25 Things A Great Character Needs

(Related: The Zero-Fuckery Guide To Kick-Ass Characters)

1. A Personality

This seems rather obvious, sure — in a way it’s like saying, “What makes a really good tree is that it has an essential treeness” — but just the same, it bears mentioning. Because some characters read like cardboard. They’re like white crayon on white paper. Sure, the characters run around and they do shit and say shit but none of it has anything to do with character and has everything to do with plot — as if the characters are just another mechanism to get to the next action sequence, the next plot point, the next frazza wazza wuzza buzza whatever. Point is: your character needs a personality, and the rest of this list should help you get there.

2. Agency

The character should run an advertising agency. *is handed a note* Oh! Oh. I mean, The character should belong to the FBI and– *gets another note* JESUS CHRIST WITH THE NOTES, PEOPLE. But fine, yes, okay, I get it now. Agency means that the character is active, not passive. The character makes decisions and is attempting to control her own destiny as an independent operator within the story. She is not a leaf in the stream but rather the rock that breaks the river. *receives one more note* Oh, thank you, what a wonderful note! I do agree my beard is sexy, yes. I know! So rich! So full! So shiny. I oil it with secretions from squeezed ermine scent glands which also lends it that musky zing that sort of… crawls up your nose. *flicks beard sweat at you*

3. Motivation

Characters want things. They need things. They are motivated by these desires and requirements and they spend an entire story trying to fulfill them. That’s one of the base level components of a story: a character acts in service to his motivations but obstacles (frequently other characters) stand in his way. We need to know what impels a character. What are her motives? If we don’t know or cannot parse those motivations, her role in the story is alien to us.

4. Fear

Everybody’s afraid of something. Death. Taxes. Bees. Dogs. Love. Carnival workers. Ocelots. (I am afraid of the number 34 and the color “puce.”) Characters \ suffer from their own personal fears relevant to the story at hand. Characters without fear are basically robots who use their pneumatic doom-claws to puncture any sense of engagement and belief we have in the story you’ve created. The great thing about being a storyteller isn’t just giving characters fear — it’s ensuring that that their fears will arise and be present in the tale at hand. You shall be cruel. This cruelty shall be great fun and a veritable giggle-fest because storytellers are dicks.

5. Internal Conflict

“I am in love with Steve, but I also love my job as a diplomat to the Raccoon People of the Hollow Earth. But Steve is allergic to raccoons! But I may be the only person who can stop the Raccoon People from invading Canada! BY THE GODS WHAT SHALL I DO?” Great characters suffer from internal conflict. They don’t know what they want. Or how to get all the things they want. Position your characters between the Scylla and Charybdis of hard choices: choices that compete with one another. Giving characters these emotional, intellectual, soul-testing conundrums is sweet meat for the audience — the meat of conflict, the meat of drama. Further, it allows us to relate to these characters (as we all have to make hard choices) and gives us a reason to keep reading (because we want to know the character’s choices in the face of these inner conflicts).

6. External Conflict

Hey, external conflict is pretty cool, too. If the character is plagued by an old war wound, a damaged spaceship, a mysterious old villain who shows up to perform surgical karate on the character, all good. Doubly good if the external conflict matches or speaks to the internal conflict in some way. Say, for instance, an author who is addicted to slathering his beard with illicit ermine scent glands is also pursued by a very angry ermine scent gland dealer named Vito who would apparently like his money. Just an example. With no basis in reality. *runs*

7. Connections To Other Characters

That “lone-wolf ronin-without-clan” shit gets tiresome pretty quick. Characters need connections to other characters. These don’t need to be desired connections. They can be connections that the character is actively trying to deny. But they need to be there. They help make the character who she is and continue to push and pull on her as the story unfolds. Friends. Family. Acquaintances. Work buddies. Foes. Neighbors. Drug dealers. Enslaved Pokemon. Sentient snowglobes. Sex androids. Microscopic beard civilizations. You know. The usual.

