The Secret to Writing Good Characters

Ben Wiseman Illustration NYTCharacters make or break a novel, especially for agents. When agents get 100s of manuscripts submitted per month, what is it that draws us to some books and not others? Characters.

What agents look for in a main character:

  • Degree of likability
  • Interesting
  • Honest
  • Have a strong and unique voice
  • They feel like they had a real life before the book started and after the pages are done
  • No coincidences
  • Motivation for what they do
  • That we meet them at an interesting point in their lives
  • Most importantly: They must have a secret. What are they hiding?

All strong and interesting characters carry a secret with them. A secret that is slowly revealed to the reader. A secret that some find controversial always helps. A secret that the character has to explain and is the reason why they do what they do and why they are the way they are. And remember: the best secrets impact more lives than one.

Further Reading:

30 Questions to Ask Your Main Character

Image: Ben Wiseman NYT

Published by Carly Watters

Carly Watters is a SVP, senior literary agent and director of literary branding with the P.S. Literary Agency. She is a hands-on agent that develops proposals and manuscripts with attention to detail and the relevant markets. PSLA’s mission is to manage authors’ literary brands for their entire career. Never without a book on hand she reads across categories which is reflected in the genres she represents and is actively seeking new authors in including women’s fiction, commercial and upmarket fiction, select literary fiction, platform-driven non fiction and select memoir. She occasionally represents children's book projects. Carly is drawn to emotional, well-paced narratives, with a great voice and characters that readers can get invested in.

5 thoughts on “The Secret to Writing Good Characters

  1. Great post (as always). Thanks a lot. I’m going to run through this checklist now and apply it to my characters. I may even use that as a basis for a blog post, so thanks again. In return, I’ll reblog this post, if you don’t mind…

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  2. For ideas, an author posted a request for people’s deepest secrets on her FB page, telling them she’d keep their identity hidden. One person admitted her part in beating up a classmate when the teacher stepped out. The fact that this woman cheered, “Hang him! Hang him!” as they hoisted the boy over the door with a noose around his neck has been something she silently carries in her heart. The author worked this into her novel.

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