Characters

How To Write Likable Characters

I’ve decided that the key to writing likable characters is to make them complex and layered. Characters are what I – and I think most readers – connect to and come to love most in a book, so it’s important to write them well.

I will like pretty much any type of character – creepy psychopaths, classic villains, flirts, princesses, peasants, assassins, blacksmiths, con men – so long as they haven’t done anything utterly unforgivable… And so long as they’re deep and layered. Unless it’s a spoiled brat of a princess, in which case there’s a good chance I’m going to hate them no matter what. (Unless you’d like to take that on as a challenge to write a deep, layered spoiled brat princess that I can actually tolerate…) It’s hard to like a villain who’s nothing but an obstacle for the protagonist, and it’s hard to like a protagonist, no matter how “good” they are, if their only goal is to destroy the villain. There must be more to them than that. They must have goals and motivations and deeper personalities than what they show to the people around them. Give them layers. Give them facets.

Sometimes I worry for my mental health because some of my favorite characters are psychopaths and massively evil characters who literally scare me, and then I remember that I also have favorites who are the good guys who want to help people and keep the world functioning smoothly and will do just about anything to save someone they care about. When I look at all of my favorites – the good and the bad – I see one common thread: They’re complex. How do you make a complex character, you ask? Let me tell you what I think helps to make a layered, multi-faceted character.

Give them goals

I don’t just mean “save the princess” or “destroy the bad guy and save the world” or “destroy the protagonist and achieve world domination.” I mean short term goals, long term goals, complex goals that they’ll pursue whether or not it fits the overarching goal of “save the world” or “destroy the world.” A lot of times it’s good if these goals create conflict, whether between characters or within them. The main character of my planned NaNoWriMo project, The Shadow Raven, wants to gain power and get revenge on the person who hurt her. The second main character, on the other hand, wants only to do well in the role he’s been thrust into and doesn’t feel very confident in it. The main character is very confident in her goals, and thus she helps to encourage Character B, partially to help him and partially to further her own goal of power. On the other hand, the main character’s confidence is something that Character B isn’t very comfortable with and thus it causes tension between them.

In my current project, The Last Assassin, the main character is looking for a place where she feels like she belongs. Unfortunately, she’s torn between several options and her indecision tends to leak into the rest of what she does. It also mingles with an insecurity encouraged by the villain of that story, which is caused because of his goal to destroy her. Conflicting goals can be really interesting and add a lot to a story. That said, goals don’t always have to conflict. Sometimes it’s better to have characters with goals that align well so that your character can have an ally they know they can trust. Or can they…

Give them motivation

Again, “I want to save the world because it’s the right thing to do and it’s my job as the protagonist” and “I want to destroy the world because I’m evil and it’s my job as the villain” are boring motivations. Try to come up with a deeper motivation for your characters. Backstory can be a gold mine of motivations. Maybe the main character wants to defeat the villain because they know he killed their mother, or maybe the villain has some deep-seated grudge against the protagonist’s ancestor. These are still fairly cliche motivations, but they’re better than the generic good guy and bad guy motivations given to begin with. And try to think outside the box a little. What if the villain’s grudge wasn’t with the protagonist’s ancestor, but the sidekick’s, so he’s actually after the sidekick? Or what if the main character only thinks that the villain killed their mother, and really it was someone else entirely; maybe the villain isn’t even the villain at all, and they’re now looking for someone they don’t know. There are a lot of possibilities for motivation.

Give them a flip side

If you’re working with a protagonist, give them a dark side. If you’re working with a villain, give them a redeeming quality of some kind, whether it’s an actual good side or just a fun trait. The massively evil villain in my book House of Mages has a few fun scenes near the end in which he’s calling out the protagonists on a bunch of cliches and making puns left and right. You still loathe him because of all of the awful things he’s done to the protagonists and he has no good qualities when it comes to good versus bad, but for those few scenes he’s enjoyable to read.

The main character of The Last Assassin has a rather dark past which over the course of the book she grows to believe is a defining feature of hers, despite her friends’ coaxing otherwise. The main character of The Shadow Raven has a side of her craving power.

