How to Create Unique, Likable Characters

**The following advice was written by a small person of minimal worth.** I’m basing most of this off my experience creating the characters for Gray Haze and reading many books. Use it if it helps. If you want to add or correct anything, drop a comment below!

Character creation is my favorite part of writing because I have such a hard time dealing with people in real life.

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The questions I’ll attempt to answer today on this topic are:

  1. How can I make my characters unique and realistic?
  2. How can I create characters that will elicit emotions in readers (be it love, anger, fear, etc.)?
  3. How can I maintain consistent characterization throughout a novel/series while at the same time allowing the characters to change and grow?

Are we ready? Let’s dive into the first question:

1. How can I make my characters unique and realistic?

In order to create fictional people, you have to know how people work in real life, and you’ve got to avoid basing your characters off other fictional characters (unless you’re writing fan fiction, of course). Here’s how…

Get to know yourself. You can create an infinite number of characters based on your own personality, as there are many aspects upon which you can expand. For example, I have social anxiety. If I have a blank word document or sheet of paper in front of me, and I need, say, ten characters, I could start with a character who doesn’t like being around people and prefers solitude. From there, I can think about why this character is this way… maybe they had a rough childhood or rocky adolescence. Maybe they have an illness. Maybe that is simply who they are.

In the process of answering this question about one facet of their being, I will inevitably run into more questions. This character had a rough childhood. Okay, how rough? Why? Who are their family members? How might this condition affect other aspects of their personality? Do they stutter? Do they cry easily? Are they able to empathize with people more than the average person? How do they maintain friendships? Do they have any friends at all? How might other people see them?

See how simple it is? Let’s think of another example:

You can start creating a character with certain physical attributes as well. Character #2 is above six feet tall with blond hair, blue eyes, and broad shoulders. What might you associate with this character? Athleticism? Worldly success? Hot girlfriend?

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CAUTION: You don’t want to create a stereotype. They are not unique or interesting. And you don’t create unique characters by writing a vague, dark past on a sticky note and slapping it on their backs while they’re not looking. This is where knowing real people and yourself comes in handy. Odds are, you probably know a tall blond guy or two. Are they all jocks? Does everything in life just get handed to them on a silver platter? Or do they have to work hard to achieve a modicum of success like nearly everyone else on the planet? Maybe the tall guy is a jock, but a late growth spurt gave him time to gain some humility as a teen. Maybe he’s ugly and self-conscious. Maybe women terrify him. Or maybe he’s a nerd. There are so many different kinds of people in this world that you will never run out of such combinations. But, again, you don’t create a unique character by piling on stereotypes (jock, nerd, etc.). Uniqueness is the byproduct of reality. In life, everyone is unique, even if they seem stereotypical on the surface. Your job as a writer is to find out why and make it interesting. Don’t be lazy and fall back on stereotypes. At the same time, don’t avoid stereotypes like the plague at the expense of creating characters people can identify with. Nerds do exist. Hot guys who get all the girls do exist. Cardboard cutouts that can talk do not. Know the difference.

One advantage to using yourself as inspiration for your characters is that writing through them may be easier, especially if you find difficulty empathizing with real people. You can certainly employ this tactic when creating a villain, as everyone has experienced temptation in various forms. Expose your dark side through your antagonists. Don’t tiptoe around it. Make the villain as real, genuine, and chilling as your “shadow self.” What might it take to tip you over the edge to insanity? How much of life’s brutality might you have to endure before you could imagine yourself murdering someone? Under what circumstances might you enjoy it?

I have read some articles that advise creating the antagonist before the protagonist, and I can see why that might be useful. Your villain and hero should be fairly similar in terms of ability and ambition. It might be cool to experiment creating the ultimate villain, then turning to the hero and asking yourself, where did their paths diverge? What makes the hero good, and the villain bad? What could the villain do to the hero that might tempt him/her to go “dark” side? The possibilities are endless!

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2. How can I create characters that will elicit emotions in readers?

