First of all, this is a question that was asked aiming good bibliography suggestions and tips.

Secondly, my question could be cast into the famous interrogative sentence: "How can I construct good characters?". Furthermore, this is one of the first general questions which an beginner writer asks after reading some references on creative writing; the writer, then, begins to realize how complex and labourious is the task to construct a fictional character.

Well, I'm a "freshman" in creative writing for sure. But my tendency on searching a more technical literature, drove me to read (partially) my very first text on creative writing: Mckee's STORY. After that I began to realize that the external world of a story is, somehow, superfluous without a "character with a story", and "a character with a story" is, in my opinion, some sort of an "emergent structure" which emerges from the deep layers of the psyche of a particular character, after some event (possibly); that's the main point of this question.

I think that there's two things happening in the process of creating a character for a novel: the "construction of the character" and "the author's history". By "author's history" I mean: the particular experiences of (real) life that he or she have had; the "construction of the character" I mean: tools and faculties (like semiotics, psychology etc...) that helps the writer to perform a yelding between primitive concepts like "happiness" and the "first layer"("deep reason that drives the character"/"the innermost conflict"/"the reason that even the character doesn't knows that exists") of the character psique. Furthermore, I don't know if is paramount that to write about the happiness of a character the author must have lived this feeling; for instance, can the author construct the deep layers of the character using just theoretical descriptions of happiness?


Beyond all that digression up above, I would like to ask: which "technical tools" (for instance, the study of semiotics, psychology, etc...) could help the author to explore, create and define the inner layers of the psyche of a character? In other words, how can I construct a whole psyche of a character out from just a barely, raw and nebulous idea of his primitive feelings?

  • Are you worried that by not experiencing a certain event, feeling, or hardship you would not be able to write a believable character experiencing one? Commented Aug 21, 2020 at 6:27
  • Tough question. Kind of like asking someone to describe the color orange. You can tell someone about wavelengths and absorbance, but you know it when you see it.
    – DWKraus
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 22:17

1 Answer 1


I think what you're really asking is how do you make a character come to life for the reader. A background in psychology or semiotics might help, but I wouldn't call that necessary. Here are the things I would recommend:

  • Start by observing people closely, and without judgement.
  • Create your character's backstory, including significant events in their lives before the book. Most of it will not, and should not, make it to the final page, but it gives you a rich well to draw from when you need it.
  • Give your character wants, needs and goals. Characters come alive when they are pursuing things.
  • Make sure your characters are making active choices --even if they are passive, they need to be "actively" passive.
  • Give your character a transformative internal journey --something important they need to learn, some important way they need to change, and make sure that is dramatized in the external events of the book.
  • Put your character in conflict with other characters. Disagreement is more compelling than agreement.
  • Give your character something unexpected to realize in as many scenes as possible. When their expectations don't match reality, it makes a scene more interesting.
  • Give your character people or things she cares about, and people that care about her. A character who is part of a network of relationships is more compelling. When we see someone care about a character it makes us care as well.

Those are the big ones. Then, these are some "tricks" that can also help:

  • Give your character some material object that characterizes them in some way.
  • Give your character a distinctive way of speaking (careful, this can easily be overdone and become annoying).
  • Make sure your character has the three Hacker-Delany dimensions. Those are: A functional, plot-driven role in the story; habitual or characteristic features; AND actions that are neither plot-driven nor characteristic.
  • Find, commission or create an image of your character to help you visualize them.

If you really want to put that psychology degree, or semiotics course to work, I think the place for it is in the way that a person's emotions shape their perceptions --which translates, on the page, into the way they (or the narrator) describe things around them. It can also come out in dialog, where people often don't say what they really mean, or respond to subconscious subtext in each other's statements.

  • Thanks for your comment. Still, I have some doubts. I mean, it will sound a bit annoying, maybe, but it is interesting the way that you say "they have to have their own life" because characters are creations of the author's mind. How can they have their own lives if their lives are created by the author? This tip appers everytime in this subject and everytime I ask myself if the mind of a character must to be an independent conscious inside my own.
    – M.N.Raia
    Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 16:34
  • My characters live semi-independent lives inside my head, but I'm not sure that's necessary. // I deleted my answer and started over to give more direct tips and less theoretical musing. Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 20:33
  • And how can you know that exist a "semi-independent entity" in your "head" and not your thoughts?
    – M.N.Raia
    Commented Aug 19, 2020 at 21:36

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