8. Connections To Us, The Audience

We respond well to those characters who contain a little bit of us. We want to relate to them. The best characters are a broken mirror: we want to see ourselves reflected back, if in a distorted, unexpected way. We want to connect with them using that weird empathic psychic tendon where we tie together our shared traits or universal life experiences like we’re those humanoid blue goat-cat motherfuckers from Avatar. Young adult fiction is written with teenage protagonists experiencing teenage protagonist problems because it’s written for that audience. (And it’s why adults still can read those books comfortably — because adults remember being a teenager.) The reader wants a new story, but she wants an old story, too: her own.

9. Nuance And Complexity

Shitty one-note characters are a Taco Bell product: manufactured unfrozen gray-meat red-sauce in a proportioned somewhat-maybe-kinda-tortilla. They’re good for a quick bite and a hard purge (remember: you do not buy Taco Bell, you rent Taco Bell and then return it to its ecosystem with a couple flushes). Great characters are a nuanced meal: from an aperitif to the amuse-bouche to the first and second course, all the way through to the monkey course and the molecular gastronomy course, to coffee, dessert, and then ritual suicide. Each bite has complexity. Like sipping a fine wine or a great cup of coffee, you taste things that aren’t expected, that go beyond that word coffee or wine. (“I taste figs and fireplace ash, and a little after-hint of the tears from a griefstruck slow loris.”) A good character is complex because that means they are like — gasp! – real people. Real people who are not easily summed up or predicted. Real people with layers and surprises and who are a little bit good and a little bit bad and a whole lotta interesting.

10. Strengths: To Be Good At Something

Characters who have absolutely zero MAD SKILLZ are dull as a sack of frozen poached hippo meat. We like to read about characters who are good at something. “I’m the best damn werewolf veterinarian you ever did see.” “You need a speech pathologist for velociraptors, then you need me.” “I’m a cop who is also a robot and they call me OFFICERBOT wait that doesn’t sound cool.” You want characters who are capable or even exceptional: Sherlock isn’t a mediocre detective. Buffy isn’t just some half-ass vampire-puncher — she’s the goddamn Slayer. RANGER RICK ISN’T JUST SOME FUCKING RACCOON, MAN. This doesn’t have to be limited to actual skills or talents, mind — a character’s strength can be internal. It can be intellectual or emotional. Or it can be that she can knock a dude’s head off his shoulders with one fast punch.

11. Flaws: To Be Bad At Something

Sherlock is an amazing detective, and a terrible human. Buffy’s a bonafide bad-ass, but she’s also a glib, impulsive teenage girl. Ranger Rick the raccoon can ranger like a motherfucker, but he’s also got a bad addiction to Meow-Meow and a penchant for losing all his ranger paycheck at the Indian casino. Characters can be good at things but they can’t be too good — you need balance. If they’re the best at something, they should also be the worst at something. Conflict lives here; the space between Sherlock being the best detective and the worst human is so taut with tension the potential story might snap and take out someone’s eye. Plus, on a practical level, someone who is good at everything, bad at nothing is boring and unbelievable.

12. A Voice

I don’t mean this in a literal sense — “NO DEAF-MUTES ALLOWED” — I mean that, your character has to sound like your character. A unique voice, a combination of how she speaks and what she says when she does. When you write her dialogue, we should have no doubt who is speaking, even if the dialogue tags were eaten by some kind of bibliovore creature. What kinds of things does she say? Why does she say them? What does she sound like? Does her way of speaking reflect where she grew up or reflect her trying to get away from where she grew up? Is her mother’s voice in there somewhere? Her father’s? Is she brash and bold — or hesitant, reserved? How do all these things reflect who she actually is?

13. A Look

Put me in the camp where characters should look like someone or something. Some writing advice suggests that an author let her characters act as physical ciphers — zero description so that, jeez, I dunno, we can all imprint upon them or imagine them as whoever we want them to be. Fuck that shit, George. I’m not saying we need to hear about every chipped fingernail, eyelash, or skin tag — but pick a few stark details and make the character stand out. And let those details reveal to us something about the character, too. The perfect suit but the dirty shoes. The hair buzzed so flat you could land a chopper on top of it. The rime of blood under his nails. Whatever. What’s the character’s look, and what can it tell us about him?

