Module 3: Writing

Writing Your First Draft, Part Two: Create Interesting Characters

Jim Menick, an editor from Reader's Digest, introduces part two of "Writing Your First Draft," which is all about developing characters. People want to hear about people, so your characters are the most important element of your book. You'll learn how to flesh out main characters and secondary characters, and you'll also learn what writing pitfalls to avoid in order to keep your readers engaged.

Video Transcript

Hi, I'm Jim Menick, a book editor at Reader's Digest, and I want to welcome you to our next seminar: part two of "Writing Your First Draft." In this section, we're going to talk about character development. What do we remember most about a book? We would remember the characters. I challenge you to think about a book you read a few years ago. You can probably tell me all about the characters. You could tell me about Hercule Poirot in an Agatha Christie novel, or Jack Reacher in a Lee Child novel. You know what these people are like; they're real. But you probably don't remember the plots of the books, and I'm not saying the plot is unimportant. The character is the most important thing. People want to hear about people. That's what you have to get into your book whether it's fiction, nonfiction. And that's what we're going to talk about next.

Developing characters was one of the most important elements of the success of any book. Whether you write good characters or poor ones will determine whether your readers stay with you to the end. If the characters fail, the story fails.

So how do authors create effective, memorable characters? Today we'll go through some of the keys to developing these, including creating a history, developing secondary characters, revealing your characters in time, developing your antagonist, drawing from real life and using sensory descriptions. Remember that everyone has a history. Past experiences shape and mold your characters. Even if you don't reveal your characters' past to your readers, you should know about them, at least for your main characters. Create full biographies of your main characters, so you understand what drives them. If you don't understand a character, your readers won't either.

And while you can't develop all of your secondary characters, don't neglect them entirely. Sidekicks can be some of the most likable and interesting characters in the story – often, they are the readers' favorites. Some add color or assist in world-building, and some are foils for the main characters. Foils are characters who can't stand your hero and do nothing but gripe about them behind their backs. Make sure you know a lot about your secondary characters, even if you don't end up revealing it to the readers.

There's a tendency for some writers to throw too much at the reader all at once – to give a full physical description, tell the life story and reveal the thoughts of a character as soon as he or she is introduced. But that's not always the best approach. Think about a character you're introducing as someone the reader is meeting for the first time. For example, when you meet someone, you probably take in a person's physical appearance, but only on a fairly superficial level. It's not until you interact with people and observe them interacting with others that you begin to get to know them. That's true of characters, too. When you first introduce them, you should include a few details, but the rest of their personality, motivations and backstories should be revealed gradually through their actions.

Without a villain, your story would not exist. Bad guys can be tough to do well, and it can be even tougher to get readers to empathize with them. Whenever you write a villain, keep in mind that he or she needs to be just as well developed as your main characters. Instead of being flawed, however, because obviously all villains are flawed, the villain should be imperfectly bad. In other words, the villain should have some redeeming characteristics. These can be among the most difficult of all characters to create, but also some of the most satisfying.

Another tip is to base characters on real people. It's a way to flesh out a character very quickly. It makes it easier to stay consistent, too, because you have a fully developed idea of the character's personality right from the start. You can also base characters on real people who you don't know as well. Go to places where people congregate and observe them. Observe how they talk, their mannerisms and what they wear, their attitudes and their body language. You can incorporate your observations into your characters.

Infuse sensory descriptions in your story to bring your characters to life. Provide the reader with information for the five senses: sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. How do your characters dress? Where do they live? How do they decorate their houses? How do they smell, walk and talk? All of these details will bring the character to life for the reader.

There are some things to avoid when creating characters. These include one-dimensional characters, stereotypical characters, too-perfect characters, inconsistency or dull characters.

When you don't devote enough time to character development, your characters will be one-dimensional. They'll seem flat. Of course not every character deserves or merits equal development. All books have main characters and secondary characters, and you can't develop each and every one of the secondary characters, or your book will be thousands of pages long. It may be okay for a character to be one-dimensional if that character's role is not significant. But if it's significant, they need to be fleshed out and developed.

Stereotypes are uninteresting because they're not unique. Imagine if all of the rich people in your book are shallow, greedy and uncaring. All the wealthy women are tall and well-dressed and they've had plastic surgery. These are stereotypes. It's when a character breaks free of the stereotype that he or she becomes believable and memorable. Real people rarely act according to stereotypes in every respect. Everyone is unique in some way.

Perfection doesn't exist in real life, so it shouldn't usually exist in your writing. It's hard to empathize with a perfect person, because no one's perfect. Everyone, no matter how noble, is flawed in some way. For example, an effective character might be someone who is heroic in almost every way – he's a good fighter, he's nice to look at, he rides well and shoots well, he's brave and compassionate – but he's completely indecisive. So if he has to take command in a battle, it's not going to end well for his army. It's much easier for readers to relate to someone with a flaw.

Inconsistency in your characters will jar your readers out of the story more quickly than most anything else. Once you develop a character in a certain way, readers are expecting that character to behave in accordance with his or her personality and motivations as you define them. If that character behaves in a way that doesn't make sense, your readers will notice it every time. Consistency applies to everything, from small things such as the character's hair color, to big things like the character's manner of speaking and important choices. If you don't have a firm picture of them in your mind, they're going to become shaky on the page. You should be able to see them and hear them speak and watch them go through their actions.

If you think you might have a dull character in your book, the first thing you should ask is whether you need that character at all. If you can't come up with an answer, then that character is just stage dressing. Some stage dressing is allowed, but if you don't need the character for stage dressing, maybe it's time to do away with them completely. Another option would be to make a dull character come alive by adding some unique traits. Perhaps they have a secret fantasy life or an intriguing hobby. That sort of thing will give boring characters the interesting edge they need.

That concludes part two of the webinar, "Writing Your First Draft." Next up, we're going to talk about plot and pacing – making that plot work. For information about publishing your book, go to, where you can get some information and a free consultation.