Saturday, December 22, 2012

6 Tips for Building an Unforgettable Character

By Linda LaRoche

JH: Please join me in welcoming Linda LaRoche to the blog. Linda and I are doing a blog swap today, so she's here to share tips on how to build a memorable character, and I'll be on her blog (The Quill) chatting about ways to make old ideas new again. Come on over and check it out when you're done here.

Linda is the author of How to Write Stories to be Proud Of. Linda is also an editor and teacher. You can visit her website or blog at

Take it away Linda...

Character and personal force are the only investments that are worth anything.
—Walt Whitman

Who is in the Title role?

Last month I went to see the classic and new adaptation of the film Anna Karenina and no, it was not the best movie I’ve ever seen. One of the things I respect about English film director Joe Wright is that he doesn’t sugarcoat his films. Bad things happen and children lie but love matters.

But, that’s not my point.

As I was watching the 100 trailers that preceded the movie, most of them having to do with science fiction, violence or fantasy, I was struck by the fact that each one of them looked worse than the next. Each one looked like it had cost about 100 million dollars to make; each one was awe-inspiring and glossy. And yet strangely cold and dark. I remarked upon this fact to my adolescent nephew, perhaps too loudly, and he said he hoped to God there was no one in the theater he knew.

The thing is that none of the upcoming movies (from what I could hastily judge) had an interesting character at its center, which brought me back to something I am often saying in class. It’s all about the character. I think that writers in general, and science fiction writers in particular, often fall into the trap of thinking that if they get the details right, the story will fall into place. But I think that’s wrong. You need to start with a good character that your audience will fall in love with and be rooting for.

Before the year ends I am going to see Les Miserables, but I think I will spare my family members (and blog readers) from deconstructing that one.

Here are my tips on ways that will help you sketch and build a literary character not to be forgotten.

1. Write an outline or a blueprint to build your character.
Turn them inside out, so readers identify with them and present identifiable range of attributes. Characters become familiar to the audience through revelations about themselves, their words and actions.

2. Who is your protagonist, and what does he or she want?
The athlete who wants her team to win the big game or the car crash victim who wants to survive his injuries is not specific enough.

3. When the story begins, what morally significant actions has he or she already taken towards that goal?
"Morally significant" doesn't mean your protagonist has to be conventionally "good"; which can be boring, rather, he or she should already have made a significant choice that sets up the rest of the story.

4. What unexpected consequences— directly relate to the protagonist's efforts to achieve the goal– this is where you ramp up the emotional energy of the story.
Will the unexpected consequences force your protagonist to make yet another choice, leading to still more consequences?

5. What details from the setting, dialogue, and tone help you tell the story?
Think of To Kill A Mockingbird. The Story takes place in a fictional small Southern town, where time seems to stand still. Slavery and the Civil War still loom large in the rearview mirror. But the civil rights movement is a speck on the future horizon.) Things to cut include: travel scenes, character A telling character B about something we just saw happening to character A, and phrases like "said happily"— it's much more effective to say "bubbled" or "gushed" or "cooed."

6. What morally significant choice does your protagonist make at the climax of the story?
Your reader should care about the protagonist's decision. Ideally, the reader shouldn't see this choice coming.


  1. I have posted this good advice to the first page of the story I am writing

  2. A question? Is it okay to base your protagonist on a person you have met and got to know?