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How to Create Strong Characters in your Stories

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

I was fourteen when I decided I wanted to write professionally. Of course, lots of people kept telling me how hard it would be, how unlikely it was that I would make it, how precarious a job it was. And I nodded and smiled and thought to myself, ‘but that won’t be me. I’m gonna make it.’

The trouble is, there was no-one really around to mentor me and help me grow.

I wish there had been resources readily available for me as a young writer; things I could follow and learn from, exercises I could try, experiments I could run with my writing to help me get better. This sort of stuff did exist when I was fourteen, but it was almost always aimed at adult writers, in book form, and it cost money. My parents were (and still are) extremely supportive of my writing dreams, so they bought me these books, they encouraged me, they read (and still read) my work and spent long hours on the phone talking me through things they thought I could improve.



But not every young writer has such a supportive network and even the most supportive family unit may not be able to afford the books and resources to help their young genius grow and develop. I’ve been a writer all my life and a qualified teacher for the past ten years. I have benefited from the expertise of many writers who have been kind enough to give their time and energy to helping me develop my work. I have been privileged enough to grow up in an environment that allowed me to pursue my dreams, surrounded me with books and told me I could achieve whatever I put my mind to. It makes sense I should give something back.

So the #YoungWriters’Corner will be a series of blog posts, freely accessible, aimed at young writers and new writers.

Lots of writers discover their passion later in life. If you are one of those, these blog workshops will be suitable for you. But they will also be suitable if you are a writer in your teens, perhaps being told by those around you that it isn’t a stable career, that it’s not worth pursuing, that you can’t do it. They are right on the first count but not on the second two. If this is your passion, it is always worth pursuing. No, it may not be the only way you make money, yes, it may be a long time before you achieve the recognition you want. But you won’t know if you don’t try, will you?

And in the meantime, like all true artists, perhaps you are looking for ways to improve your skills and develop your craft.


Here is the first lesson in the #YoungWriters’Corner blog series:

 

How to Create Strong Characters

In my writing, I think the most important thing for me to get right, even before I start draft one, is my characters.

I do a lot of work on my characters before I even start my first draft. This isn’t the only way that writers work on their characters. Almost every writer I know has their own individual way of doing things. None of them are ‘the right way’. What’s right is what works for you. So I’m just going to share with you what I do. I would advise you to give it a go and then change it and adapt it to suit your own writing. This might take a little bit of time to get right but that’s ok. Writers are always trying to make their process better and improve how they work!


The Principle of Building Characters


When I’m building characters, I start with three fundamental things which then help me to develop the character further.

These things are Wants, Needs and Fatal Flaws.

The Want is the thing that my character desires. This might be a material thing (like a new dress) or a social thing (to be accepted into the popular crowd) or something a bit more abstract (to make their parents proud). My characters are usually aware of what they want, and when they start their journey, they think the journey is about what they want. But it isn’t, really, it’s about the Need!

The Need is the thing the character requires to grow.

Characters mostly don’t know about their need, and they learn about it during the story. Their need, in my characters, often contradicts the thing they think they want. So:

  1. My character who WANTS a new dress might NEED to learn that what she looks like isn’t important.

  2. My character who WANTS to be accepted into the popular crowd might NEED to learn to appreciate the friends they already have.

  3. My character who WANTS to make their parents proud might NEED to learn that their life is their own and they should live it according to their own passions and principles.

See how that works? Through the course of the story, my character will start off focusing on their want, and gradually learn to pursue their need. Not all stories follow this formula, but I tend to find that it works for me and that it’s a loose enough structure for me to be really creative with how I plan my stories.

The final thing a character needs to have is their FATAL FLAW.

This is the thing that is going to get in the character’s way. It is, if you like, the main antagonistic force, but it comes from within the character.

For example, let’s have a look at character 1 from above. She WANTS a new dress. She NEEDS to learn that what she looks like isn’t important but her FATAL FLAW is that she judges everyone else on their wealth and appearance. She has to overcome this to fulfil her need. Character 2, who WANTS to be in the popular crowd but NEEDS to appreciate the friends they already have, might have the FATAL FLAW of being afraid to be seen as different. If they are to appreciate the friends that really matter, they have to overcome their fatal flaw.




Once I have the wants, needs and fatal flaws of my character, I can then start to build their backstory. I do this by interviewing my character. I find this bit really fun! I write all the interview questions out first, and then I answer them in my character’s voice.