14. Emotions

A character without emotion is a soulless automaton. They don’t need to reveal those emotions to the world around them, but they should reveal them to you as author and to the reader, as well. Characters feel things! They feel sorrow. And shame. And bliss. They feel itchy and hungry and confused and so angry they could crumple a vending machine like it’s a can of soda. They run the gamut like, oh, I dunno, real people. And the thing is, you can use these emotional responses to highlight for us who the characters are. They encounter something that should make them happy but it makes them sad instead — that’s a telling moment for the character. Why does this thing that would make everyone else happy make him want to cry and punch a cabinet instead?

15. Mysteries

Questions drive narrative. We continue reading sometimes just to answer questions. Who killed Mrs. Pennytickle? Who stole the Shih-Tzu of Darkness and for what nefarious purpose? What happens next? The audience is driven in part by the need to answer mysteries. Thing is, the audience and the characters have a kind of narrative quantum entanglement; the same things that draw us through a story are the same things that urge a character forward, too. We want to solve the murder same as the cantankerous detective does. Give the character questions that are unanswered — variables in her equation that she is driven to complete.

16. Secrets

It goes the other way, too. Just as a character has questions, he also has answers — answers that he never wants to share with anyone, answers that would be otherwise known as secrets. Heroic secrets. Dark secrets. Sexy secrets. Weird secrets. Underpants secrets. The character knows things that he doesn’t want revealed (creating complexity for the character and tension for the reader).

17. Humongous Genitals

The character’s vagina should be large enough to wolf down a small motorcycle. The character’s penis should be large enough to fell ancient trees with one hefty hip pivot. Characters must possess both sets of enormous genitals OKAY JUST SEEING IF YOU’RE PAYING ATTENTION.

17. The Ability To Surprise

The moment a character loses the ability to surprise us, they might as well be a dead body floating down a slow moving river. That’s not to say a character should be unpredictable on every page — “I killed a man! Now I’m starting a churro shop! Now I own a parrot! Now I’m gonna eat the parrot and jump into this howling chasm and die! EEEEeeeeeeeee.” But a character should always be able to still do something that makes us double-take and pump our fists in triumph or drop our jaws in shock. And it’s not just about action, either: it’s about showing surprising depths of emotion, or cleverness, or capability. It’s about the character being so much more than what we expect: a secret forest hidden beneath the cloud cover.

18. Consistency

And yet at the same time, those surprises shouldn’t also come out of left-field, either. Think of it like the reveal of a murderer in a murder-mystery story. You want that murderer to be revealed in a way where the story outsmarted you and yet, it still makes sense, right? You don’t want it to be, “Oh, and the murderer was actually Doctor Piotr Dongwick, the pharmacologist who you’ve never met or heard of and are just meeting now and this is basically the narrative equivalent of ROCKS FALL EVERYBODY DIES.” Characters are that way, too. When they reveal something about themselves or surprise us, it should be a thing that has us nodding our head — not scratching it like a confused chimp. We should be saying “wow!” now “wut?”

19. Small Quirks

I’m not saying every character needs to be a variant of Zooey Deschanel — besides, she is the quirkiest little quirk that ever did quirk and you cannot beat her at her own game. SHE EATS TOMATO SOUP IN THE RAIN WITH FOUR BABY GOATS ALL NAMED “OLIVER.” Whatever. Quirks can be an amateurish way of giving your character depth — in part because it’s artifice that doesn’t create any depth at all. Still, while quirks are no substitute for actual character traits, they are useful in small doses when a) letting the character stand out in our mind and b) lending some depth of character through a seemingly shallow expression. A character who always fidgets with, say, a coin or a pen or a pair of dice may seem like a one-off blah-blah detail, but later it can be revealed that this single, simple act is bound up to some tragic event in the character’s life (“MY MOTHER WAS KILLED BY A PAIR OF DICE” okay maybe not that, but you get the idea).

20. History

Your character didn’t just come karate-punching her way out of some storytelling womb. She wasn’t born pale and featureless like a grub only to grow her wings and limbs halfway through the tale. The character’s been around. Whether she’s 17 or 70, she has history. She has life. Stories. Things that happened to her and things that she did. First kiss! First breakup! First sexual experience! First drunk, first hangover, first AA meeting, first BDSM orgy, first spaceflight. That time Billy Grosbeak tried to grab her boob and she broke his nose. The other time she got fired from her coffeehouse counter-monkey job for spitting in some chode’s caramel macchiato. That time she did the thing with the girl at that place. What we see of a character in a story is just the tippy-top of the iceberg, just a nipple poking out of the water while the rest of the body remains submerged. Don’t let your characters be tabula rasa — some blank slate devoid of history.

