I'm 1/4 through my first novel, with a pretty solid 12 page outline of the whole thing. After years of reading books about story structure, I think I have a good grasp on how to make a plot work.

My characters, however, are turning out to be quite flat, uninteresting and generic. They do have motivations and I'm putting a lot of effort into making sure they act accordingly, in a logical way according to their goals and the story seen from their perspective, etc. But they don't feel "alive".

I've read about the archetypes in The Writer's Journey, but that's about it. How can I make my characters come to life?

  • I found Create a Character clinic by Holly Lisle quiet useful (although it's only available in eBook). It contains practical advice and worksheets, and you can just start working on it. Oct 15, 2012 at 15:01
  • This is a list question, a sort of question not well suited to Stack Exchange sites. However, there clearly is a specific problem here that can be answered. Would you be willing to edit this to avoid that aspect of the question and emphasize the problem itself? If not, we'll have to close. Oct 15, 2012 at 16:49
  • Done. Please let me know whether it addresses your concerns.
    – ggambetta
    Oct 15, 2012 at 18:54
  • You're still asking for tips, which isn't really a particularly targeted question; answers can continue to come in forever, and they'd all be correct. However, this is certainly improved thanks for editing. I have done a little bit of further editing in this vein. (In all fairness, this is a very difficult thing to pose a good question about!) This could be a much better question if we knew more about your writing and why you're not finding your characters acceptable. Do you have any writing online you can link to? Oct 15, 2012 at 19:17
  • possible duplicate of Resources for character development Oct 16, 2012 at 9:54

9 Answers 9


Finish the book, then go back and look at the characters again.

When I start writing my characters are fairly generic, flat, and frankly cardboard. Character is my weakness, I love plots and ideas. The crucial thing is that in the second draft, I then go back and add in bits of the colour, life and uniqueness which the characters have only accumulated by the last chapter. Sometimes this will require changes to the plot (I'll realise that Rachel shouldn't have done that in Chapter 2, it doesn't fit with a part of her character I only realised in Chapter 7), but overall I find this a much more organic and natural process than trying to specify everything about a character before I know them, and as such the results tend to be much more convincing and compelling.

Your mileage may vary, but I think if you're a quarter of the way through without your characters having sparked yet, you're probably more similar to me in this respect than most!


Perhaps the problem you are having is you are thinking about it as "character development" not storytelling. Many writers start off working on their work with a formulaic engine of what is going to happen. They know where, when, who and why. They believe this will make their story compelling since they dot every "i" and cross every "t".

  • If your characters move through your story as if they already know what is going to happen and are simply reacting to it, this removes the sense of tension you are looking for and thus they cannot "develop" or change.

  • Yes, there are characters who are not changed as they move through the story. But in those stories, the environment changes completely around them. This usually means in the end of the story there is no place in the new world order for them. Think Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind.

  • Character development is what happens after something unexpected happens. If your characters are not experiencing the new, the different the unexpected and are not changing because of it, they are not developing and will remain flat as their responses to events is unchanging.

  • It isn't enough to differentiate them by style of clothing or behaviors you write in with their descriptions. You have to find a way to make the reader feel them, want to know them, fear them, fear for them.

  • This can only happen when you are willing to present them as fully as possible, revealing them the same way you would find if you peeled an onion. Yes, there is more onion beneath the first, but your goal is to describe the deeper layers of your characters. Just like with real people, what's on the surface is only the tiniest bit of their character. Their true desires, fears, ambitions, may stay completely hidden due to forces outside of their control, i.e. their religion, their family expectations, their social obligations, the nature of their desires, which may be considered potentially perverse or taboo in their society but not in others.

This is the tension you seek when you are looking for character development, the push-pull of the character toward his/her goal while dealing with opposing forces, inner motivations and the overall plot of the story which is what moves the character into opposition with his environment in the first place.


Your problem may stem from the fact that you are writing a book too much "by the book." Characters aren't like bits of code. Unless they walk around in your subconscious, speaking and breathing and acting like real people, they won't seem like real people on the page. If your characters don't surprise you, they won't surprise anyone else. Novels are about people, not structures, and as a novelist your job is to find a structure that fits the people in your story, not the other way around.

  • I see your point, but I'd say it's about what happens to people and how people react, otherwise what I'd have is a nice set of interesting biographies :) I tend to think that it's the structure that can provide ways for the characters to be interesting (unusual situations, plot twists,...)
    – ggambetta
    Oct 16, 2012 at 19:38

It seems the trouble you are having is differentiating characters easily. I've found when I have trouble telling between two characters without using their name, then they are not sufficiently different to begin with.

Look into traits list on Google, and read some articles on character diamonds.

Also try backing up your scenes, and then removing all character names from the scene. You will force yourself to consider any and all other elements that can differentiate between characters. I've even gone so far as to remove names from excerpts of successful novels which have already been published so I can observe the techniques the authors use for characterization. It is worth examining other author's works and can improve your own writing significantly (Hemingway is an excellent example to study).


