s been thinking about all the money rumoured to be stashed in the house and how she’ll spend it. Perhaps the lure is too strong, her honesty is not as important as she once thought and greed triumphs; her goal changes and she decides to carry on with the robbery regardless.

Keeping in character

Once you’ve created a character it’s important they don’t start acting in odd or unexpected ways. If your main character is a neurosurgeon your audience will be surprised if he beats off a mugger with some high-kicking karate moves. You can be a surgeon and a martial arts expert, but it is unusual and will be unexpected. If it’s important to the plot that your surgeon is also a karate champion you should establish the fact early on, or at least offer enough clues so that it’s not a complete surprise. In the same way, for the Old Lady story above to be credible we’d have to reveal a backstory that explains her unorthodox revenge — after all, most old ladies in her situation would go to the police. Perhaps we discover she was a criminal in her younger days; she has an arrest sheet as long as your arm and doesn’t trust the cops.

Making your characters believable doesn’t mean they have to be mundane or ordinary; they can be as wacky as you like, but once you’ve set up a character you have to make sure they stay true to themselves and behave in a logical and believable way.

Take The Terminator where a cyborg assassin is sent back in time to kill the mother of a future rebel leader. This definitely isn’t a day-to-day character, but the audience believes him because the cyborg behaves exactly as you would expect a single-minded, ruthless robot to behave. If the cyborg acted out of character (took up clog dancing or volunteered at an animal sanctuary) it would destroy the internal logic of the story.


The only reason to break this rule is for comic effect. Much humour depends on confounding people’s expectations. For more on this see Writing comedy.

If people act out of character and do things we wouldn’t expect it has to be for a good reason. If in Titanic Rose met Jack and instantly decided to run away with him it would be hard to swallow. Jack might be handsome and charming but Rose would be turning her back on a life of luxury to run off with a penniless artist she hardly knows. The reason we do believe the romance is because a large part of the beginning of the movie is devoted to showing us how miserable Rose is — she even tries to drown herself!

Identify your character's motivations

A character’s motivation is the reasoning behind their actions. Why they do what they do. For you characters to be credible you must make their motivation clear.

In Star Wars Luke initially turns down Obi-Wan’s offer to train him as a Jedi Knight. He doesn’t want to fly off into outer-space with an eccentric old man he’s only just met; he wants to stay in his comfortable home with his family. Luke only agrees to go with Obi-Wan when he discovers his Aunt and Uncle have been killed by Imperial Storm Troopers. We believe in Luke’s change of heart because his home has been destroyed and he now has a strong motive to leave — to seek revenge.

Give characters inner and outer motivation

Characters often have more than one motive behind their actions. In The Great Escape Steve McQueen’s character is motivated to escape by duty. He’s a prisoner of war who’s expected to make a break for freedom. This is his character’s outer motivation, the obvious reason for him doing what he does. However, as we learn more about the character we see that he’s an outsider, a rebel who doesn’t like taking orders. Escaping is not only a matter duty, it’s also an act of personal defiance — his inner motivation.

Though it’s less obvious, a character’s inner motivation is often much stronger than their outer motivation. In fact, the more we see of McQueen’s character the more we suspect he doesn’t care about duty at all, he just wants to annoy his captors.

Find inner and outer motivations for all your characters (even the villains) it gives them depth and makes for a more interesting story.

Examples of inner and outer motivation

• In The Lavender Hill Mob Alec Guinness plays a humble bank clerk who plans a gold robbery.
Outer motivation: to get rich.
Inner motivation: to prove to others (and himself) that he’s more than a timid pen pusher.

• In Jaws Captain Quint offers to help the Police Chief hunt down the killer shark.
Outer motivation: to get a cash reward.
Inner motivation: to revenge himself on the creatures that attacked him and his shipmates when he was in the Navy.

• In Kind Hearts and Coronets Louis Mazzini kills off his mother’s relatives in order to inherit a Dukedom.
Outer motivation: to become a Duke and inherit land and property.
Inner motivation: to avenge his mother whose death he blames on her family.

You’ll notice that in each of the above the outer motivation is money. The love of money is the root of many plots.

The ruler trick

Could you identify your characters based on their dialogue alone? If you’ve written a script, try covering the character names with a ruler. Could someone tell which character was speaking a line without seeing their name against it? Here we’re not looking at the information they’re delivering, rather the rhythms of their speech and the way they project their personalities through their words. If your dialogue is pretty much interchangeable between characters look for ways to personalise it.

