One of my favorite performers, Christine Lavin, does a song called “The Shopping Cart of Love: The Play,” in which she says of a store manager:

He would just sit in the back room every day, reading the dictionary and then taking the
“It pays to increase your word power” test in Readers Digest

This has nothing to do with the song but since it’s
a play I did a little character development.

(full lyrics here)


Well, the song doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with my blog, but since she’s so awesome, I decided that using this as a lead in to talking about character development might entice you to check her out.  Go ahead, I’ll wait. 

You’re back?  Okay then, let’s discuss characters, viewpoints and their development.  If you took my Writer’s Digest webinar on writing science fiction, fantasy and the paranormal last year, this is probably going to sound familiar, but it will be all new to everyone else.

Here are some things to consider in creating your main character.  (Note that I don’t say “hero” or “heroine,” because sometimes, like in the movie Despicable Me, the terms don’t really apply…at least not at first.)

Is your character an Insider or Outsider: are they already fully immersed in the world or is the reader becoming aware along with the character?  Sometimes the best way to introduce a reader to the world of the weird is to introduce the protagonist to it, so that he or she begins at the same level of knowledge, basically, as the reader.  Take Chloe Neill’s Chicagoland Vampires series.  Her main character is more or less an everyman.  Everywoman anyway.   She’s a graduate student—exams, roommate, jeans, t-shirts, junk-food addiction, particularly under stress—until she’s attacked by one vampire and rescued by another, though the only way to accomplish that is to complete her transformation.  In the world Chloe has created, becoming a vampire isn’t as simple as waking from the dead.  It’s extremely political and practically feudal in its code, set down in a multi-volume Canon riddled with rules the heroine often learns by the breaking of them.  Alternately, it can be intriguing simply to launch your reader into the fictional world right from the beginning, as Kalayna Price does in Grave Witch, “The first time I encountered Death, I hurled my mother’s medical chart at him.  As far as impressions went, I blew it, but I was five at the time, so he eventually forgave me.  Some days I wished he hadn’t – particularly when we crossed paths on the job.”  Here, the heroine has grown up with her abilities, and the reader accepts them just as the protagonist does, taking them in stride.

Reliable or Unreliable Narrator: a reliable narrator is most traditional.  This is someone whose observations we trust. An unreliable narrator is often an anti-hero, someone who may have a reason to twist the facts presented.  The best example I can provide of the latter is Sir Apropos of Nothing by Peter David.  It’s fascinating, because the reader is an active participant in the narrative, constantly analyzing what’s said to get to the truth beyond the words. 

Is this someone you can torture? I know, this sounds crazy, but this is one I learned from experience.  Part of the reason you have to give your characters flaws, aside from the fact that we all have them, and it makes your characters more realistic, is that it gives you something less than noble about them that you can hang onto when you’re putting them through the meatgrinder that is fate.  I’m completely serious here.  If your character is too beloved or too much like you, you’re going to have a very difficult time carrying through with the conflict.  You’ll want to protect them, and therefore demolish any tension almost before it’s begun to build.  I’ve seen it time and again, along with overuse of adjectives and exposition.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first character I wrote who really spoke to people was a teen fashionista I took from chic to eek by vamping her out and taking away all her tanning options.  No reflection, no way to fix her hair and make-up…her own personal version of hell.  Yes, she was fun to torture…for me and for the reader as well.  But she also had to be capable of, as she says, putting on her big-girl panties to deal with it, which brings me to my next comment….

Hidden strengths: In Joss Whedon’s Firefly, very bad man Adelai Niska says that during torture you meet the true person.  In a novel, your action tends to be a bit larger than life, unless your lives are much more exciting than mine, so characters tend to be pushed beyond normal endurance.  They’ll either break or find hidden strengths that allow them to survive and win the day.  Breaking is obviously the less heroic choice.  But it’s by distilling your characters in the crucible of fate that you come to their essence.

What POV will best suit your character’s voice?  There are really only two acceptable options, since omniscient narration doesn’t tend to appeal to modern readers.  (That’s narration where events are relayed from some external perspective, as if it’s being watched and not lived.  It’s very distancing and doesn’t provide any lens through which we can view the world or emotional impact, because nothing is at stake for the teller of the tale.)

The first person, or the “I” perspective, is popular these days, especially in urban fantasy.  It can be very intimate, but it can also be limiting, since it’s best (though not exclusively) used in single point of view narratives.  Caveat here: be careful that it doesn’t sound like your character is speaking directly to the reader.  A reader wants to disappear into a book and live vicariously alongside the characters, which isn’t possible when we’re aware of ourselves.   Also, one person can’t ever truly know what’s going on in someone else’s head, so while you can give the reader cues in dialogue, expression and body language, what we can learn will be limited and must be convincing.