Rule #1: make them real. You can do this by following my advice above or better advice elsewhere. Ideally, you want to create characters that will make you feel different emotions depending on what they’re doing, saying, or not doing and saying. Your protagonist should take readers on an emotional roller coaster ride. When they’re sad, you want your readers to be sad. When they’re angry, you want your readers to feel the urge to jump into the book and sock the face of whoever made them angry. Your readers should be your protagonist’s best friend.

Sometimes it is okay for your protagonist to make a mistake that irritates the reader. But it may be wise to do this only once per book. If the hero irritates the reader more than once, they might stop reading. Annoying characters in general are bad, unless their purpose is to provoke another character into doing or saying something that will contribute to the plot or character’s growth. Bullies, for instance, often fit into this category:

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How do you know if your character(s) will be the type readers will actively root for/against?

Rule #2: you make their struggles and desires real. Let’s use Katniss from The Hunger Games as an example: Katniss’s struggle was feeding and protecting her family, particularly her younger sister. We rooted for her because we can identify with that, even if not to the extreme portrayed in the book. Katniss desired to win the Games so she could return to her family without the need to worry about feeding them again. Katniss was given attributes that made it easier to root for her as well: she was strong-willed, gifted, and unyielding. Once she put her mind to accomplish something, she would accomplish it. When she had the opportunity to display her talents in front of judges, she did it in a manner that informed them she was someone to be remembered. She wasn’t the type to roll over and allow people to trample her underfoot. Readers like resilient characters who rise against opposition, so it’s easy to see why The Hunger Games became so popular, especially among teenage girls. I was one of those girls.

Can you guarantee that all readers will like your characters? Nope! There are plenty of people who have read The Hunger Games and hated Katniss. Just like you can’t make everyone like you in real life, you can’t force everyone to like your characters.

Villains should be as dynamic as their counterparts. The villains that will spark the most emotion in your readers are those who are able to attack the deepest, most vulnerable points of the protagonist. As long as readers care about the hero, they will fear the villain who is capable of irreparably harming them. The stakes must be high. Think about your favorite fictional characters and why you rooted for/against them. When creating your own, ask yourself…

Why should readers care about them?
What do they have to lose or gain?
What are their strengths and weaknesses?
What is my target demographic? Who might this affect or inspire the most?

Once you’ve answered these questions, you should be on the right track.

3. How can I maintain consistent characterization throughout a novel/series while at the same time allowing the characters to change and grow?

Easy: character profiles. On Wednesday I am going to describe how I’ve created profiles for all the characters in Gray Haze (there are a lot of them). Follow this blog so you don’t miss it!

Alternatively, as I did with Liquid Death, you can split yourself into two or more people and write as if you were them. You are still the same person you were six years ago, yet you’re much different. How?

Kandi in the beginning of Liquid Death is broken, hollow, and scared of her own shadow. But that is not all Kandi is, even from the start: she is also smart, resourceful, and willing to protect the less fortunate. When Kandi overcomes her fear of using her powers, this amplifies her willingness to protect people. Therefore, she is still the same person, but stronger.

Your characters should not be so shallow that once they overcome one weakness, they have overcome all. Always leave room for more growth. Kandi does become more comfortable with using her powers for good, but when she accidentally uses them for ill in Dawning Life, this sets her back a step psychologically and brings her closer to discovering who/what she is.

Your characters will remain consistent as long as you know them. You should know where all their buttons are located and what is required to push them. Character #2 is a tall, blond, blue-eyed jock who is terrified of women. Would it be out of character for him to ask a girl on a date? Depends on the circumstances. As you write, figure out what those circumstances are so you can bring them to light most effectively. Gradually work toward Character #2 asking a girl out in spite of his fear. Boom. Character growth + consistency!

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Did this post help you? Or are you more confused than ever? Let me know in the comments. Also, if you have any ideas for future posts, comment or use the contact page. 🙂 Thanks for reading!

ICYMI: Liquid Death will be FREE tomorrow, Dawning Life will be $0.99 on Thursday, and Burning Space (pre-order) will be $1.99 on Saturday! Hooray! Get ready!

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