Limit character choices

The most common response to a problem is to ignore it or run away, so it makes a character’s actions more believable if they’re forced to do things they’d rather not. Look for ways to reduce your protagonist’s choices and make all their options equally unpleasant.


For example, in Star Wars the crew of the Millenium Falcon have no choice about visiting the Death Star, before they realise what’s happening a tractor beam latches onto their ship and reels them in. Given the opportunity they would have skedaddled.


In Goodfellas Henry goes to the Feds only after he realises his ex-partner Jimmy is planning on having him killed.


In First Blood Rambo just wants to be left alone “Don’t push it or I’ll give you a war you won’t believe. Let it go.” But they just keep on coming.

If you want to ramp up the tension be cruel to your characters and make each plot development a new trap that forces them into an even tighter space.

Make your protagonist sympathetic

For an audience to get involved in a story they have to like your protagonist. That’s not to say your hero has to be a good-goody but they must have qualities that make the audience warm to them.

In Raider of the Lost Ark the first time we see Indiana Jones he’s escaping from a jungle temple evading vicious traps and angry natives. We don’t know much about Indie at this point but from his actions we can deduce he’s brave, resourceful and daring (things we’d like to be ourselves). The next scenes are set in a university. Here we see that, as well as being a daredevil adventurer, Indie is also an intelligent and respected archaeologist. More good qualities — this is a man we can envy.

Give characters flaws

No-one is all good or all bad. Giving your hero a few unpleasant qualities can make them more believable and interesting. Agatha Christie’s Poirot is a good person, but he’s also terribly vain. Hans Solo is presented as a surly roughneck who’s interested only in making money. Sherlock Holmes is a testy, impatient man who’s also (for a short time at least) a cocaine addict.

It works the other way too. In Scarface Al Pacino’s Tony Montana is a murderer and a drug trafficker, but like Indie he’s also brave, resourceful and daring. He also has strong principles, his troubles starting when he refuses to blow up a car with women and children in it. If Montana was all bad we wouldn’t care what happens to him.

Find interest in minor characters

Even minor character need love. If you introduce a minor character and don’t give them any personality why have them there in the first place? You can’t spend too much time individualising minor characters (you have a story to tell) but outlining a few key traits can help create someone distinctive and memorable.

For example, the chapter on Writing scenes featured a receptionist wearing a large blonde wig. When writing our story we might sail past this woman without a second glance, but since she’s there why not use her. If we’ve already given her a blonde wig we could add bright red lipstick and a tight revealing dress — a ‘gay divorcee’ type. It’s a cliché, but we don’t have time to do more. Next we give her a personality, one of two choices: nice or nasty. If she’s nice she can help our protagonist in some way, perhaps deliver important information or advice; if she’s nasty she can be suspicious, unhelpful and obstructive. How the protagonist deals with her shenanigans could be a neat way of revealing aspects of their character we might not have seen before.

Characters and story arcs

Make sure your characters are changed by every scene. Changes don’t have to be massive (no-one has to become the President or lose a foot) but each scene should present your characters with new information and experiences that remould their motives, outlooks and opinions.

In the Star Wars scene where Luke first meets Obi-Wan Kenobi both characters are changed by the information they receive. Obi-Wan’s life changes drastically when he decides to leave his home and help Princess Leia, but Luke’s change is more subtle, his outlook on life shifts when he discovers he’s the son of a Jedi Knight but it doesn’t change him that much — he’d still rather stay home on the farm.

The sequence of changes a character experiences during a story is sometimes called their story arc. Imagine your character is standing on a base-line that represents their personality; they encounter the first plot-point of the story and are suddenly propelled into new emotional territory. Time passes. The story resolves itself (the second plot-point) and the character comes down to earth again, landing on a new base-line that represents a new outlook on life — a rebirth (see The Hero with a Thousand Faces).


That journey, a character’s leap from first to second plot-point, is their arc. If the concept of character change is difficult to grasp, look at it another way — what’s the point of a scene where a character doesn’t change? If a character doesn’t learn anything new in a scene then the story has stalled. Scenes like this need to be rewritten or cut.

Main image ©Olly c/o Shutterstock

Back to the Index page.

bottom of page