This is a really great way of getting to know my character, learn how they speak, learn their attitudes and their world view and really get to know them.

That’s how I create my characters. Let’s start by thinking about how we can develop a character’s wants, needs and fatal flaws.


Practice

This is a brainstorming exercise. On a blank piece of paper, brainstorm three things:

  • The qualities people have that make you like them (like ‘they’re funny’, ‘they’re good listeners’, ‘they’re kind’.)

  • The qualities people have that make you dislike them (like ‘they’re unpleasant’, ‘they’re lazy’)

  • Things, both abstract and concrete, that people WANT (like a new dress, or popular friends, or proud parents.)

Try to brainstorm 10 things for each of the above bullet points, because this will mean that you start to think about unusual or original qualities and wants that can make interesting story characters.

Now we’re going to focus on two categories: the things we DISLIKE about a character, and their WANT. The DISLIKE category helps us to come up with a character’s fatal flaw. The WANT is exactly that, a want!

So, choose something you dislike. This is going to be the character’s flaw: something they have to overcome to achieve their need.

Then choose their WANT.

Now all we have to do is come up with their NEED. Their need should be the opposite of their fatal flaw. So:

  • A character that is lazy might NEED to learn to find joy in hard work.

  • A character who is selfish might NEED to learn to think of others first in order to make friends.

  • A character who is easily led might NEED to learn to stand up for themselves.

Once you’ve got your character’s want, need and fatal flaw, you can move on to the next part of the workshop!


Study of a brilliant character: Tiffany Aching


Ok, so now let’s have a look at one of my all-time favourite characters: Tiffany Aching from The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett. Tiffany is in five of Pratchett’s books and is a character I adore. She is a young witch-in-training in a world of strange magic and politics. I’m actually going to focus on her story arc in the first book for this study so we can see her wants, needs and fatal flaw.

A quick summary of the story: Tiffany is nine and lives on a sheep farm with her parents. Her little brother is annoying. When her little brother is captured by fairies. Tiffany, with the help of Roland (a prince) and some little blue men (the Nac Mac Feegles) ventures into fairyland to rescue him.

At the beginning of the story, Tiffany’s FATAL FLAW is annoyance at her brother.

She’s irritated that everyone gives him what he wants and he can run around and be a nuisance when she has responsibilities. She WANTS to be praised and noticed like her brother, and for him not to be the centre of attention all the time.

But throughout the story, Tiffany learns that what she NEEDS is to feel acceptance of herself, not to be praised by others, but to know her own mind, her own power, and be comfortable with herself. The story becomes less about Tiffany getting the credit for doing the right thing (her WANT) and more about doing right for the sake of doing right, regardless of whether or not she’s recognised for it (her NEED).

Tiffany has to overcome her bitterness towards her brother in order to rescue him and achieve her need. Achieving her NEED also means discarding her WANT.

I love Tiffany’s story, and how she grows throughout the five books, from a nine-year-old witch-to-be to a fully fledged witch at fifteen in the final book. She’s practical, thoughtful, considerate, helpful and generous, but she can also be stubborn and reckless, which means she often makes mistakes she has to clear up. Even though she makes mistakes, you root for her as a reader because of her good qualities. This is what makes a good character, in my opinion!


Final Challenge


Now you have a character with a want, a need and a fatal flaw. That’s the perfect starting point! As a final challenge, this is what I do next to develop my characters: I focus on their backstory! I’ll write 50 – 100 interview questions to ask my character. Some of them might be general questions, like ‘what’s your favourite colour?’ or ‘How many siblings do you have?’ and others of them will be very specific, like ‘when did you discover you really hated tofu?’.


Specificity really helps you to build a sense of your character. I also try to make my questions specific to the world my character lives in, so I might ask them questions about magic or another character in the story.

Then, when I’ve written out all my interview questions, I’ll go through and answer every single one in the voice of my character.

I recommend you try this, too! Write a set of 30 interview questions, and then go through and answer them all in the voice of your character. It’s a great way to really get to know them.

 

Characters are really important to our stories. We can build the most exciting, interesting, complex, magical worlds to write about, but if our readers don’t like our characters, they won’t care about the world we’ve taken the time to create.

Spending some time and energy on creating good characters will mean your readers will be willing to invest in them too.

That’s it for our first #YoungWriters’Corner! I’ll be back next month with another blog, and another #YoungWriters’Corner later in the spring.


In the meantime, Happy Writing!

 

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