What Makes a Well-Written Character?

Creating lovable, well-written characters can seem daunting. I know that for me, I try to start off by planning most of it with my character worksheets, but by the time it comes to write them into my story, I am sometimes overwhelmed with making sure I get enough of them onto the page to really get the readers excited.

I recently asked my students to respond to this question, and I was surprised in a lot of ways about the ways that they differentiated between well-written and poorly-written characters.

So, I wanted to share with you, since these are the same students who are reading the YA books that are out on shelves today, and potentially may be your target audience. I’ve condensed their lists into a few very succinct points.

Frodo and his quest to destroy the ring
I have always loved the story of Frodo and the ring, especially with how much heart Frodo shows throughout the books.

Well-Written Characters

  • Are relatable
  • Have depth to them
  • Are imperfect
  • “Feel” human
  • Have reasons behind whether they are static or whether they grow a lot or a little
  • Come off as realistic
  • Have reasons for what they do, whether they are the antagonist or the protagonist

I love this list. It was clear that for my students, being able to imagine the character as a real person, who only acts because of reasons that the character feels are meaningful is so important.

But, as writers, how do we do that?

Well, let’s take a quick look at what my students decided showed a poorly-written character and then we’ll come back to that question.

From Celeana Sardothien to Aelin
** No spoilers** The journey that Maas’s MC takes in becoming her true self is amazing throughout this series and makes me love her. She is still a wise-cracking, kickass lead, but has grown so much.

Poorly-Written Characters

  • Lack personality
  • Have no growth and no reasoning for it
  • Are idealized inserts of the author’s imagination (Mary Sue’s)
  • Have no impact on the audience the book was sold to
  • Sound scripted when they speak

Most of these seem to directly coincide and contradict the previous list, which makes sense. But again, how do we do that?

Well, here are just a few ideas that I got out of reading my students’ responses:

  • Identify who your target audience is and really get to know what they are interested in. So many times, YA characters read like adults because it is adults who are writing them. In many ways, this can be successful as readers tend to “read up” in age, but what about that group of kids who are 11 or 12 looking for someone who is 14 years old? And how does that 14 year old truly differ from a 16 or 17 year old?
  • Make your characters well-rounded. It may not seem important to state that your character plays video games or has never finished reading a book before in his/her life, but those kinds of details make him/her relatable and interesting. Without details like that, your character becomes just a pawn in the plot that you have captured in your book instead of a fully realized person that the readers can imagine going to the grocery store or sitting in a dental chair getting a cavity filled.
  • Give them REASONS. Nobody wants to get off of the couch once they’ve settled in, until they realize the remote is on the kitchen counter. Similarly, your character won’t go from happy to sad to yelling over a dropped candy all in one scene. If they do, they have to have a reason. So give them one. If not, you lose your street cred with your audience in them believing that this is a real person. Especially if you don’t show them stretching out trying to reach the remote before finally getting up, because, let’s be honest, we all do that.
  • Making characters real and believable means life-like, not exactly true to life. For example, take a look at a conversation in real life, and then transcribe every single word over. Your book just doesn’t have the time (and your readers the patience) to stumble over every “um” or “wait, let me go back” in the dialogue. Make it realistic, but not exactly like life or you’ll find much of the dialogue feels unnecessary and skippable.
  • Lastly, nobody’s life is perfect. There should be complications and consequences. In your story, your protagonist is probably special in some way or another, but even Superman had his bad days. Don’t fall into the Mary Sue trap of your character being too good to cheat, lie, steal, or get in some major trouble when it is logical for him/her. Once free pass is a miracle, too many and your readers will feel like you’re handing out free passes and will lose interest. It’s nice to be the good cop, but its the bad cop who makes the person change.

Well, I hope that helped! Let me know what you think makes a well or poorly-written character in the comments!

Published by Leslie

I'm an author, teacher, wife, and mother of three who just finished an MFA program and is working on a YA fantasy novel.

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