How to Create Characters Editors Are Looking For

By Jordan Dane

Characters can come at you from any direction. You can spot them in a grocery store, or (heaven forbid) at a family reunion, or they can whisper to you in your dreams in the middle of the night. Only YOU will recognize them, to know if they’ll stick in your head and make the cut for a book. Below are some thoughts on creating characters, things that I’ve learned from my own writing.

Conflict is Key
What does your character want and why can't they have it? Conflict is vital to creating memorable characters. No conflict(s), no story. Your external conflict might be the villain or the insurmountable situation, but the most unforgettable characters will also contend with their own flaws or biases (internal conflicts) or demons, so they have a journey toward self-discovery.

Find your characters' greatest weaknesses or fears—their internal conflicts—then demand they deal with it. Torture them. It’s legal. Rubbing their nose in it generally comes from the influences of the external conflict—the plot. The one-two punch of the external and internal conflicts adds depth to your character. Make him/her suffer, then ramp up the stakes and the tension.

How Much Romance is Enough?

If you can take the romance out of your book—completely delete the intimate scenes between your hero and heroine—and your book no longer makes sense, that’s when you know you have the right blend. Karen Rose said that in one of her RWA workshops and it’s stuck with me ever since. She meant that if you have a completely separate story arc for just the lovemaking or relationship development and it’s not an integral part of the plot, then you haven’t blended it well enough. You have to punish your characters for wanting to be together. Put them in more danger or make them more vulnerable because they have feelings for one another. Ramp up the stakes. As an author, it's your job to torture them, you nasty vixen you.

How to Create Memorable Characters?

As a fun exercise, watch a memorable movie or TV show and observe the traits of the main characters, the ones you can’t take your eyes off of when they’re on the big or little screen. What makes them so unforgettable? For most of us, it’s not the high-octane action that sticks in our heads. It’s usually what makes that character human and relatable.

In Million Dollar Baby, it’s Clint Eastwood’s Frankie Dunn character as the hardened boxing trainer who’s struggling connection with his own estranged daughter compels him to take on a novice young woman boxer and give her a chance at her dream. His number one rule to his novice boxers is to “protect yourself”, a rule that has dominated Frank’s life ever since his strained relationship with his daughter. He doesn’t let anyone get too close, until Hilary Swank’s character, Maggie Fitzgerald, comes into his life and gives them both a shot at redemption.

1. Add Depth to Each Character – Give them a journey
· With any journey comes baggage. Be generous. Load on the baggage. Give them a weakness that they’ll have to face head-on by the climax of the book.

· Make them vulnerable by giving them an Achilles Heel. Even the darkest mercenary or a fearless woman assassin should have a weakness that may get them killed and certainly makes them more human and relatable.

· And whether you are writing one book or a series, have a story arc for your character’s journey. Will they find peace or some version of it? Will they let themselves be loved or are they content to live alone? Do what makes sense for your character, but realize that their emotional issues will cloud their judgment and effect how they deal with confrontations. And by the end of a book, they should learn something.

In my book EVIL WITHOUT A FACE (Book #1, Sweet Justice series), my woman bounty hunter, Jessica Beckett, is obsessed with pedophiles because of her past. She was abducted as a small child, taken from a family she’s haunted by (yet never reconnected with), and tortured by a serial pedophile. She’s got scars on her body and face that make her self-conscious, yet she refuses to get them fixed. She wants people to see her as she is, wounded. Her emotional scars on the inside are far worse. They affect everything she does, especially her love life. And even as strong and brave as she is, when it comes time to face criminals who abuse kids, she’s catapulted back to being a victim and must overcome her worst fears revisited. And with each new Sweet Justice book, Jessie faces her past, deals with the dark corners of her tortured mind, and surrounds herself with a growing number of trusted friends who have become her version of a family. Will she finally decide she deserves to be happy and stop sabotaging her life?

2. Use Character Flaws as Handicaps
· Challenge yourself as an author by picking flaws that will make your character stand out and aren’t easy to write about. Sometimes that means you have to dig deep in your own head to imagine things you don’t want to think about, but tap into your empathy for another human being. You might surprise yourself.

· Stay true to the flaws and biases you give your characters. Don’t present them to the reader then have the actions of the character contradict those handicaps. Be consistent. And if they have strong enough issues, these won’t be fixed by the end of the book. Find a way to deal with them.

In the TV show, HOUSE, Dr. Greg House is addicted to pain meds, a by-product of his damaged leg. He’s also obnoxious, abrasive, brutally honest, and definitely politically incorrect in how he deals with patients, but he’s damned good at what he does—saving lives. His public face appears to be a detached man who ridicules any real human emotion, yet he’s fascinated by true emotion too. It’s as if he’s an outsider looking in, an observer of the whole human experience. We never quite know if he really cares about his patients or is merely obsessed with being right as he puzzles out the reasons for the illnesses.

3. Beware the Clichéd Character
· Ask yourself - Have I read this character before? (The alcoholic cop, the loner P.I., the hooker with the heart of gold, etc.) If so, learn how to tweak your story to make it stand out in a slush pile.

· But if you have a clichéd character, you may not need to rewrite your whole story. Try infusing a unique hobby or layer in a unique trait/quality that will set them apart.

In the TV show NCIS, Gibbs’ oasis is building boats in his basement. It’s his retreat, of sorts. We never know what happens to these boats or how he gets them out of his house, but he’s always there with his demons hanging over his shoulder, crafting boats named after his murdered daughter. Heady, heartbreaking stuff. (I’m a sap for a tough guy with a busted heart.)

4. Create A Divergent Cast of Characters
· Portray your characters in varying degrees of redemption - from the innocent to the “total waste of skin” characters

· And sometimes it’s great to show contrast between your characters by making them do comparable things—like how does your bad guy make love versus your good guy?