Give them flaws

Perfect characters tend to be very annoying to read. They could be the most good, virtuous character on the planet, but if they’re too perfect it’s not likely I’ll enjoy reading them. So give your characters flaws. Give them weaknesses. It can be fun to give them weaknesses in their job. For instance, the main character of the third book in the Dark War Trilogy doesn’t feel like she’s ready for the job she’s given. She doesn’t feel like she can accomplish it, and this is her weakness. Her fear and insecurity are her flaws.

Villains need flaws, too. They may not be the same as your protagonists’ flaws – they may have more psychological flaws while your protagonists have more physical flaws or vice versa – but they need flaws. One of my villains is overly prideful. When his methods are turned on him he fumbles. Another villain of mine doesn’t understand compassion because she’s never seen it up close, and certainly not directed toward her. These are flaws that can be used to defeat your villain or to redeem them, as the case may be.

Don’t forget your villains

Hopefully it’s been evident in the rest of this post, but don’t neglect your villains. Don’t give your deep, interesting character a dull, flat villain to defeat. A well-written villain can add so much to a story, whether they’re seen “on screen” a lot or only in a few scenes. Never let them fall by the wayside. Now, this applies a little differently if you have an abstract villain like doubt or fear or the unfamiliar, as obviously those are developed rather differently. But always pay attention to your villains as much as your protagonists. They’re characters too, and they can accomplish just as much as the good characters in your story. Let them affect the protagonists throughout the course of the book in some way, and give them everything I’ve mentioned above just as much as the protagonists. Even a nearly pure evil villain can be enjoyable to read and we can love to hate him as the readers if he has the right ingredients.

 

Hopefully this post was helpful and you enjoyed reading it. Are there any other qualities you’d suggest for what makes a good character?

Character Interview: Tiberius Alister

Tiberius is a character from The Last Assassin and a fairly good friend of Catessa’s. He’s a pirate, as well as quite possibly my favorite character in the whole book. I hope you enjoy his interview.

 

Tiberius: *walks in and takes a seat* Hello.

Interviewer: Hello. How are you?

Tiberius: I’m doing quite well. How are you?

Interviewer: Doing well, thank you. Shall we get started?

Tiberius: *nods*

Interviewer: What is your name?

Tiberius: Tiberius Alister. Or Black Tide.

Interviewer: Black Tide? How did that one come about?

Tiberius: Black is my favorite color. *gestures to his entirely black outfit* Tide comes from both the ocean herself and a similarity to my first name.

Interviewer: Interesting. How old are you?

Tiberius: Twenty-three.

Interviewer: Do you have any siblings?

Tiberius: A little brother, Theo. It’s been a while since I saw him, but I think he’s working as a scholar now. He’s probably almost an adult by now.

Interviewer: What do you do?

Tiberius: I’m a sailor. I haven’t been home in a while since I’ve been on jobs.

Interviewer: Where is home? Does Theo still live there?

Tiberius: *nods* He does. Nistren, Mandoria. I haven’t even been to Mandoria in a while. I’ve been more in Roenor and Kaloris.

Interviewer: Are you an introvert or extrovert?

Tiberius: I’m an extrovert, but I also love my alone time.

Interviewer: What is your favorite food?

Tiberius: Licorice.

Interviewer: What is your favorite book?

Tiberius: I tend to prefer atlases to real books. I find the world fascinating.

Interviewer: What is your favorite animal?

Tiberius: If I had to choose, I like dogs, but I’m not really a huge animal person.

Interviewer: Is there a job you’d rather have than the one you have now?

Tiberius: *shakes his head* No. I like the chance to travel the world and put things right.

Interviewer: And how do you do that? Put things right, I mean.

Tiberius: Ridding the seas of pirates, stuff like that. *seems unsure of his answer*

Interviewer: What are your hobbies?

Tiberius: Playing cards, sparring with the crew, stuff like that.

Interviewer: What traits do you look for in a potential wife?

Tiberius: Someone with a love of the sea, fun to be around, an adventurer of some sort. Someone who would enjoy sailing with me.

Interviewer: Which of these is most important to you: Kindness, intelligence, or bravery?

Tiberius: *thinks for a moment* Probably kindness, with bravery in close second. All are excellent traits to have.

Interviewer: And honesty or selflessness?

Tiberius: Selflessness, but again they’re extremely close.

Interviewer: What is something you can never leave the house – or ship – without?

Tiberius: My sword. *pats the silver hilt of the rapier at his hip*

Interviewer: That was the last question. Thank you for your time.