Third person is perhaps the most commonly used.  This is the “he” or “she” perspective, where we’re still in a particular character’s head at any given moment, but which character may change with a chapter or section break.  There are caveats here too.  If you choose to write from more than one perspective, it’s important for each voice to sound truly distinctive so that the reader doesn’t forget even for a second who they’re following.  Also, even with the ability to tell a tale from multiple viewpoints, you’ll probably want to limit the number of POV characters, lest the book become too unwieldy and a reader lose the thread of one character’s story while we’re tied up with another.

I’ve seen books where the author goes back over the same scene from more than one character’s perspective.  This can be revealing, even intriguing, but beware losing the reader as you lose your forward momentum.

There’s so much more to discuss here, but it appears I’ve gone on long enough.  Why don’t you readers talk amongst yourselves?  What haven’t I touched on that you want to know about?  What do you like as readers?  As writers?  What voices or characters have you found to be the most distinctive?  Inquiring minds want to know.


14 comments to Characters

  • The section on “Is this someone I can torture” baffled me. I torture my protagonists BECAUSE I love them. How better to express my appreciation for their flaws and uniqueness than throw them into a stormy sea filled with sharks? To do less would deny them the chance to triumph.

    Thank you, Lucienne Diver, for the illuminating post.

  • Well, they do say that you always hurt the ones you love. Me, I had to start with a protagonist who was the big-haired girl with the reputation in high school, the one who used to torment my sister, in order to find a character I could really put through the wringer. When I realized I was going to spend an entire novel with her (then a series), she naturally had to mutate into someone I could love and respect. But she didn’t start out that way!

  • […] I’m over at Magical Words today talking about creating characters. […]

  • JJerome

    Lucienne – thanks for the advice about 1st person narration. I started a short story last night, and in it, the narrator engaged the reader in a dialogue. It sounds more interesting that it actually was. And now, thanks to your post, I will revise the piece and allow the reader to “disappear” into the story.

  • Unicorn

    For me, characters are what make or break a story – whether I’m writing or reading it. Even if the other elements of the story are excellent, if I don’t like the characters, I’ll dump the book.
    One of my favourite characters must be Moist von Lipwig in Terry Pratchett’s “Going Postal” and “Making Money”. Moist has a criminal mind but an honest soul and watching those two conflict is amazingly interesting.
    As a reader, I like characters to have little quirks that make them unique. Somehow the quirky characters stand out in my mind, especially villains. In Pratchett’s “The Truth”, one of the main bad guys, Mr. Tulip, is a thug and a killer, but he’s also attracted to beauty and seems to have an unlimited knowledge of sculpture, painting and other art forms.
    Thank you for a fascinating post, Lucienne.

  • Wonderful post Lucienne- I agree that characters are IT. As a reader, I will walk away from an excellently plotted book if I don’t have somesort of connection to the character (and fairly soon ;)).

    As a writer, I try to do the same thing :). I write what I’d like to read- fantasy, space opera, steampunk- with lots of action, a tad of romance, and characters I love but are great to torture ;). If I catch myself thinking that I don’t want to hurt a character, I know I’ve got a good one ;).

    I’d say you hit all the high points for making great characters (I’ll be reminding myself to go back to this post often to make sure I stay on track.)


  • JJerome, I’m so glad you found it helpful!

    Unicorn and Marie, I agree entirely. It’s the characters that really make a novel or series. I won’t read a book with characters I don’t like or can’t identify with. And life’s too short to read bad books (or at least those that don’t work for you when there are so many others from which to choose).

  • Lucienne, I too was surprised–and then intrigued–with the point on torture. But O.M.Gosh, you are so right. I do totally torture my characters! And (moment of personal revelation) that is why muse is so ugy and so mean. I had to stop typing and just think about that. In fact, I am still thinking about that.
    Thank you for this.

  • Faith, all the best writers do. Diana Pharaoh Francis did a whole blog post for me on this a couple of years ago: You know who else should chime in here about crimes against characters? David. Yo, David, you know what would be fun? An open letter of apology to your characters, say Grinsa and Tavis from the Winds of the Forelands series or…. (Kidding, kidding…they’re the forgiving sort, though Tavis probably didn’t start out that way.) Also, Carol Berg, N.K. Jemisin…the list goes on.

  • Razziecat

    I used to struggle with this, too. My first instinct was always to find a way for my characters to not get hurt when bad things happened. I’m over that now, and find myself getting excited over all the nasty things I’m planning to do to them. Not sure what that says about my mental stability 🙂

    Carol Berg is definitely good at this! Also Katherine Kurtz, in her Deryni novels, did some awful things to characters…my sister and I used to try to guess how many pages each new book would take for someone to get killed.

  • Loved the lyrics, Lucienne! I love songs that tell proper stories, and humourously.

    And such a great, thoughrough post. Thanks for the reminder about making the main character torture-worthy. That’s one lesson I’ve definitely been undertaking more of late.

  • sagablessed

    Torture my characters? Of course. That makes writing fun.

  • From the road: Yes, I admit it. I am very, very cruel to my characters, and I don’t expect that any of them would thank me for it. But I like to think that we are toughest on those we love, and I do love my characters. I just love some of them more than others….