Writing Advice: Character Depth


Your story is a finite thing. At some point, one assumes, you will reach an ending. The time before that is spent in character study, plot development, and language manipulation. Along the way, you’ll let your readers in on many characters’ secrets. Those characters will most likely be the main ones you’re focusing on, but those aren’t the only characters that populate your story. There are probably background characters moving about behind the scenes, somewhere between the star of the show and the extras in a movie. They may be as close as the best friend of your main character or as far away as the man she runs into on the street one morning. There isn’t time to explore all of these characters to their deepest depths. But your goal should be to write them as if you could.

In a recent post on his Terrible Minds blog, the inimitable Chuck Wendig imparted 100 Random Storytelling Thoughts and Tips. One of those tips just happened to catch my eye. For number 21 on his list, Chuck writes, “Every character is a rabbit hole. Every character goes all the way down if you let them. Not every character demands falling down that hole — but every character should feel like it’s possible. Every character should feel like they possess hidden depths and secret motivations and a great big history all their own.”

It would be so easy to fall down all those rabbit holes, wouldn’t it? But, as I stated several sentences ago, your story is a finite thing. If you want to keep the plot within reasonable limits, you have to curtail the rabbit holes. And yet, you must make it clear that there is a rabbit hole for everyone who populates your story. This is a fine line to walk, but it’s important for the realness of your characters and the perceived vastness of your story’s universe. If you want the world and the story to seem like they contain real people, you have to imply that everyone has a storied past and everyone has unexplored depths just waiting to be explored.

This is the type of thing that allows readers to go hog wild with fanfiction. For example, J.K. Rowling may not say as much as she possibly could about the character known as Hannh Abbott, but I guarantee you that several fanfiction websites feature a tag for Hannah Abbott. With a few well-placed details, Rowling gave readers just enough info on Ms. Abbott to allow them to imagine her on their own. Rowling hinted at Hannah’s depths — and the depths of many other background characters — thus adding depth to her overall story.

The best way to do this? Write up character sheets. No one has to see those, but if you know what your character’s backgrounds and pasts contain, then you can imbue that into your writing of them. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Character History


I’ll keep saying it because I believe it’s important: characters are the backbone of your story. If readers care about your characters (or vehemently dislike them), they will care about your story. Why do people return to soap operas week after week? Because they want to see what will happen when one character destroys another, or discovers another character’s secret, or sleeps with another character’s boyfriend. You don’t have to write stories that are as tawdry as those you would find in a soap opera, but you should have compelling characters moving through your plot. One of the important components of creating a compelling character is crafting a history for them.

For this post, we return to the wisdom of my favorite internet dude — Chuck Wendig. In his post, “25 Things a Great Character Needs,” Chuck talks about the need for a character history. He says, “Your character didn’t just come karate-punching her way out of some storytelling womb. She wasn’t born pale and featureless like a grub only to grow her wings and limbs halfway through the tale. The character’s been around. Whether she’s 17 or 70, she has history. She has life. Stories. Things that happened to her and things that she did…What we see of a character in a story is just the tippy-top of the iceberg, just a nipple poking out of the water while the rest of the body remains submerged.”

This is so, so central to what makes a good character and I think Chuck has articulated it really well here. Just as you’re introducing readers to a world or to a storyline, you’re introducing them to your characters. What you choose to show them as your story begins should not be the only information you have on those characters. Say you begin by telling readers about the job your main character currently has and that he or she is married right now. That’s fine if that’s all you want to reveal to begin with, but you should know the character’s past jobs, past loves, and just about anything you can invent for them. Having all of that background knowledge allows you write a richer, more complex character who has believable motivations. Those richer, more complex characters will help readers engage more fully with and be more interested in your story.

There are plenty of character profile sheets out there on the internet. But I don’t think those sheets are always necessary. If they help you, then go for it! They can be a great guideline if you’re not sure where to begin when constructing your character. But I think writing a rambling, stream of consciousness description of your character can work just as well. Try opening a new document and just beginning to type anything that comes to mind about your character. If you want, make it more structured and write a mini biography of your character, explaining their past and fleshing out their life. Make the character as real as you can by filling in minute, specific details. You can call up those details later when you need to justify a character’s action or explain their feelings.

Once you feel like you really know this person, so that you could predict how he or she would react in certain situations, you’ve got the character history nailed down. Then you can confidently write your story and know that if a reader were to ask you a question about this character, you would have a realistic answer for them. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Advice: What a Character Needs


Characters are the most important asset that your story has. Characters are likely what will draw you into a writing project the most, they’re what readers will engage with the most, and they are the people who are going to be occupying your brain-space while you’re working on a given writing project. Of course, because characters are so important, that means they also require a lot of work. Once you have the idea for your plot, and have created a world for the plot to take place in, you’ll probably be looking to populate that world with some characters. It’s important to take time to develop these characters and to understand what will make them interesting and well-rounded.

