How to Write Compelling Characters
When readers relate to your characters, they’ll want to finish your book.
How do you write a book that your readers can’t put down? A book that keeps people turning pages and staying up way too late to see what happens next?
The key is in the characters. The more you develop your characters, the more they will compel your readers, and the more interesting your story will turn out.
So, how can you write compelling characters? The three tips below will give you a good starting point. These tips may require you to do some rewriting, but you’ve got this—and your effort will be worth it!
1. Give your characters realistic attributes.
I’m not saying that your characters can’t be cyborgs or fairy tale creatures of some sort. I’m saying that no matter what kind of character you have, they need to have personable characteristics—they need to seem real.
So how do we do that? Start with the basics: Make sure you’ve thought of physical attributes like height, race, age, weight, eye color, hair length, etc. Your characters should also have some kind of background, such as a city they live in, a job, a family, or a circle of friends.
There are other important characteristics that you might not have thought of. For example, you need to make sure that each character has likes and dislikes. Maybe they love to buy stilettos and dislike rainy days. They’ll also need strengths and weaknesses. Maybe they’re good at communicating their feelings but horrible at wielding a sword. Your characters will need mannerisms, quirks, and expressions that are unique to them and no other characters in your novel. Maybe when they get nervous, they run their hands through their hair. Or maybe they always snort when they laugh.
These kinds of attributes make your character seem human—seem real. And why is this important? Because your readers can see glimpses of themselves or someone they know and are more likely to relate to those humanistic qualities. . This gets your readers invested in your character’s journey, which makes them keep turning those pages.
When coming up with your characters, make sure not to repeat the same cliché characteristics we see in too many books. For example, how many librarians have you read about that have glasses? Or scrawny kids that are smart but not athletic? Or redheads that are spitfires? You can write more creatively than that!
It’s also important to make sure that your characters aren’t all good or all bad. Your good guys need to make mistakes and occasionally snap at someone. Your bad guys need to have good motivations (even if they’re deep down) or a backstory that makes readers wonder if they could’ve ended up just as villainous.
Why should each character have both a little good and a little bad? Because few people want to read about characters that couldn’t exist in real life. An all-good hero or a born-evil villain just won't be relatable and will make readers want to pick up a different book.
If keeping track of all the different characters’ attributes sounds overwhelming, remember that you don’t have to memorize everything about each of your characters. Instead, write their attributes down. Many writers use what they call a “character bible.” This is basically a document that details all the attributes of each character. These are handy to have when you’re writing your story so you can double-check that your character is aligning with the traits you assigned them.
2. Let your readers make their own conclusions about your characters.
After you’ve assigned a range of traits to your characters, put them into practice. That means convincing your readers that your characters really do have those attributes.
To convince your readers, make sure not to tell your readers that your character is clumsy. Instead, you want to show them. This means you shouldn’t specifically write “So-and-so is clumsy” (that would be telling). Show that trait by writing it into scenes through action, reaction, dialogue, and interior monologue. Have your character drop a stack of books in one scene, turn and knock over a pitcher in another, or slip and fall out of nowhere.
Note: To learn more about showing vs. telling, read our tip “Show, Don’t Tell–A Quick Overview.”
In the novel, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Dave King and Renni Browne state:
When you present your reader with already-arrived-at conclusions about your characters, you leave your readers with nothing to do, and passive readers are at best unengaged and at worst bored. You need to let your readers take an active role in the writer-reader partnership.
(King, Dave, and Browne, Renni. 2004. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print. United States: HarperCollins, 30.)
So how do you let your readers take an active role in getting to know your characters? Think about the first time you met someone. Did you immediately know all of their quirks, preferences, and background? Of course not! You learned one piece of information at a time. This is also how your readers should get to know your characters: one attribute at a time. As your story unfolds, your readers will pick up on clues that your character has a strained relationship with their father, or can’t help but pause everything to stare at a rainbow, or is inhumanly strong. Your readers are smart! Let them figure out your characters on their own. This will keep them invested in your characters and their journey.
3. Transform your characters.
The most important thing you can do to make sure your characters are compelling is to have them grow and change. At the end of your novel, your characters should not be the same people they were at the beginning. They need to have transformed. You can do this in a number of ways: maybe they finished the marathon they were training for, maybe they became more confident, maybe they realize they need to focus on their needs instead of catering to everyone else’s, or maybe they started out as a lowly peasant and became the queen. However or whatever it is, your characters need to develop.
Jessica Brody, author of Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, says:
Writing about a [character] who transforms—who comes out of the story a different person than who they started as—is the secret sauce of bestselling novels.
(Brody, Jessica. 2018. Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book On Novel Writing You'll Ever Need. United States: Clarkson Potter/Ten Speed, 17.)
So why does character transformation make or break a novel? Because it’s what your readers are invested in your character and their growth. It’s encouraging and satisfying to see people overcome the odds and reach a goal.
Think of Addie in The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. At the beginning of the novel, she makes a quick deal with the Darkness to claim her life as her own. Soon, she realizes that she didn’t think through exactly what she wished for, and she spends hundreds of years roaming the world without anyone remembering her. At the end of the novel, she makes another deal with the Darkness, but this time she has learned and grown enough to know how to create loopholes so she can get what she wants.
Think of Cameron in Remarkably Bright Creatures. When we first meet him, his life is a mess. He has nowhere to live, his family relationships are all over the place, and he won’t take responsibility for anything. But as he searches for his long-lost father, he learns how to hold down a job, put in effort, and take care of the people—and an octopus—who look out for him.
If Addie and Cameron hadn’t learned or changed at all, their novels would be very disappointing and potentially frustrating reads. Readers like to see characters learn and change based on what they go through—so make sure your characters transform. It inspires readers to grow in their own lives and gives them the hope that despite their own challenges and weaknesses, they can reach their goals just like your character did.
The more real you write your characters, the more real their journey will seem and the more likely your reader will become enveloped in your character’s journey. To create a story that will engross your readers, give your characters realistic, individualized traits. Let your readers get to know your characters over time. And make sure your characters transform by the end of the novel. This is what makes compelling characters. And this is how you get your readers to finish your book and pick up your next one.