21. The Right Name

This may seem a shallow point, but boy does a character’s name matter. You don’t just pick it out of a hat — it has to be the right name, in the same way that you want the right name for a child, or a dog, or that mole on your inner thigh (mine is “Benedict Arnold”). Like, “Bob Stevens” is not the name of a steampunk secret agent. “Miss Permelia Graceyfeather” is not the name of a motel maid from Tucson. You’ve got to find the right name. And, also of importance, a name that doesn’t sound like the name of another character in your book. You don’t want readers confused, nor do you want them conjuring a character from a whole other book or movie when reading yours.

22. Room to Grow

Characters grow and change. Okay, fine — not all of them do, an in certain modes of storytelling a stagnant flatlining character arc is sadly a feature and not a bug. But just the same, the most interesting characters are the ones who at least have the capability of change, who are part of an unfulfilled arc that is unseen but keenly felt. Readers want to go on that journey with a character. They want to go along for the ride: breakups and marriages and babies and revenge and redemption and resurrection. Some animals grow only as big as their cages — so give your character room to move around, yeah? Give them scope! Envision for them an (incomplete) arc!

23. Livability

I am fond of saying that what matters about a character isn’t that we like them but that we can live with them — meaning, if we’re gonna be hunkering down with that character for 400 pages of a book, or two hours of a movie, or a year’s worth of comic books, that character has to be someone we are willing and able to spend time with. They don’t have to be our pal. We’re not asking them for a ride to the airport or help moving into our new apartment. They have to be someone we can — and want! — to spend our time with in the narrative sense. How do you accomplish this? Well…

24. Gravity

You do this by giving them gravity. Making them as big and as interesting as can be so they draw us to them — like moths to a flame, like meteors to the earth, like cat hair to a new sweater. The greatest crime you can commit against your character and your reader is making them boring.

25. You

A good character needs you. You’re the champion, here. You’re the motherfucking engine of creation that will bring this character to life with the eye-watering boozy muse-breath of your drunken imagination. You are a very special ingredient indeed, young captain. See, the idea goes that no story is original, and maybe that translates to character, too. But you are an original. And the way you do things — the way you arrange old elements of story and character — is something wholly your own, provided you let yourself off the leash, provided you’re willing to smear your guts all over the page. You can bring something fucking amazing to every character you write: yourself. The character doesn’t exist without you. You are the puppeteer. You are parent and deity. So go, create. Give them life. Give them soul. Give them character. And then kick their ass.

* * *

Out now:

 

87 comments

    • In all fairness, though, I know some classical pianists who are simply awful people. And in that subset there are those who are awful BECAUSE they play classical piano and think that that somehow makes them better than everyone. Or they’re obsessed perfectionists because their parents stood over them as children and probably beat their fingers with rulers when they missed a note. :/ I’d say the ability to play an instrument is a skill, not necessarily a redeeming quality. What could make it a redeeming quality would be *why* she plays classical piano.

  • Damn good list, as always. Character building is always an interesting time in any writing project. I love sitting down with a couple of trait guides and finding what little things work for a new character.

  • Ah! I read the list, I compare my heroine; previously a delight to the senses, currently an anvil to the swim of creativity. Bugger it! Back to the drawing board!

  • It’s like you read my mind, Chuck. I was feeling tormented with my lack of imagination of late, especially towards my character building. And here you come with your fantabulous list to help me outta the mud.

    And ohmigod! The first #17 had me on the floor crying!

    Thanks,
    Eternally Grateful

  • So you’re saying my character *shouldn’t* have a penis large enough to fell a tree? My epic romance is ruined!! :)

  • Wonderful points. Especially no. 17.a.
    Characters must grow, yes. While watching Mad Men my mother and I are screaming at the TV because we HATE the main character but he can be so GOOD! We just hope he ends up good. We so want him to! T_T
    Now THAT is compelling TV.
    I think an additional appoint as author-awareness – awareness of what and who you’re writing. For example Don Draper in Mad Men could have been put on a pedestal and be this awesome man who gets all the ladies. Instead he’s written as a neurotic wreck who has to go out and seek comfort and ruins his own life doing so.
    We need an angle.

