How to Build Strong Story Characters

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81% of people in the United States say that they want to write a book (that’s about 200 million people), however, only about 10% of that population actually will. Why? 

There are tons of reasons, most are due to a lack of will power to complete their novel or sit through the tedious process of getting the book published. Some people just lack the skills to do so.

However, you can always learn something new that will improve your writing.

I’ve written two books, hundreds of short stories, three screenplays and a countless number of bad, angsty poems. For everything that I’ve written, I’ve probably read twice that. I’m currently struggling to get one of my books published (this is totally okay, Stephen King’s book Carrie was rejected 30 times), but now I want to share my knowledge on how to create amazing characters.

Tip: If you want a lot of diverse characters, go to a mall or another busy public area and base characters features’ off of people you see. The best way to write about people is to watch them or get to know them- sounds strange, but once you put it into practice it works.

The easiest way to get really good at this is to break your personality down first.

Start with how you identify:

Appearance:

Are you fat or thin? What’s your hair, eye, and skin color? How do you style your hair (including hair dye)? What’s your height and ethnicity? Do you have any birthmarks, moles or deformities? what are your nails like? Do you have any tattoos?  What’s the one part of your body that you’ve never bees self-conscious of? What’s the one part you’ve always been self-conscious of?

Family:

What’s your home life like? How many people live there and how do they treat you? Who’s your favorite parent or sibling? If you can move, why are you still living there? If you already have, what do you miss about living with your family? What don’t you miss? Are you married? If so, why’d you marry them? Do you have kids? Have they moved out? What do you miss about that?  This is a loaded section, but you get the point. What’s your family history like?

School:

What level of education do you have? How do you feel about it? Do you want to keep going once you graduate? Do you have issues with the school systems? Where you a bad kid or a good one? Grades? Where you popular or no? Do you speak a lot of languages?

Sexual orientation/ preference:  

Are you LGBT+, straight, or questioning? How do you feel about it? Is this a large part of your life? How did your family feel about it? If you’re comfortable or doing this exercise for a slightly more adult book, go into your sex life too.

Hobbies:

What do you enjoy doing? List them all out and how they’ve impacted your life or why you enjoy them.

Health:

Are you healthy? What kind of medications are you on and why? Have you had surgery before? Do you go to a doctor regularly? What’s your diet and exercise like?

Religion/philosophy in life:

What do you believe in and why? Did you have religion forced on you as a kid? What led up to you deciding what you believe in? Did you have some opposing force in your life that didn’t like the way you believed?

What’s your philosophy in life and why? What caused you to believe that way? How do you feel about all of this?

Great, the long part is out of the way. Now we get to change our perspective. This might look shorter, but it’ll probably be harder if you haven’t considered these things before.

How people identify you:

Personality:

When you walk into a room, do people immediately notice you, or do you fall into the background? Are you an extrovert or an introvert? Where do you spend your free time? Do you tend to go with the crowd or lead it? Are you a pushover? Do you suck up to anyone? Are you nosey or do you not care?

How you talk:

Do you speak in a monotone? How quickly do you speak? Do you use a lot of short, easy words, or a lot of long words that no one understands? Do you use verbal fillers? What about cuss words? What kind of slang do you use? How often do you use slang or cuss words? Do you often use your hands when you talk or say things you immediately regret? Do you think everything out before you say it, or do you just blurt out your thoughts? Is your voice deep or high pitched? Can you sing or rap?

Strange/annoying habits or beliefs:

You might have to ask around for the answer to this one, but you can make them up for a character. Some tap their foot no matter what they’re doing. Others never put away their phone, some wear sunglasses indoors. Some people are anti-vaxers or don’t believe in the moon landing. I personally have to have music or background noise, or I’ll lose my mind. I talk about my boyfriend and my Hydro Flask way too often, and I have an annoying habit of asking ‘why’ about anything and everything.

What are things that annoy you about yourself? List them here.

What do people see in this person that they don’t see in themselves? Good or bad.

Another thing to ask the people around you. Use the things they say and the things you notice about other people as examples for your characters. This is honestly the best way to do it. Write something for a parent, a coworker and someone you met once or twice.

Other things to consider:

Who are you friends with? Who are you dating? Why?

What do you regret the most about your childhood? About school or the way your life is right now?

Do you have a giant personality flaw? Do you know about it or are you oblivious to it? (you’ll have to ask someone for this)

What’s your favorite…? Drink from Starbucks, color, food, type of shoe/clothing, book to read, show to watch, way to take notes, person, pet, place, parent, sibling, way of life or celebrity?

Do you prefer rice or over pasta, soup over salad or Netflix over Hulu?

What’s the biggest thing in your past that’s traumatized you? What caused your mental illnesses?

Do you long for something that you can’t have, or don’t know how to get? This could be fitness or health. Maybe it’s money. Why?

The fact is that people are complicated. When you’re making a (main) character, you want them to be just as complicated as you, which is why this exercise works. After you’ve done this for yourself, do it for someone you know, then create your own character from scratch. Just remember that everything is connected. If your character were physically abused as a child, but they aren’t afraid of sudden movements as an adult, then you might not be building your character properly.

Tip: When writing a character, consider them their own entity. Don’t mess with their personality once you start writing your story, even if it convenient for the plot (unless you plan on redesigning your character). That’s lazy writing. Build your characters first, then build your plot and leave them alone.  You can’t change another person just because it’s convenient for you, so don’t do it to your characters.