In the TV show HUMAN TARGET, Christopher Chance has a dark history. He’s a do-it-all anti-hero, former assassin turned bodyguard, who is a security expert and a protector for hire. He works with an unusual and diverse team. His business partner, Winston, is a straight and narrow, good guy while his dark friend, Guerrero, is a man who isn’t burdened by ethics or morality. Each of these men has very different feelings about what it takes to get the job done, but they’ve found common ground to work together. And their differences make for a fun character study. (I love Guerrero!)

5. Flesh Out your Villains
· Villains are the heroes to their own stories – Spend time getting to know them

· Give your villain goals

· Give them a unique sense of humor or dare to endear them to your reader

· The better and more diabolical the villain, the more the reader will fear for the safety of your protagonists

In the TV show, DEXTER, the strange anti-hero, Dexter, is a serial killer with a goal. He hunts serial killers and satisfies his blood lust by killing them. He’s got peculiar values and loyalties with a dark sense of humor. And he’s absolutely fascinating to watch.

Anti-Heroes/Heroines & Villains

I love making a borderline human being into a hero. Writing that type of character can be really challenging. The guy could be dark and brooding, but give him a dog and readers will know instantly that he’s worth loving. Below are other tips to add depth to your villain or make your anti-hero/heroine more sympathetic.

· Cut the reader some slack by clueing them in early. Your bad boy or naughty girl has a very good reason for being that way, even if their reasons aren’t really apparent to the other characters at first. A reader will lose interest fast if your character is a complete jerk for half the book, so pepper in the valid reasons for them being who they are.

· Make them human. Give them a code to live by and/or loyalties the reader can understand and empathize with. Even a very nasty villain or dark anti-hero/heroine has a softer side. Hannibal Lecter was Clarice's protector with his peculiar brand of loyalty. It was his one endearing trait, that and his culinary skills with liver. Chianti and fava beans, anyone?

· Make them sympathetic by giving them a pet or a soft spot for a child. Write the darkest character and match them up with something soft and you’ve got a winning combination that a reader may find endearing.

· Show the admiration or respect others have for them. Everyone looks up to a good leader.

· Give your villain and anti-hero similar motivations for doing what they do. Maybe both of them are trying to protect their family, even though they’re on opposing sides. Who would be more right? This is conflict at its best.

· Give your villain or anti-hero a shot at redemption. What choice would they make?

· Understand your villain’s backstory. It’s just as important as your protagonist’s. The reader must fully understand why they are motivated to do what they’re doing.

· Pepper in a backstory that makes your anti-hero vulnerable – betrayed by love, lost the love of their life, or other tragic life experiences. Make them afraid, sometimes of themselves.

· Give them a weakness – alcohol or drugs, adrenaline addict, insurmountable grief, or fear of the dark. Force them to battle with their deepest fears, making them worth someone’s struggle to win them over.

· Have them see life through personal experiences that we can only imagine but they have lived through. Make trust an issue because they have been betrayed. They must be much more vulnerable than they are cynical to deserve the kind of significant other that it takes to open them up to love.

· Make them real. To be real, they must have honest emotions. And that means you, as an author, must delve into the murky corners of your own mind to get into their heads. It’s not always an easy thing to do.

Getting to Know the Character(s) You Create

I've seen authors use a template of character facts and traits to set the facets of the main characters in their mind's eye. When I was first starting out, I found this practice helpful, although I did not find a good example of a template that worked for me in its entirety. So I'd say create one for yourself if you like this type of structure.

How does this work? I'm a visual learner, so creating these types of notes on my cast of characters can be useful to immerse myself into the world I will be creating. The subconscious brain retains much more than the conscious mind can recall. This process can set the foundation, allow you to absorb the details so your brain will run on autopilot once you begin to write. You can still learn or discover your characters as you go, but I found certain aspects of my characters become ingrained in my mind beforehand by using this questionnaire method.

The template might cover the facts of someone's life, such as:
  • Where do they live?
  • What work do they do? How much money do they make doing it?
  • Who are their friends?
  • Who are the people most influential in their lives?
  • What habits do they have?
  • What are their physical attributes?
  • How do they dress?
  • Where did they go to school—their educational level?
  • What's in their wallet or purse?
  • What type of car do they drive?

Although the above questions are important, the most memorable characters come from the questions below.

Other questions that add depth to the characterization:
  • What matters most to them?
  • What would they die for?
  • How do they deal with confrontation?
  • What makes them vulnerable? What are their flaws and biases?
  • What are their strengths?
  • What's the one thing they would never do? (Of course, you'd make them do it in your plot.)
  • What ethics do they have? Are they willing to bend them?

Another fun thing I do to reinforce characters in my mind is to create a photo board of images or the lifestyle/setting for my characters. When I'm writing them, I have these images to look at. I may also be inspired by certain music. On the day I plan to write, I may listen to that music. Strange, but when you're channeling characters, anything goes.

When you are contemplating who your character will be, ask yourself what would set them apart from other characters in the genre you're writing. A clichéd 2-dimensional character will never survive the crushing weight of an editor's slush pile. Become an observer in life and of people. Study what makes someone or something compelling then write the unforgettable story you've always wanted to tell.

Recommended Reading:
Goal, Motivation, & Conflict (GMC) - The Building Blocks of Good Fiction by author Debra Dixon (ISBN 0-9654371-0-8)

Please feel free to post questions on anything you’ve read in this session. I’ll respond during the week of Oct 11-17th. But for those who don’t have specific questions, please share your thoughts:

1. What characters stick out in your mind as memorable from movies or TV and why did you find them so compelling? Are there any new TV shows with great characters?

2. Do you have any tips, website links, or books to share about creating unforgettable characters?

Copyright Material – Jordan Dane