When I create characters, after creating their appearance and personality, I usually try to think like them. There are almost always some key attributes of a personality, so try being that person for a while. Just thinking like them is enough.

For instance, there was once one truly evil character. For a time I forced evil thoughts to the point when I was becoming evil. I had an evil character, knew how diabolical minds think (to a certain extent) and could appropriately write about him. [:


I think one of the problems with character development in novels is the author's liberty to spend periods of time explaining a character's motivation to a reader without the character actually having to say or do anything. A chapter that has the ostensible position in time and space of someone sitting in a chair, reflecting on a dramatic problem, is something that crops up from time to time. That reflective period can info dump a whole heap of incidents in summary and leave the character in a position where the next things they say and do are obvious to everyone.

The problem with that is that doing this is dry and it restricts the things that you need to have the character do in order to establish character through action. It also means that you miss opportunities to flesh out character through interaction and action.

There is nothing wrong with having a character make a seemingly bizarre action that they later have to explain, possibly to another character. Also it is possible that characters don't always agree with each other's motivations. These nuances of character are what flesh out the interactions and make each character grow and deepen.

I lucked into character development boot camp, I did a film-making course where I wrote a lot of scripts. They weren't great scripts but they taught me the nuts and bolts of what do when you can't just gear-shift into "exposition mode" and have a slow beat of characters reflecting on their own pasts.

If a story can get by with out that kind of thing it will be richer for it. It is a path that should only be taken when absolutely necessary. Always explain exactly as little to the reader as you need to in the moment to keep them reading the next few paragraphs. Info dumping is the gentle story killer, smothering under the guise of explaining.


You need to consider your characters outside the plot as well. They'll have likes and dislikes that have nothing to do with the story, funny mannerisms they're unaware of, things that set their teeth on edge, irrational fears. The strangest things will get them into certain moods.

Let's take a real person, Charlie (name changed to protect the not-so-innocent), as an example. Charlie hates M&Ms - they make him sick, after he ate too many before a long car ride and produced a bag full of multicoloured puke. He's terrified of worms because when you chop them in half, they still wriggle about - but spiders, cockroaches, and other bugs don't really bother him. He gets bloated after big meals and can't stop burping. He can't stand it when people sit on his bed with pants they've worn outside of the house. He hates afternoons because they put him in a lethargic, melancholy mood.

Were he in a story, it's likely none of this would be directly related to the main plot or his motivations. But it's the little things that people say or do or feel that bring them to life. And when you get them down, you'll see them appearing in your story quite naturally. For example, Charlie may be having some friends over. He may turn down the M&Ms they've brought, and keep them out of the bedroom so no one sits on his bed.

It may also be useful to do some online personality tests, as they'll get you thinking about how a character would react in various situations, and how they'd respond to some tricky questions.

  • That's interesting advice, thanks. But I guess that's not the main problem I have - it's that they sort of speak and think the same. I'll have to make some of them more irrational and impulsive :)
    – ggambetta
    Oct 16, 2012 at 19:36

Making realistic characters starts with knowing them. Pick your top few characters, and write a character bio. To write a bio, you must answer some questions about your characters. Here is a non-exhaustive list of a few questions to answer about your characters:

  • Where were they born?
  • What kind of family did they grow up in?
  • What are their likes and dislikes?
  • What do they look like?
  • What are their core beliefs? (i.e. moral, religious, etc)
  • What do they sound like (voice, dialect, etc)
  • How do they interact with others?
  • What type of people do they have as friends?
  • What type of flaws do they have (everyone has them, and if your characters don't, they won't be believable.)
  • What is their back-story?
  • What culture did they grow up in?

Each question like this informs your characters, and provides a texture and richness.

Also, your main character should change through the course of the work. The typical method is giving your character a fatal flaw that he or she must overcome to achieve the goal of the story.


I find a really usful way of getting characters to feel more alive and realistic is to write a character centric synopsis for each significant character.

It's easy to let characters that aren't currently involved in the story you're telling just kind of langish in limbo until the plot requires them again - this can lead to them re-entering the narrative a bit 'out of sorts'

By writing the whole plot from a given character's point of view you get a much better if idea of what they are up to when they are 'off screen' and this helps make them far more interesting when they're 'on-screen'

You don't need to write in nice fancy prose, as that can take too long, but in enough detail to fill in the gaps in thier experience. Often you'll find characters that are absent for large parts of the plot, and so you make up something for them to be doing in the mean time - then when they meet up with the plot later, you know what they've been up to - you know how they're feeling about things and this can colour thier reactions etc.

Also this is usful for ensuring that they know what they need to know - you can have meetings between characters 'off screen' and decide what was said and done - it never makes it into the final novel per se, but working through those interactions in detail really fleshes out the characters and makes them more real when you come to write about them in the actual plot.

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