7 Things Every Fictional Character Needs

I’m currently crafting some character biographies for a new series I’m writing and thought I would share a few things about how I go about creating characters.  I’ve gleaned this from several sources, from my days in college writing classes and from just figuring things out over time.

I use this format to write character biographies, and it helps me to create believable and vivid characters.

  1. purpose in lifePurpose in Life – This could also be called their motive for living or their reason for living.  What is it that drives this character to do the things that they do?  What makes them get out of bed in the morning?  All real people have this whether they are disgustingly evil or inherently good.  Don’t think in terms of extremes like that, though.  Try to think about  where on the spectrum of “purpose in life” they fall and how motivated they are to achieve their goals.
  2. road travelled in the pastThe Road Travelled – What kind of past have they experienced?  This shapes who they are.  I write a character bio from birth to present day or in medias res.  I dream up childhood experiences, adolescent awkwardness and much more.  I am extremely detailed with character histories because I feel that our childhoods shape who we are in many ways.  I suppose this comes from working with at-risk teens at my day-job.  Many of these teens overcome their childhood trauma with help from good mentors, but sometimes no amount of mentoring helps.  I explore all of these ideas and feelings through each character’s past, good or bad.
  3. how people see usOutward Image – How do other characters see them?  What is the outward perception of the other characters when they see this person?  This is also something that is highly important to understanding the characters we create.  Much of who we are is a result of how other see us.  It is also important for creating conflict down the road.  The character I’m working on right now is (as far as he knows) the last human in the universe.  He lives on a planet with an insect race who only communicate through a complex production of pheromones, and most of them have forgotten how to speak Terran.  Those who do speak to him, using the four sets of tiny mandibles on their faces, can only mimic human speech using a series of clicks and a vibration of a small membrane that they use to digest food.  This further alienates the human character as all those around him do not possess a way of hearing his voice through sound waves (they do not have ears).  Not to mention that humans once conquered these aliens, and he is still seen as a bit of a pariah.
  4. habits that mark usRepetitive Actions – All of us have habits or things that we do repetitively.  Some people have a problem chewing on pencils or some of us bite our fingernails (I know I’m guilty of that last one).  My wife is sometimes obsessive/compulsive about certain things that her slob of a husband just doesn’t understand.  My thanks to her for putting up with me all these years! (I am trying.) My dad used to go to the coffee shop every day and have the same blend of cream and sugar.  He made the waitress fill his cup with water, microwave it, pour out the water, and then fill it to the brim with coffee so that the coffee would not be lukewarm.  He liked his coffee so hot it would scald a normal man.  These things tell the reader much about the personality of the character you are creating.
  5. what makes us uniqueWhat Makes Them Special? – Characters we create, no matter how minor, all have something about them that makes them unique or interesting.  If they don’t then you probably need to get busy creating something about them that shows that when this person was made that they (or you) broke the mold.  No one wants to read about boring old George who never did anything interesting.  What secret talent does each character have?  Even though my latest character study is the final human alive in the universe, he also is secretly a pretty good fighter because he had to stick up for himself throughout his school days.  He’s also a very good problem solver even though he is a lowly beat cop and must obey his alien partner in every situation, always ignored by his supervisors.
  6. favorite things about meFavorite Things – Every character you create must have a favorite thing that sends them to a state of bliss, even if this thing is completely out of reach.  The further this thing is out of reach, the better.  It will motivate them to do what needs to be done to be more interesting and readable.  My new character mentioned throughout this post simply wants to be recognized and loved.  His favorite thing is actually to have peace with his surroundings because he is in such conflict with everything.  This drives him to find common ground and further drives him to seek justice and a sense of balance in an environment that is chaotic and hostile at times…or rather most times.  The “favorite thing” will drive your characters and motivate them to either deeds of great courage or acts of vile darkness.
  7. its not what you know but whoIt’s Who You Know – How your characters treat others is the final tip, but can be the most important one.  People can talk a big game about how they really feel or shout to us about their moral compass, but when we see how they treat others around them we find out much more than anything they could ever say.  Actions do speak louder than words.  One cool thing to do is to make the character speak words of kindness to everyone while plotting their deaths, or vice versa.  I love to create characters who are hypocritical or who have deeper layers that are not revealed until much later in the narrative.  I am hoping that my recent character described throughout this post will be someone whose nobility will surface through his actions as the novel progresses rather than revealing everything about him in one page.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

8 thoughts on “7 Things Every Fictional Character Needs

  1. I love reading stuff like this because in-depth characters are just – well, better. One thing I’ve never come across however is a good list of traits if your characters are younger. I can see this working with teens, but once you get pre-teen, it becomes a lot harder to visualize this information, mainly because the characters are still trying to figure it out for themselves!

    1. I think that most of these would work for a child character because my kids all have things that drive them, habits, friends who see them a certain way, a view of themselves, and many other things. Thanks for commenting!

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