Whether it’s for a novel, short story, or a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, writing compelling characters is a must! Here are 5 tips for how to create interesting characters, which will make a story in any media shine!
Tip 1 for writing compelling characters: decide what they’re great at!
Tip number one for writing compelling heroes and interesting characters is to decide what they are great at! Your hero should have something going for them, even if they’re an average Joe. There are some heroes for whom this is easy —Aquaman chats with fish, Superman can fly AND has super strength AND has laser vision!
And for RPGs, this is usually not such a big challenge since the system gives specific feats and class powers. But for writers, the temptation, especially using everyman hero archetypes, is to make them a little beige. And that can make it hard to write them as active characters!
Psssst, rather watch a video? Check it out for the TL;DR, then read on for the full unpacking!
But even an ordinary hero, an everyman, needs to have some kind of skill set. What are the characteristics of a hero like Dr. Watson (Sherlock Holmes), Sokka (Avatar: The Last Airbender), or Tintin, for example? Each of them has one thing in common —they never give up, which makes them fun to watch. But they also have individual skills which make them interesting! Dr. Watson is a trained medical professional. Even though Sokka isn’t magical, he is great at fighting, and he gets even better as the story progresses. And Tintin is a Boy’s Own Compendium of useful skills and deductive reasoning.
By giving your characters a skill set, even a mundane one like law, medicine, or plumbing, you give them ways to react to the world and a clear option for how to approach problems. It also gives them more character, and even gives us some insight into their backstory. All of that, just from diagnosing anemia, or tightening a valve!
Tip 2: Give them agency!
How to create interesting characters? Say it with me, folks: GIVE. THEM. AGENCY! Make them active, have them make decisions that matter —even if they make poor decisions. Actually, especially if they make poor decisions, because that will put the characters in new and interesting situations! For both writers and DnD or RPG players, this means having a hero who engages with the world around them and makes decisions rather than letting circumstances drive them along. They should be active rather than reactive. Whether your character makes meticulous plans or takes crazy risks to further their agenda and the plot, making them active will make for a far more interesting story.
After all, one of the characteristics of a hero is that they have agency, and are usually striving for change in the world. And by the way, this doesn’t just go for your main character. If a sidekick is captured, make them actively try to escape, even if that proves fruitless, because it will make them more interesting to your readers. It may even put them in more trouble and up the stakes. That’s exactly what should be happening because it’ll draw your readers into the action!
Tip 3 for writing compelling characters: Give them a flaw
Character flaws are one of the things that makes them more memorable. If you’re worried about making a Mary Sue —a character who excels at everything and feels flat— then a flaw is a great enhancement. A flaw can be minor, like a quirk (snark is a popular minor character flaw) or phobia, or major, like a deep character flaw (the seven deadly sins can be a great inspiration for this)! Fatal and tragic character flaws are even more serious, and may lead your character to become a Tragic Hero if they’re not careful!
What’s a Tragic Hero? Check out the 5 most popular hero archetypes!
The flaw should be something your hero would genuinely encounter, though. For example, Indiana Jones is afraid of snakes, and his adventures seem to constantly bring him into contact with snakes —this phobia is even later built into his backstory! It makes him a memorable character, and that flaw makes him more relatable too! Hero flaws are often a great basis for a character arc, although many iconic heroes have flaws they never overcome, nor would we want them to!
Sherlock Holmes will always be arrogant, Deadpool will always be reckless, and Wolverine will always be terrible at teamwork. These kinds of iconic flaws are a core part of the personality, too integral to “solve”, and they make the hero fun to watch.
If you already have an active RPG character —or even story character— who hasn’t got much of a flaw, here’s a tip. Think back on their past experiences —chances are they’ve experienced some traumatic events. Phobias, night terrors, hair-trigger anger, and even things like substance abuse are common reactions to past trauma and stressful situations. That’s a great opportunity to introduce a flaw AND build on their backstory too!
Tip 4: Give them a clear Motivation… or two, or three!
This has been my own personal Achilles’ heel in the past —make sure your hero WANTS something. It might be nothing to do with the main quest, or it might be inextricably linked. But in some way, your characters should be trying to make their life better, even if it’s in a misguided way.
Take this quote from Save the Cat Writes a Novel:
“Ask yourself: what does my character want in life? … The most effective character goals or wants are concrete and tangible… like a new house, a new car, a passage to a mew country, magical powers or escape from prison.”
Other examples for sci-fi or fantasy genres might be to escape from an illicit organization, to become an Arch Mage, to buy a family member out of debtors prison. Give your hero other problems in their life beyond the main quest or story, and figure out how they’re trying to solve them. That gives them something to think about in downtime, and something to strive towards. It gives them secrets and reasons to accrue money, power, or fame. And it’ll make them more compelling too.
Tip 5: Epic or tragic, give them a backstory with meaning
And speaking of more compelling, the best way to put all of this together, once you have the basics, is a backstory. We are all the sum of our experiences —our upbringing and education, and our failures and successes, build our character quirks and flaws. And where we came from helps define where we might strive to go.
Whether you’re creating characters for a novel, a short story, or an RPG campaign, make sure you consider their past in detail. It’ll provide rich answers to the other points, and help you build a more compelling character, who is more rooted to other people, places, and things within the world. Not only does this make them feel more real, but it also gives lots of opportunities for future conflict too! You can spur your heroes to action by capturing a loved one or give them the opportunity to finally get revenge on an old enemy. It’s a fantastic way to create interesting characters.
It’s CHALLENGE TIME!
So your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is:
Create a new character in your world from the past – they can be historical or mythical in your world – and use these five tips to describe what made them compelling!
Submit your challenge on World Anvil AND read other people’s entries here, if they’ve shared them publicly, to get inspiration!
This assignment shouldn’t mess with whatever you’re working on now, but it’ll be a great exercise in creating a hero who is flawed, complex, driven and utterly compelling to read about! And if you fall in love with them, why not make them into the subject of an in-world myth, a spin-off campaign, or a short story?
Our character template —perfect for novel characters and NPCs— has a detailed questionnaire that helps you get into their mindset, and figure out their motivations, traits, and those all-important flaws! Our RPG Character manager lets you detail your character and write about their experiences in journals, as well as tracking their equipment, health, stats, and more!
So, who’s your favorite hero and why? What makes them compelling? Let me know in the comments below!