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Contributors:McKinley P. Murphy.

These resources discuss character creation and development in fiction writing. They provide an overview of character archetypes and tools to aid in character building. 

An Introduction to Writing Characters in Fiction

As you begin writing a work of fiction—whether it be a short story or a novel, though you may not know yet what shape your piece will take—you might think of yourself as a director of a play.  You will cast characters, dress them up, set them down somewhere, and push them into motion.  They might collide with each other, or they might avoid each other—it’s up to you.  They will each have their own unique appearance. Barring, of course, writing about identical twins, and even then, there will likely be distinctions. Your characters will each have their own set of values and beliefs.  On top of that, they will have wants and needs.  You’ll have to sort all this out, help some of them gain their wants while thwarting others, until you reach some form of resolution.  But before you can do all this, you’ll need to create characters.

A Heuristic for Building Strong Characters

Imagine you sit down to interview your character.  You know nothing about them going into the interview, or maybe you can picture them, but you’re not sure what they’re like. You’ll want to ask your character a long list of questions to get started. Some questions to ask may include:

  • How does the character feel about their parents?
  • Does the character have any siblings?
  • How does the character feel about their siblings?
  • How does the character feel about their job?
  • Does the character have good posture?
  • Does the character make direct eye contact?
  • Does the character have any nervous tics?
  • Does the character have a significant other?
  • What sort of person is the character attracted to?
  • Does the character appear confident?
  • Is the character physically healthy? 
  • Does the character have any medical conditions?
  • Has the character suffered any trauma in their past?
  • Has the character ever broken any laws?

Additional questions can be found on the Invention for Secondary School Students: Creative Writing page.


If you can answer all these questions about your character, you’ll have a great deal of material.  You may find that you can use a lot of it, which is great.  However, not everything you determine about a character will go into your story.  “Obviously, you would never include the pages of information you have recorded about a character in this way, but your knowing the information…will make the character more developed in the story simply because you, the creator, know the character so well” (Knorr and Schell 166).  In other words, you don’t have to include every single detail about your character’s history in the story.  The best stories often allude to the past without being explicit about past events.

Contributors:McKinley P. Murphy.

These resources discuss character creation and development in fiction writing. They provide an overview of character archetypes and tools to aid in character building. 

Types of Characters

You may recall from your literature classes that characters can be “flat” or “round,” and likewise, “minor” or “major.”  A character also may be a protagonist or antagonist.  Let’s look at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby for examples of character types.  Note that the characters in the novel are more complex than what I simply state here, and that Gatsby faces other antagonists—such as class, bourgeois snobbery, and the progression of time itself.


While Gatsby is our protagonist, the one who we want to succeed, his success would mean ousting his beloved Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan.  An idea can also function as an antagonist: Gatsby is also fighting against the bourgeois prejudice of elite 1920s New York City, where “old money”—such as the Buchanans—is worth more than new money, as exemplified by the divide between East Egg and West Egg.


Usually, the protagonist is also a Round character, “a developing three-dimensional character” (Knorr and Schell 165).  In other words, the protagonist must be a character that grows and changes during the story; it is the progress of this change that keeps the reader interested and cheering for the character.


Part of why The Great Gatsby has endured in American literature is because the characters are  complex, rather than being simple archetypes.  You are already aware of many archetypes; you can recognize them in the movies you watch, such as the Reluctant Hero (Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games series).  

Using an archetype is a kind of shorthand; if you put in a character like The Lonely Old Lady With A Dog, the reader recognizes the character and knows what to expect from them.  This may be helpful when populating your world with minor/flat characters, because it is reassuring and comforting to your reader; your reader knows these archetypal characters already.

Unfortunately, that also means that archetypal characters are clichéd.  You should never have your protagonist be an archetype; that would make your story predictable. 

Once you put your character down into their world, they can react in various ways to the setting and reality of their lives.  In Mooring Against the Tide: Writing Fiction and Poetry, Knorr and Schell write:

…your characters may react to the world in one of four ways.  They may see this society and its values and assimilate by adopting those values as their own; they may accommodate in that they do not like those values but will adopt them anyway if only to get along; they may rebel against those values in any number of ways; or, they may take flight from that society and, as did Huck Finn, head out to the new territories.


In other words, just as our choices in life determine where we go, the plot of your story is determined by the nature of your characters.  These four choices might not seem to offer many different plot options, but in reality, they can play out in an infinite number of ways.  Think about your favorite novel or short story—it’s likely that the main character is faced with a choice and has to pick one of the four routes described above.  Otherwise, there may not be much conflict in your story.

For instance, let’s say you have a protagonist whose childhood was rough; his parents often left him alone while they went out and drank.  As an adult, your character may have abandonment issues.  In his relationship with his girlfriend, he may be excessively clingy, texting her every ten minutes.  This excessive attention will drive her mad, so she’ll start ignoring his messages.  This will make him panic and show up at her place of work to make sure she’s okay.  In return, she might see this as stalking and end the relationship.  And so on…you can imagine what happens next.

Contributors:McKinley P. Murphy.

These resources discuss character creation and development in fiction writing. They provide an overview of character archetypes and tools to aid in character building. 

Building & Revealing Characters

By now, you’ve assembled a great deal of information about your characters.  You can see them, you know what they’re thinking, and you know what they want.  But conveying this information to your reader is its own unique challenge.

Just as you can’t rely on mere exposition to explain what happened before your story, you can’t preface your story with an interview with your character.  Character is something you build throughout the course of your story.  Recall that major characters, like your protagonist, are ones that will change during the course of the story; who they are in the beginning is not who they’ll be in the end. 

That said, you’ll want to give the reader an impression of who the character is at the outset of the story.  Fitzgerald uses the first-person narrator, Nick Carraway, to gradually reveal information about Gatsby; the reader learns more information about Gatsby as Nick learns about him.  You might use minor characters to reveal information about your character if you’re writing from a point-of-view that is not the protagonist.

The protagonist must also be likeable (at least to an extent).  If your reader cannot identify with your character, cannot picture themselves in the character’s shoes, then they won’t want to read on.  While fiction is plot-driven, the reader isn’t going to care about your plot unless they care about your protagonist.  You have to make the reader root for your character; we have to want them to succeed (as with Gatsby). 

This doesn’t mean that your character should be perfect—quite the opposite, actually.  We don’t want to read about perfect people; if a character is the most beautiful and talented person in the world, and if she has everything they want, there’s no story there.  Besides, nobody wants to read about a character who’s perfect. 

You may recall that every character in William Shakespeare’s plays has a “fatal flaw”: a personality flaw that will cause the character to fail, that Achilles’ heel that the antagonist will exploit.  When you are building your own characters, think about what sort of flaws they have.  The flaw should make sense for the character, as in, it should be related to their background/beliefs.  You can’t assign flaws arbitrarily—the flaw should arise from the circumstances of your character’s life, where they are, who they know, how they were raised and how they’ve been treated.