  • I come here for the advice… and stay here for the humour ;) A perfectly-timed how-to, Chuck, which doubles as the perfect checklist for my current w-i-p. Thank you muchly.

    And my characters will be ‘pleased’ to know I’ve just reached #17 on the list… okay guys, drop those pants…

  • I thought I was a little weird, perhaps perverse, but not today, thanks to you Chuck. #17 has given me confidence to write my next story:
    Raging Richard vs Big Gyna. It’s kinda Fifty Shades meets Game of Thrones.

    :)

  • So, about Agency and “She is not a leaf in the stream but rather the rock that breaks the river.” How do you balance that with stories where the character is thrown into a situation and is just trying to survive, with little control over their circumstances?

    “Three Days of the Condor” – Robert Redford spends most of the movie reacting, rather than acting. C.J. Cherryh’s “Foreigner” – the main character is just trying to survive and figure out what’s going on around him.

    Does the trying to regain control count as agency? If the leaf on the stream is doing its best to avoid the rocks and get to shore, does it have agency?

    • Totally disagree about Condor! His character is incredibly active — constantly making decisions (rash or otherwise) and acting on them. He’s a strong mix of active and reactive, but he’s never PASSIVE.

      Survival and reaction to situation is acceptable, but characters eventually have to do more than just survive. They have to get ahead of it — and their survival should never be passive. It must be because THEY are making decisions and accepting agency.

      — c.

      • I’m going to quote your first paragraph to everyone who keeps telling me Condor has no agency (ha!) until the last third of the film. And by everyone I mean all us old fogies who still remember that film.

        But I think that’s a huge distinction. There is a difference between being passive and being reactive, and a lot of folks don’t get that. It’s an ongoing discussion in my little corner of the world.

  • You joke about humongous genitals, but read enough romance and erotica, and you’ll see that does seem to be a guideline followed by far too many writers. However, only males are required to have such large tools for pleasure. Female genitals must be very small. Not only for the male’s enjoyment, but also so the female can comment on how he barely fits. This way, we can be sure to know how large he is. Just in case we didn’t get it when he took his clothes off and she said “Oh my! You’re so big! I don’t know if you’ll fit!”

  • Kurt Vonnegut: “Your character has to want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.”*

    Me: “There you go. Make them want something, make something or someone else try to make it difficult to get it, and tell me how a person like them would deal with the problem.”

    *There is a feature film in which the entire plot hinges around a glass of water which must be delivered at the right time and place or the Earth will be destroyed. I like to think that it was inspired by this quote.

  • Beliefs! Religious and/or philosophical. Everyone I know is either religious or an atheist or agnostic. I have yet to meet someone who is 100% a-philosophical. Everyone has some kind of guiding principle that they follow in their lives even if it’s only “I’m an okay person as long as I tip my waiter 20%.” Characters without any philosophy or religious belief come off as weirdly flat.

  • “My mother was killed by a pair of dice” actually sounds like a cool opening sentence. Maybe you should include in one of your friday challenges.

  • You know, Chuck, I think this is why I love my character of Fry Nelson so much. I’ve covered all these bases and probably a bit more… he’s hot, sensitive, has a weakness, can do a lot of things, has some things he can’t do, is stupid in some things and yet has flexiblity… and yet, I love to write him to the point that I can’t think of anyone else to write about – and I have wondered where he’s been lurking all my writing life! :D

    This is something I wonder.

    Have you ever created a charater where you enjoy writing about them so much you don’t wish for the stories to end? And when they do – the stories and books – you mourn losing those characters? Even the bad and evil ones?

  • “Miss Permelia Graceyfeather” is not the name of a motel maid from Tucson.

    Only when she’s on her meds, man. Only when she’s on her meds. When she’s off ‘em, well, you know … you’ve seen her, right? She gets all Downton Abbey up in her head.