Tiberius: *nods* My pleasure. *shakes the interviewer’s hand before leaving*

The “Boxes” I Put My Characters In

People say it’s bad to put people in boxes, and the same applies to characters. I say that if you know they won’t fit neatly in the box it can help you get to know your character to put them in it. It can help you understand their values and flaws and strengths better. Here are the boxes I’m mostly talking about:

Harry Potter Houses: Yep. I’m a nerd. Although, not a Harry Potter nerd. I have yet to read it. (Long story short: It’s on my tablet and my tablet broke.) However, Pinterest and just HP’s overall popularity have pulled me into the fandom without reading it. I probably have a full mental list of every character who dies, and I am well-acquainted with the houses. I can accurately match my characters to a house, in most cases, and get backed up by a quiz.

Divergent Factions: Yep, more nerdiness. What can I say? I’m a bookworm, of course. I know few writers who aren’t. Anyway… I have read this one, and though I wasn’t a fan of the books I was fascinated by the faction system. This one helps me a lot in getting to know my characters, and it’s another that I can usually accurately match myself and then back up with a quiz.

MBTI: Meyers-Briggs is a sixteen-type system that measures your ratio of introvert-extrovert, intuitive-sensing, thinking-feeling, and judging-perceiving. This is one I can’t successfully assign my characters on my own because there are a lot of them and there are four pieces. I can almost always tell you whether a character is I or E (introvert or extrovert), but beyond that I entrust typing to the test.

Alignment: This is a new one that I haven’t used much yet, but is interesting. It’s a test that sets you in one of eight types: lawful good, neutral good, chaotic good, true neutral, lawful evil, neutral evil, or chaotic evil. This is another one that’s fairly easy for me to gauge myself, but I still go to the test to know for sure. (Not that tests are the be-all and end-all, but you know what I mean.)

As an example, I’ll use my character Livi Brooklyn and put her into each box.

HP: Prediction: Hufflepuff, through and through. Quiz reaction: Hufflepuff.

Faction: Prediction: Amity. Quiz reaction: Amity (Divergent, officially, but every answer is Divergent and Amity scored a lot higher than anything else.)

MBTI: Guess: ESFJ. Quiz answer: ENFP (I told you I’m not as good at predicting that one.) Ooh, and this slogan fits her perfectly: “What do you mean ‘life is boring’? Are we living on the same planet?”

Alignment: Guess: Chaotic good? Quiz answer: Lawful Good (with a lot of answers in neutral). Livi? Lawful? Huh.

I know that no one ever fits in one particular box, and characters shouldn’t be an exception, but if I know that she’s a Hufflepuff and Amity I know she’ll do anything for anyone. If I know that she’s an ENFP I know that she sees everything as fun (and if you search on Pinterest for “{insert MBTI type here}” it’ll pull up things that relate to that type. I have a character who’s board is currently dominated by these, if you’d like to see what I mean.) Looking over these gives me more of a feel for the character, too. Lawful Good tells me that she’s good (duh) and that she respects some authority, be that official authority or her own set of standards. These “boxes” all help me get to know the character better. (Fun fact: Livi’s first three are the same as my character Cordain’s, from The Heart of the Baenor, and the fourth might be too but I haven’t taken the test for him yet.) Boxes can be restricting, but when used properly they can actually have the opposite effect and help unleash the character.

Just for fun, here are the “boxes” I belong in. ;)

HP: Ravenclaw (tests have given me Ravenclaw and Gryffindor multiple times each.)

Faction: Divergent (Abnegation, Amity, Candor, and Erudite are all really close in the results.)

MBTI: INFP (This one has actually been steadily the same.)

Alignment: Lawful Neutral (a lot of mixed answers. I seem to truly be Divergent. ;))

How do you feel about “boxes” for character development? What HP house/Faction/MBTI type are you? I’d love to hear from you in the comments. :)

Character Interview: Ismena Ivery

Today’s interviewee is something of an anti-villain, but I kind of like her, and a significant portion of The King’s Paladin will probably be told from her point of view. Enjoy. :)

Ismena: *comes in and takes a seat across from the interviewer, looking quite regal with her perfect posture and flowing gown* Good morning.

Interviewer: Good morning. How are you?

Ismena: I’m doing well.

