Resources for Creating Characters that Live and Breathe



“Create compelling characters” seems to be the standard advice for writing a great novel. Nearly every article I’ve read says so. The authors differ as to the importance of plot, structure, or theme, but they all say without characters readers want to cheer for, your book is sunk.

In order to make my characters memorable, I read a few books on the subject. These are the ones I found the most helpful.

Characters, Emotion and Viewpoint

Another work in the Write Great Fiction series, Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting Dynamic Characters and Effective Viewpoints (Write Great Fiction) does a fine job explaining how to create characters and dig into their secrets and psyches. By giving them a backstory full of hurt, disappointment and loss, they become more complex and interesting.

The author provides details about creating characters for genre fiction, such as science fiction or romance. She also discusses how to create humorous characters that make readers laugh, rather than roll their eyes.

Later chapters go into techniques for conveying emotion, whether through dialogue, metaphors or details, and explain ways to exploit the most useful emotion in fiction. (Hint: you may be feeling it right now, since I didn’t say what it is. Can you guess? Of course, it’s frustration.)

The book concludes with a few chapters on point of view and how to use the different ones effectively.

All in all, I found this to be a helpful resource, providing a good overview of the topic and exercises at the end of each chapter that are designed to help improve your technique.

The Positive Trait Thesaurus
The Negative Trait Thesaurus

These companion works to The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide To Character Expression were the best additions to my library this the year. No lie.

They are organized like a thesaurus, with entries for such traits as protective or inhibited. (You can probably figure out which trait you’d find in which thesaurus.) Each entry lists similar attributes, possible causes, associated behaviors, thoughts and emotions, and positive and negative aspects of that attribute.

What are especially helpful are the appendices. At the back of The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes, you’ll find a Character Profile Questionnaire. This is the best guide for writing a character sketch that I’ve found so far. After that is the Character Attribute Target Tool, which helps you select traits for your character that relate to morality, achievement, interactions, and identity.

The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws also has some tools. The first helps you detail the character’s needs, and the lies he or she character believes. An example of lies might be “I don’t deserve to have a better life” or “if they really knew me, they wouldn’t like me.” The second appendix explains the reverse backstory tool, which helps you create your character’s backstory. The third appendix teaches you how to construct a character pyramid, which helps you organize the characters flaws and to figure out which are driving forces behind much of his or her behavior, and which ones are merely secondary.

Using all these tools helped me delve into my characters in a way I never could before. The added, unlooked for benefit was by knowing my characters better, all kinds of subplot opportunities presented themselves. Now I have plenty of ways to make all my characters suffer, overcome obstacles and conflict, and ultimately grow.

What resources have you used that helped you with character development? I’d love to hear about them!

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