  • This was part of my New Year Resolution. I decided that I needed to give the characters I had in mind a bit of an overhaul, to bring them more to life and make them more believable. So first I went searching through Google images for things like ‘pictures of guys in glasses’ ‘red headed woman’ or ‘older Japanese woman’, to get some pictoral images I could use as a starting physiological focal point for my characters. I pasted the picture that I felt summed up how I felt the character best looked in my mind’s eye, before going through two sets of questions listed on two different sites, which ask you about every aspect of your character’s persona. The first one was on http://www.elfwood.com/farp/thewriting/crissychar/crissychar.html and the second list was from http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.action?articleId=281474976908598
    and I then went about going through each questionnaire, doing my best to answer every question posed (where relevant) for each character, just underneath the photo I’d clipped from Google. No one else is every going to see those pictures or read those questionnaire answers, they’re just for my reference. But I definitely found that once I’d tried it for one character, I really started to understand who they were, what motivated them and how best to go about getting them to execute the actions needed to propel the story forward. That I read this list of advice today, was very well timed and helped to reiterate the themes I’m having to keep in mind when developing my characters. Thanks as always for hitting the nail right on the head Chuck.

  • Another great post Chuck. I really like the advice about writing in the negatives, and the bad things your character is/does. I’ve been trying to flesh out my main character on my WIP and I wanted her to be more real. I think this is where she is lacking. I’ve got a big scene I’m working up to where she gets kind of pathetic, so I hope this is part of where I start to head her in the right direction.

  • I stopped reading at Agency, not because I think it’s a terrible article, but I think it is false advice to give. If I were to write truthfully about say, my peoples struggles in the 1960-1970 (the Cree in Canada and the residential school system), one would have to write about a passive character because to be active was to be beaten, or to be raped, or to simply be killed. Promoting agency (or action) as something a character *must* have to be a interesting character is a narrow, colonizer (I’ve often wondered how much colonization has shaped our criteria for what is good literature) vision that continues to promote the ‘pull yourself up by the boot straps’ mentality that simple wasn’t available to people. It’s basically saying if you’re not active you’re worthless in depicting as a human subject in art which is nonsense (also as a side-note I’m obviously not saying people were not active during that time but when you have a hugely reaching and powerful institution hanging over your head and isolating you from everything you know it kind of hard to act).

    Perhaps I am getting into the semantics of the language used, but one can be actively passive (which you could count as agency but I think most people think of it as actually acting upon the world) in order to survive because sometimes surviving is the only and best option, sometimes one can’t ‘get above’ surviving. So yeah agency, it’s a great tool, but saying it is necessary is limiting to those who can actually act upon the world which for a lot of people isn’t a reality. And no this a argument for having people who are discriminated against to not be active in the story but rather one to realistically depict situations where humans can do not but be passive to survive. I’m probably a couple days late for this argument though.

  • You are simply amazing! Just saying. I recieve so many emails where I just click delete because I get fed up with the constant messaging, but I actually look forward to yours, and have not as yet deleted one so I have quite a little collection of Chuck emails. Doesn’t matter what my day has been like you always manage to crack me up. I love your sense of humour and even your occasional potty mouth, it makes taking in the information so much easier. You certainly have a fan in me!

  • a nice written character doesn’t have to be relatable to be likeable. They need to be interesting. I can think of multiple characters that are interesting while having next to no relatable qualities. For example there’s a cartoon named Panty and Stocking where the two main characters are sluts who got kicked out of heaven for being sluts, don’t care about justice or have a tragic past, and yet they’re interesting because of those qualities.

  • “The character makes decisions and is attempting to control her own destiny”

    This is nonsense because, if we could control our destiny, it would be destiny. Control and destiny do not belong in the same sentence. Fiction is full of similar nonsense advice, slogans and what not. You cannot control your destiny.

    • But…in this you are God. You control the character’s destiny. I don’t believe in Free Will either but I think that was the authors point. They have the illusion of agency.

  • This is perfect. Its human & dark, yet really, /really/ appreciated… Much like some poor soul who wrote an ominous warning in blood & guts before your protagonist ditzily stumbles upon a real big problem.

    & the blatant show of humanity’s god complex: brilliant.

  • I was actually taking notes then I got to number 16, and I almost wrote it down. I guess I need to pay more attention

  • I found your list ivaluable. When I tried to print the article out, my copy got overwritten. Is there a fix?

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