Fiction Writing Tips: Create Characters Your Readers Will Care About

Below, you'll find some fiction writing tips to help you create characters that come alive. At the bottom of the page, you'll also find more creative writing resources, including our free online writing courses.

Are you losing your mind when a fictional character starts to seem real to you?

  • A friend of mine was heartbroken when X died in Harry Potter 6 (we'll call him X to keep from spoiling the book if you haven't read it yet).

  • One of my other friends has a serious crush on Edward Cullin, the sexy vampire hero of Stephenie Meyer's popular Twilight series.

  • The second friend recently showed up for a coffee date with dark circles under her eyes. She told me she'd been up half the night finishing a mystery novel because she was afraid the fictional detective might get picked off by the Mob.
As far as I'm aware, neither of these women has exhibited any other signs of mental illness. There are writers who can make perfectly sane readers cry and fall in love and lose sleep over fictional characters, and you can learn how to do this too.


Fiction writing tips - Inventing your characters

Where do fictional characters come from? Does the stork bring them; do they grow in cabbage patches? Both seem like possibilities, since story characters can pop up just about everywhere else.

Some places to start:

  • Someone you see on the street or in the supermarket. Imagine a life for this person, and you've got a fictional character.

  • Take a picture of a person in a magazine. Invent a name for him or her, a personality, hopes and fears, annoying habits.

  • Open the phone book to a random name. Let's say you come up with "B. Goulding." What might the "B." stand for? Write down the first thing that comes to mind; for example, Bertha. When you imagine someone named Bertha Goulding, what mental picture occurs to you? I see someone tall and fat, maybe sixty years old, with black curly hair and red lipstick. Turn the name you've chosen into a fictional character.

Fiction writing tips - Getting to know your characters

To convince readers that your character is a real person, the first step is to convince yourself.

The writer Patricia Highsmith confessed to being a little bit in love with her own character, Tom Ripley. When I read Ripley's Game, I admit I became quite fond of him myself, possibly something to worry about since the character is both a sociopath and a killer.

Writing character profiles is a great way to get to know your characters so that they start to come to life for you. Make notes for yourself on the character's appearance, personality, history, current situation, close relationships, hopes and fears. Some writers have a list of questions that they answer about each character. You can find free worksheets for writing character profiles here.

A warning

Don't try to stuff all this information into your story. You don't want to overwhelm your readers with a complete background file on your character. The idea is to develop a deep knowledge of your character yourself. Then you can use this knowledge to shape your story and let readers get to know your character in a gradual way.

As you are writing your story, every time you put your character into a situation, ask yourself, "What would he or she do? How would he or she do it? What would happen next?" Then trust the answers. Never try to force a character to do act in a way that's not natural for that character. If you cheat, your readers will know it. The character or the story will feel false.

But if you do things right, your deep knowledge of your character will be transmitted to your readers, who will feel like they're reading about a real person.

To learn how to develop your characters, join our 8-week online course Bringing Characters to Life.

Fiction writing tips - Next steps

What would you like to do now? Choose one of the links below.

If you're taking the CWN free fiction course, or if you'd like to, go to the free online writing courses page.

If you want to put these fiction writing tips into practice, start writing character profiles.

If you're looking for inspiration, check out some fiction writing prompts related to this topic.

For a complete list of Creative Writing Now pages on how to write a story, click here.


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