A recent post on Chuck Wendig’s blog, Terrible Minds, addressed three things that characters need: motivation, action, and consequence (or, MAC). All three of these are pretty simple principles, and Chuck does a great job of explaining them all in his post.

First, your character needs a motivation that’s driving him or her to act. Chuck says, “This isn’t just a small-time yeah, maybe I want that. This is something they are motivated to achieve. Motivated as in: moved to act.” This is pretty simple — if your character has no real motivation, you’ll probably end up writing pages and pages of him or her walking around the neighborhood or sitting in a chair at home whiling away the hours. Your characters need to want something so they can interact with the world and the plot that you’ve created.

Next up is action. Your character needs to do something or you’ll be writing in circles. What your character wants has to force him or her to act in some way that will propel the plot of your story forward. This can be difficult to do sometimes, and I think it’s good to remember what Chuck says here: “[Your characters] are forced by their want/need/desire to do something. Not talk about it. Not just turd around and ruminate upon it. They are pushed to drastic, compelling, fascinating action.” Try not to write about your character thinking about doing something. Just have them do it!

Finally, consequence. If your character can sail through life with no consequences coming upon him or her, that’s not very realistic. There will be consequences to actions, even in fantastical, magical, fictional worlds. If your character gets everything that he or she wants right off the bat, the story will be over really quickly and readers will likely get bored. Throw wrenches in your characters’ plans, place obstacles in their way, and interesting things will begin to happen in your story.

Keep the MAC principles in mind when getting started, and your story should get off on the right foot. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: The Characters


As I’ve said before on this blog, I consider characters to be immensely important. When I’m reading or watching something, I want the characters to be written in a way that makes me care about them. I want to be invested in them as people even though they’re only fictional. The fact that you can care about a character means that they have been written well, and I think it’s something that all writers should strive for. Yes, plot and other elements of a story are important, but characters are what will make a reader become attached to the story that you write.

With that in mind, I want to talk about something that Brunonia Barry mentions in her post on Writer Unboxed, “10 Tips about Process.” Barry says that it is important to listen to your characters when you’re writing a story. She writes, “What does each character want? What’s keeping her from getting it? If I put the right characters in a situation and understand what motivates them, the plot seems to develop naturally. If I’m trying to control the outcome instead of listening, the story always falls flat.”

That last sentence is the most important one, I think. As weird as it may sound, your characters can definitely “talk” to you and sometimes it’s essential that you listen to what they have to say because they can steer you in the right direction. This might be one of those situations in which you have to abandon a carefully constructed outline. Although you had a vision for the end of your story, it’s very possible that your characters won’t want to go there.

I think we’ve all experienced this while writing. You’re in the middle of a scene, trying to make it work, and you suddenly feel as though you’re forcing it. Instead of feeling organic and real, the scene feels like you’ve stood your characters up as set pieces and are just making them go through the motions and say the lines you’re writing for them. The best writing feels organic and free as you’re writing it, and it should come out that way on the other end for readers.

So listen to your characters! You created them and now they know where they should be headed. When you feel like you’re forcing a scene, just take a step back and think about what your characters needs or wants to be doing in your scene. Then go with that and see if things flow a bit better. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Advice: Characters Should Care


What is at the heart of a good story? Most people would say that conflict is what creates that spark of an interesting and engaging read. But characters, I would wager, are just as important. Characters are, after all, the biggest connection that you have with potential readers. You can think of your characters as ambassadors between your book and those picking it up. If your characters are compelling people who inspire either empathy or disdain, then your story is likely to hold a reader’s attention. Conflict, though, is also important. To combine these two essential elements of writing, your characters need to be involved in a conflict to push their story forward. But that’s not enough either. Your characters must also care about the conflict in which they are engaged.

A recent post over at Chuck Wendig’s blog lists 25 Things to Know About Your Story’s Stakes. What are the stakes? That’s what your character stands to win or lose at the end of the story. If they succeed, what will they get in return? If they fail, what do they surrender forever? These are important questions that need to be considered if your story’s central conflict is to be both interesting and believable.  The third item on Chuck’s list deals with making your characters care.


The characters are the engine that drives any story, and if the stakes don’t mean shit to the characters, the story becomes artificial — a cardboard story blown over in the most inconsequential of breezes. Why do they care? If they don’t give a damn, why will we?

That final line says it all: if your characters don’t care about what is happening to them, chances are your readers won’t care either. The players in your story need to be engaged with their surroundings and with what is happening to them. Therefore, the stakes had better be big. If your character has a child, put that child in danger. If there is a prized possession of some kind that the character loves, tie it to the tracks of a train and stand back to see what they do about it. Whatever it is, make your character sit up and take notice, and that will push forward an interesting plot that readers will flock to.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan