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

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On Writing Secondary Characters

bookfriendsDeveloping a cast of memorable characters isn’t easy. Writers are told to develop their main character well with motivation, internal and external conflict–but sometimes don’t put the same emphasis on secondary characters because they’re too worried about their MC.

It’s easy to manipulate secondary characters and sub plots to support your story, but they have to be much more than leading the reader. We can tell when a writer is using secondary characters to prove a point. So why not build a varied cast of secondary characters that feel like they also exist in real life–like your MC.

How to write secondary characters in your subplots: Continue reading On Writing Secondary Characters

6 Ways You Can Know Your Characters Better

C2Do you ever get feedback from a beta reader, editor, or critique partner to the effect of: “Something is missing from what you (the writer) know about your characters versus what is showing up on the page.”

Writers have a tendency to bring their characters to life in their heads before they come to life on the page. Or hold on to who they thought the character was, and refrain from letting the character evolve as the book goes on–and subsequently go back and edit according.

And most commonly, through the editing process, they edit away certain characteristics or motives and forget what is left.

Below are some tips and tricks I tell my authors or writers at conferences to help them better understand their characters:

  • Letters: I love this tip. Write an open letter or diary entry from your character’s POV. Get their voice out and make sure it’s different than yours.
  • Family Map: Do you have a complete cast of characters? Don’t hesitate to do a family tree or historical family map that covers time or territory.
  • Color coding edit: Writing historical, mystery, or setting-sensitive subject matter? Don’t forget to print out your manuscript, get the highlighters out and color code important things like clues, red herrings, character traits, setting quirks and more to make sure everything is cohesive.
  • Dialogue: If you did a blind test (with no dialogue tags) would you know who is speaking? Characters must have unique ways of speaking that are different than one another. Dialogue is the one way they can speak for themselves, don’t let it go to waste.
  • Sketch: Write a character sketch with only characteristics that you’ve written in the current draft of your book. No extra notes. Is it complete? Add back in what’s missing.
  • Follow this checklist!

Continue reading 6 Ways You Can Know Your Characters Better

30 Questions to Ask Your Main Character

Key to a breakout book.

How well do you know your main character?

So often I see writing that feels like it only lives on the page. Writers only imagine their main character in the situation they’ve put them in, not what their main character would be like if they were real. To get beyond the obvious, try to imagine your main character as someone that lives in a multi-dimensional, multi-situational way. Readers connect most with characters that they feel live on after the book is over.

Do you know the answer to these 30 questions?

  1. What do they look like?
  2. What do they like to wear?
  3. How do they like to socialize?
  4. What was their role in their family growing up?
  5. What were they most proud of as a kid?
  6. What did they find terribly embarrassing as a kid?
  7. What was their first best friend like?
  8. What ‘group’ were they in during their high school years?
  9. What did they want to be when they grew up–and what did they end up becoming?
  10. What are their hobbies?
  11. What music do they listen to?
  12. What annoys them?
  13. What makes them laugh?
  14. Are they a dog or a cat person?
  15. What season do they enjoy most?
  16. What makes them embarrassed as an adult?
  17. Do they drink alcohol?
  18. What do they feel most passionately about?
  19. What trait do they find most admirable in others?
  20. Do they want a job that helps people or a job that makes money?
  21. Are they a leader or a follower?
  22. What scares them?
  23. What are their long term goals?
  24. What are their short term goals?
  25. What are their bad habits?
  26. If they could have lived in another decade which would it have been?
  27. What do they do when they’re bored?
  28. What do they think happens after we die?
  29. If they were to come into money what would they do with it?
  30. Who was the love of their life?

Q: What questions would you add to the list?