Tuesday, August 08, 2017

6 Easy Steps to Unforgettable Characters

By Laurence MacNaughton, @LMacNaughton

Part of the How They Do It Series (Contributing Author)

Readers will pick up your book because of the concept, but they’ll keep reading because of the characters. No matter what genre you write in, interesting characters are absolutely essential to a well-told story. So what's the easiest way to create them?

Most writers approach character creation in a haphazard manner, making things up as they go along. That can work (and I’ve done it plenty of times), but it can lead to a ton of rewriting. Luckily, there is a better approach.

If you want to create fully fleshed-out, three-dimensional characters right from the start, use the PERSON acronym:

  • P is for Personality
  • E is for Experiences
  • R is for Relationships
  • S is for Sketch
  • O is for Objective
  • N is for Need 

P is for Personality 

Think about what this character’s temperament is like, as a person. How does she behave?

What are her strengths? Is she brave, calm, funny?

What are her weaknesses? Is she moody, blunt, self-righteous?

Does she have any personal rules that she always follows? What would cause her to break those rules?

Does she have any strong (but possibly incorrect) beliefs? If she learns enough to change this belief over the course of the story, that could provide a strong character arc.

For example, in my funny urban fantasy series, the main character (Dru Jasper) is smart, sweet, and resourceful. But Dru is also completely disorganized and highly insecure. This often gets her into trouble when she’s trying to save the world, because she’s smart enough to figure out how to do it, but she’s terrified that she’ll mess it up. And that provides plenty of opportunities for hilarity.

E is for Experiences

Dru Jasper

What does this character do for a living? How did they end up in this particular profession? The answers to those two questions will speak volumes about your character.

Take a few minutes to look beyond your character’s current situation and consider her history. Where did she come from? What was it like growing up?

You don’t need to create an entire life story for this character. That would be overwhelming. Instead, focus on one or two key incidents that left a lasting impression.

In my Dru Jasper series, Dru is the bookish owner of The Crystal Connection, a sorcery shop that sells potions, charms, and enchanted crystals. She tries to maintain an oasis of normalcy in a world of magic and monsters. Here's what she says at one point:

“I just want to avoid making the same mistakes my mom made. Getting wrapped up in the danger and craziness of a sorcerer’s life. Constantly being on the move. Always looking over your shoulder for the next creature or rival sorcerer who wants to ruin your life.” Dru sighed. “Is it possible to have safety and stability, and also still have magic in your life?”

Dru spends the rest of the series trying to answer that question.

R is for Relationships


Who are the most important people in this character’s life? The relationships that surround your character can give your readers insight into who they really are.

Loner characters may be mysterious, but in the long run, they aren’t terribly interesting. That's why your character needs a tangled web of other interesting people around them.

Family members are a good place to start, but don’t stop there. Who is her best friend? Who is her biggest rival? Who’s her worst enemy? (And why?)

What role does this character take at work: the boss, the laborer, the clown? What sorts of people does she work with? Have any of them developed into close friends – and does she wish they could be more?

Does she belong to any organizations, social groups, or places of worship? How does she feel about them?

In my Dru Jasper series, Dru's best friend is Rane, a loose cannon who can transform into rock or metal just by touching it.

Her coworker is Opal, who has no magic powers but does possess a hilariously chic fashion sense and loads of common sense (which, let's be honest, is kind of a superpower).

Her love interest is Greyson, street-smart mechanic cursed to transform into a horrifying creature that could trigger doomsday. And he drives Hellbringer, a dangerous muscle car possessed by a speed demon.

Alone, Dru can be an interesting character, but what's more interesting is the relationships between these characters as they work together to fight the forces of darkness and save the world.

S is for Sketch


Now, let's talk about what this character looks like. What’s the first thing people will notice about her? Use your skills as a writer to create a vivid written “sketch” of your character.

Most writers only create a physical description, but you’re smarter than that. You can appeal to all of the reader’s senses, not just visual.

What does the character’s voice sound like: reedy, resonant, dangerous? Do her shoes squeak? Do her bracelets jangle? Does she stomp around, or creep silently?

Does she wear perfume or cologne? Does she smell like a bar, or a locker room, or a farm?

If another character touches her, is she warm, cold, sweaty? Hard-muscled or soft?

What’s the most notable feature of her face? Of her clothing, car, desk, or living room?

Since you already know your character’s personality, some idea of her past experiences, and who her most important relationships are, you can also use those details to help inform your character sketch.

Pro tip: search for photos that look like your characters, and keep those photos handy as you write. It really helps. I have photos of all the main characters in my Dru Jasper series. (Take a look.)

O is for Objective

What is this character’s main goal in this story? What does she need to achieve or avoid?

The easiest way to answer this question is to start with a verb: find, deliver, escape, stop, etc. Then, just finish the sentence.

Here are some examples from my Dru Jasper series:
  • Find the apocalypse scroll. 
  • Stop the Four Horsemen. 
  • Break Greyson’s curse. 
You get the idea. Make sure every major character in your story has a specific objective.

N is for Need

The final part of the puzzle can be the hardest answer: Why does your character need to achieve this goal?

What’s the desire that’s driving her? Is there something missing from her life that achieving this goal would fulfill? Is there something important that she’s terrified of losing?

In Dru’s case, she’s driven by the need to help people. That sounds like a purely altruistic motivation, but it can get complicated. For example, is she helping someone because she wants to make the world a better place, or because it makes her feel important?

What happens when she feels compelled to help the wrong people? Is she still willing to do the right thing, even if it means helping her enemies?

These are the sorts of interesting questions that you can explore in your story once you've identified a strong motivation. So spend a few minutes figuring out why your character wants – or needs, really – to achieve her objective.

Create Memorable Characters the Easy Way

Now it's your turn. The next time you need to develop a new character, or deepen one of your existing characters, use the PERSON acronym:
  • P is for Personality 
  • E is for Experiences 
  • R is for Relationships 
  • S is for Sketch 
  • O is for Objective 
  • N is for Need
Look at each element of the character in turn. Think up different ways you can create someone unique and interesting, someone that your readers will remember long after they finish your story.

Which aspect of character-building gives you the most trouble? Leave a comment below.

Laurence MacNaughton is an urban fantasy and thriller author. His recent books include It Happened One Doomsday and A Kiss Before Doomsday. Find out how you can get a free ebook at www.laurencemacnaughton.com.

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About A Kiss Before Doomsday (Dru Jasper, Book 2)

When an undead motorcycle gang attacks Denver's sorcerers, only one person can decipher the cryptic clues left behind: newly minted crystal sorceress Dru Jasper. A necromancer is using forbidden sorcery to fulfill the prophecy of the apocalypse and bring about the end of the world. To learn the truth, Dru must infiltrate the necromancer's hidden lair and stop the prophecy. But she needs to do it fast, before legions of the undead rise to consume the souls of everyone on earth…

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound | Kobo


  1. Great post. I enjoy dimensional characters when reading, and I try to do the same when writing. The PERSON acronym is a quick note to keep on track.