Writer’s Digest Conference 2016: How to Write Compelling Characters

Really great characters have motivations, tough choices and detailed backstories

A few more tips from the Writer’s Digest Conference, this event was a literal gold mine for myself and as I keep going through my notes and working on my stories I feel compelled to share what I’ve learned.

Jordan Rosenfeld gave a presentation called ‘Getting Intimate with your characters’ which I found very useful. Nothing mind-blowing, but common-sense tips that basically explain what is it that good authors do to make their characters come alive on the page.

  • Describe their breathing, their heart rate, any gastric distress
  • What’s the scent dominating the scene?
  • The temperature
  • Engage the senses with active verbs
  • Is the character nervous? Is their voice wavering? Stuttering? Hand-shaking, involuntary tics and twitching
  • Texture & Shape of visuals, Shadow and Light, use them to describe the mood of the scene and contribute to the emotional impact
  • Description of what the character is seeing and experience can set the tone for a scene or act as foreshadowing
  • Ground your character in the scene, 2 paragraphs of description without the character responding emotively is too much
  • Break up your dialogue with descriptions, use them to add input or to show us how the character is feeling in response to the conversation

Good descriptions can also inform us about the character, especially in those early chapters where you want to tell us everything about them. All of these work toward fixing a common novice error where the author tells us something instead of showing us. What that means is you’re telling your reader that Jimmy Joe Bob is a hick instead of describing his pickup truck decked out with a confederate flag and a gun rack. Let the reader draw their own conclusions.

You can further use descriptions to show us about their inner life, what their motivations are and the problems they’re facing. Different locations look different to different characters and that can highlight traits that may crop up later as your story progresses. It’s a great way to lay groundwork in order to advance your plot and make the characters choices more real and understandable.

An engineer, versus a medical professional or a high school student flipping burgers will see things and notice things differently. A characters backstory shapes their view of the world. What are their hobbies and interests? What a character does informs what they notice.

The last big tip from Jordan was to make scenes unique. Characters do repetitive behaviors and we have to find ways as authors to keep the plot moving. Find settings that are unique to the characters, if you’re starting a story or working on something just brainstorm three different settings in their life that inform us about the character’s life.

I’ll add in here a tip from FilmCritHulk, make a character sheet. Basically you chart out your character on one page. Everything from physical to psycho-spiritual traits, as well as their relationships, wants, and needs as a person. If you want a deeper explanation, I linked a blog post there which goes into the details.