A minimalist approach to writing good characters

What’s in a character?

What makes a good character? It’s an age old question and I’m sure it gets asked all the time by writers in moments of idleness, block or fancy. I’ve spent the day thinking about this and have come up with my own answer, something I hope will simplify my future self’s writing no end.

So what is a character? When I’m writing, I tend to think of my protagonists and antagonists in eye colours, hair lengths, nose sizes, glasses wearers… I don’t necessarily think of them as people with emotions, political agendas or ponderous beings. I simply throw them into situations and observe how they react in my writing.

Readers, on the other hand have a completely different perspective than my writing self. They want to see under the skin of the character and feel what he feels. The reader reads the description about how tall and pimply the new restaurant critic is, but will instantly make up their own minds about what she looks like as she performs the Heimlich maneuver on a man in a dinner jacket who’s just been shouting at his wife. All this means is that readers care more about the person than what they look like. If only we could all be more like that in real life!

So where does this leave me in defining my characters for this project? Am I saying I shouldn’t work out up front all the different ear sizes of everyone on my island? Maybe I don’t need to go to that much detail, but I will need to describe roughly what people will look like, even if this is likely to be adapted or misread by the reader. Although I’ll do a bit of the descriptive and not care too much if it gets changed, there’s something much more important I need to do as well.

What drives a character?

I wanted to be able to describe everyone in a couple of sentences so that when I’m halfway through writing my book and I don’t know what a character will do next, I can reread their description and immediately know how they will react. In any situation.

I’ve done this by describing their motivations for the duration of the story. From the beginning to the end, everyone has a motivation – something that drives them. It might be money, or power, or not being shouted at by your husband in a busy restaurant. It could be having a tidy garden, or making sure you’re always one up on the neighbours. Whatever it is, these motivations will be able to fit into any situation and cause an identifiable reaction.

Does this make my characters one dimensional and predictable? Probably? What if they had more than one motivation, or they had a close friend whose motivation caused conflict with theirs? What if they had a particular motivation that is only realised when a triggering event occurs? Would that make them more interesting? I’m hoping so.

My motivation is to describe all the characters of my book briefly and precisely so I can aid my own writing whenever they are in the plot. If I can do that, I’m hoping I’ll create interesting, diverse characters whose behaviours will become so familiar to me I’ll be able to write them with my eyes shut.

How do you create your characters? Can you really define everyone in your book with just a couple of lines of description or does it take reams of notes and back stories to allow them to really leap from the page? Leave me a comment below if you have any thoughts on this.


2 thoughts on “A minimalist approach to writing good characters

  1. I used to do reams of description and backstory, when I was a teenager first putting these people together, but these days I have one large file with just a few pertinent notes on everyone. I need to know age/height/hair color/eye color/ethnic background so I can know how they’ll react to some of the other characters and how, when I’m in their POV, I see things — the tall guy has to look down at everyone, the short people are annoyed when they only come up to this guy’s chin, et cetera.

    Sometimes I have a comment about their character role, like So-and-so is a ‘Den Mother’ type, and I have one character described as having ‘obfuscating perkiness’. Behavioral notes, so I can differentiate their reactions and dialogue from others’ by the tone and composition. Because I’m writing fantasy which involves the elements, I also note what their personality element would be — Air, Fire, etc. If they have any special gear, or just items I need to keep track of, I list those too — and list when they change hands.

    The more important characters obviously have larger amounts of info, but a quick look at my file shows me that most people have just that age/height/etc thing. Some have a quote that exemplifies them, some have a profession listed, some have an alignment (I play too much D&D), but for the most part I hold their motivations in my head, as they’re malleable depending on the situation.

    Is it the best way to go about it? I dunno. But I do know that you don’t need to examine every mole on every character’s body to understand them sufficiently for the story.

    • I think you’re right, I’m jotting down details of each character in a file. Things like build, age, occupation, etc (name helps as well!). It helps as a reference so characters don’t suddenly get changed from tall to short halfway through the book!
      As far as the motivations go, I’m trying to create a snapshot of what I’m thinking right now for each character. Perhaps these will change as I go along, but at least I’ve captured a baseline of their intentions from the start. It may be that events happen during the book which change their outlook but revert to their original state at the end. This detail may be useful to reference in that instance.
      I’ll see how I get on, and will refer back to what you’ve said about motivations being malleable as the story goes along. You could be right, but I’m not sure I can trust my brain to remember everything about what all my characters want!

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