3 (In-Depth) Tips for Writing Fresh and Authentic Characters

There's nothing worse for a reader than a stale, predictable character. Here, award-winning author S. K. Ali shares her top 3 tips for ensuring an engaging cast.
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Shelves in bookstores are crowded. New books are birthed into the world only to find themselves jostling to be seen by readers. Pick me! Pick me! they hawk.

(S. K. Ali: On Writing the Stand-Alone Sequel)

Why not make your book stand out by offering an engaging main character, preferably one not often seen in stories? If you’re writing or contemplating writing a fresh new character, read on to discover how to develop them authentically enough to catch the attention of agents, editors, and readers.

3 Tips for Writing Fresh and Authentic Characters

1. Figure out how your character views their world and the world at large and then mix it up

A big part of a writer’s job is to know your characters inside out. You’ll know things about them that you’ll never introduce to the reader, but just having those details will help you write their scenes—how they react to what happens to them or around them and how they then choose to move forward—with confidence.

So, make sure understand your characters thoroughly.

Knowing how your characters view their lives and their general, greater worldview is key to this understanding. Make a list of their responses to everyday irritants or challenges or happy moments, their political views, their engagement or lack of engagement with their circles of communities, from family to social groups to the huge world out there.

And then, shake it up. Because you wanted a fresh character, right? Well, then take those lists and adjust them so that they don’t run according to your first instincts. The first bits of writerly-planning is often where most people’s minds turn, which means your readers will find them predictable—you want to take those initial ideas and twist and expand on them quite a bit.

If you wrote a character who doesn’t care about anything that happens in the world, anywhere—because, frankly, she won’t be able to do anything about it—why not add that she believes herself to be an incredibly compassionate person who just doesn’t care about strangers? That she needs to see people’s problems with her own eyes before she gives any piece of her heart to them? And even then, she finds it hard to believe people anyways—but then again, she herself doesn’t expect any compassion from others. (And then, to stop her from coming off as too cold, grant her the task of being the secondary caregiver for her older sister recovering from a terrible car accident that she narrowly missed being in.)

Misfit in Love by S. K. Ali

Misfit in Love by S. K. Ali

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Now you’ve given her some extra dimensions and elevated that first simple premise of a character who just doesn’t care about the world.

A real-world example from my writing: In my third novel, Misfit in Love, the main character Janna believes life should be tidy and contained and small because the opposite—messy and open and bigger—means the potential for more trouble to head her way. And she’s had enough trouble in her short life, being the child of divorce (not a frequent occurrence in her tight-knit Muslim community) and then, later, having faced the trauma of sexual assault.

2. Bring characters’ worldviews into their lives and show how they play out

What does it look like to be this character who has these certain views of the world? We’ve all heard “show don’t tell” and while there are points where a bit of telling needs to make an appearance here and there, the more important focus for us when we’re writing believable characters is to let them reveal who they are.

Dotting the lives of your characters with evidence of their worldviews convinces readers of their authenticity.

It can be simple things such as the way they make breakfast or the clothing they choose to wear or which restaurant they select for a special occasion or who they choose to confide in. Choice is the operative word here. Your character’s worldviews will often affect the choices they make.

That character who doesn’t care about the world? She obviously doesn’t like hearing the news, so why not make it that she doesn’t have a TV, has blocked news sites on her computer, and only carries around a flip phone so that she never stumbles upon the news? To the outer world, she blames all these things on being a workaholic but you, as the writer, has made sure that the reader knows why she makes these choices through sharing key scenes.

A real-world example from my writing: Janna in Misfit in Love, sleeps with books and turns to them when she needs comfort because they are contained, having a beginning and an end and other parameters—all of which she finds safe. She also chooses black hijabs to fade back in, so that she doesn’t get noticed, with all the potential trouble that entails: being asked to deal with problems unfolding in front of her.

3 (In-Depth) Tips for Writing Fresh and Authentic Characters

3. Unleash their worldviews to face a huge challenge … leading readers to ask what will win: their views or what they’re grappling with?

Now that you’ve figured out your character’s worldviews and infused the story with their takes on life, it’s time to release them into an arena filled with challenges and conflicts: the story itself! (One note: not all your character’s views are vital enough to be put to the test so choose the ones that will also move the plot forward.)

Place your character in situations where their perspectives will have to be blurted, nudged, or prodded out of them—either to themselves or others. Make these situations conflict or tension-filled or at least uncomfortable.

That character who doesn’t care about the world? Why not make her boss choose her to head the global charity initiative at work? As part of training for a job she’s been aspiring to get for the longest time?

Now you’re cuing your character for several confrontational scenes—within herself and/or her co-workers and/or her boss. And through these scenes, there’s a running question: will she be able to maintain her worldview? And when will people find out she’s not the right person for the task? Or, will she be? What happens when the person she’s assigned to report to knows this secret about her, that she’s not meant for the job, that she doesn’t care in any way, but then he’s also her sister’s friend and so knows the other compassionate side of her? What if he’s the reason she wasn’t in the car accident that day—because she was with him, unbeknownst to her sister?

(You're Just Too Good to Be True: How to Make Your Protagonist's Love Interest More Believable—Flaws and All)

Complication-city!

A real-world example from my writing: in Misfit in Love, I put sit-at-the-back-of-the-class Janna squarely in the middle of her brother’s big fat three-day wedding weekend with all the messiness that entails. I bring in characters who challenge her to figure out more of her worldviews and I put her in a situation from which she can’t fade away because her heart is involved. And then I force her to choose confrontation or not.

Through all of this, we get to see whether her perspectives get more entrenched or shift or even transform.

That’s how you get readers invested in your characters enough to see them through an entire book.

And then maybe, they’ll pick up the next book you write too! 

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