Interviwer: Excellent. Then let’s get started. *smiles* What is your name?

Ismena: Ismena Faye Ivery.

Interviewer: How old are you?

Ismena: Nineteen.

Interviewer: Do you have any siblings?

Ismena: No.

Interviewer: What is your job?

Ismena: I’m princess of Mandoria.

Interviewer: Are you an introvert or extrovert?

Ismena: Extrovert.

Interviewer: What is your favorite food?

Ismena: Cream cheese pastries.

Interviewer: What is your favorite color and why?

Ismena: Purple. It matches my eyes. But I tend to prefer darker purples.

Interviewer: What is your favorite book?

Ismena: Alander’s Adventures in Lornea. It was my favorite when I was a little girl, and now it bears a lot of sentimental value.

Interviewer: Is there a job you’d rather have than the one you have now?

Ismena: Not particularly. I don’t think I’d be good at much else.

Interviewer: Do you have any hobbies?

Ismena: I draw on occasion and I play the piano.

Interviewer: What traits do you look for in a potential husband?

Ismena: Someone clever and strategic, preferably physically attractive, and someone I can make plans with.

Interviewer: Which of these is most important to you: Kindness, intelligence, or bravery?

Ismena: Intelligence.

Interviewer: And honesty or selflessness?

Ismena: Selflessness.

Interviewer: What is something you can never leave the house without?

Ismena: My cloak.

Interviewer: That was the last question. Thank you for your time.

Ismena: *stands and leaves, looking just as regal as when she came in*

Through A Character’s Eyes

When we write characters, we have to get inside their heads. We have to know what makes them tick, how they see the world, and all sorts of things about how they’d react to certain situations.

I actually kind of talked this post out to myself on a video before I wrote it, and I realized that this isn’t going to be a post about how to get into a character’s eyes, like I thought it was, but rather sort of a post about how you know that your character is well-developed, because a well-developed character will kind of develop his own voice and you’ll kind of just slide into his mind when you need to.

There have been three characters in particular who I have really enjoyed writing or been surprised at my ability to write because they’re so different from me and have such different voices from me. The first of those is Rynn Aryon.

Rynn is the princess of a currently-unnamed country who wants to work to protect her country from the encroaching Vollak. Vollak are basically like werewolves. Rynn wants to protect people from these monsters because no one else really is. They’re kind of just watching as these Vollak kill citizens of their country, and those who do care can’t really do much about it. So Rynn disguises herself and goes to take control of the army and get their rears in gear. Now, Rynn is very sassy. She’s quite possibly my sassiest character. She always has a response for anything thrown at her, and she’s extremely quick-witted. I, on the other hand, am not really one of those people. Occasionally I’ll think of a good comeback in time to use it, but most of the time I don’t think of responses to things until five years later. This is why it surprised me when I started writing Rynn and her sass just flowed off my fingertips onto the screen. I could come up with comebacks as fast as Rynn could, and it was a really interesting experience because it’s very unlike me.

Rynn is the only example I can think of of a character who is so different from me it surprised me I could write them, but there have been a couple of characters whose perception of the world has really fascinated me and who have been really interesting to write and see interact with other characters and with the world around them.

One of my favorite characters to write, probably, is Cordain Celebar. He’s one of the three main characters of The Heart of the Baenor. He’s an elf, so he was raised in a rural area with good morals and a strong faith in God. Because of this, he sees everything as pointing to God and as a beautiful creation, and he basically sees the whole world through rose-colored glasses. This gives him a measure of naivety, but it’s also crucial in his interactions with other characters.

A similar case to Cordain is Quentin/Pellan Shyle (I haven’t decided if I’m going to keep his original name or change it). He was raised in Cron Hatal, the capital of Kaloris. I’m not entirely sure yet what led to his worldview, but he pays great attention to detail. He believes that details are extremely important because they’re what make up the whole. He records details about everything in a thick, leather-bound journal, which Catessa (the main character) finds strange because she pays attention to larger things and things that directly affect her, not details. She doesn’t find details all that important, so she doesn’t understand Quentin/Pellan’s fascination with them.

It’s always interesting when you’re able to easily get into a character’s head, and I consider it a trait of a well-developed character, at least when that character is one that is very different from you. If you can easily write a character who is opposite of you, you’ve aced the development of that character.

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