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Writing Compelling Characters

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Characters and Goals

“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” – Kurt Vonnegut

Characters should almost always have clear goals, even if these goals are not immediately made obvious to the reader. Without goals, characters lack motivation—that is, they have little reason to do anything interesting. For this reason, many writers connect the main character's goals to the main conflict in the story. This generally means that the main obstacle to those goals plays a key role in the plot as well (for instance, in the form of a villain). Often, the main character is most interesting and when confronting his own shortcomings in pursuit of his goals.

There are a few ways to construct this character-plot connection:

The character-first approach constructs a story’s plot for a character that already exists. This approach asks a writer to build a character that they find interesting and then assemble the plot around her. For example, a character who is struggling to overcome a phobia might, as a plot element, come into contact with the thing she fears. Success in this instance would mean that she doesn’t let the fear overcome her.

The plot-first approach starts by defining the major conflicts the writer wants to include in a piece of fiction and then builds a character who will be motivated by those conflicts. For example, a writer could decide to explore the effect of a catastrophic storm on a city before writing a main character. A character that would feel motivated by this conflict would be one with a connection to the city or to someone living in the city. Therefore, the son of someone who went missing in the storm would likely be a good focal character for this story.

Small Goals and Big Goals

Though it’s important for characters to have at least one big goal, it can be boring for the reader if a character is totally preoccupied with a single motivation. Strong characters generally have two or more goals of varying sizes that they might confront separately or at the same time.

Take the movie Zombieland, for example. The character Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) pursues both a personal goal (small) and a story goal (big). Throughout the film, the audience watches as Tallahassee fights his way through zombie-riddled supermarkets and ransacks crashed delivery trucks in search of his favorite treat—Twinkies. While it is obvious from the get-go that his explicit personal goal is to track down his favorite snack cake during the apocalypse, the audience gradually learns enough about the character to realize that the Twinkie hunting is merely a pretext for Tallahassee to pursue a more serious story goal. Tallahassee's goofy exterior conceals an inner longing to rid the world of as many zombies as possible as payback for the death of his young son. Because the viewer naturally comes to expect that both goals will be resolved by the end of the movie, Talahassee's character gains dramatic tension as his goals are revealed. In other words, the audience excitedly anticipates his success or failure.

Tallahassee resolves his story goal by successfully protecting two of his new companions from a zombie onslaught, realizing as he does so that he has found a new family (as imperfect as it might be). The resolution of Tallahassee’s personal goal connects to this story goal as well. As Tallahassee searches a restaurant for Twinkies during the final confrontation, he discovers that his bullets have ruined an entire box of his beloved snack cakes. He experiences a moment of sadness at realizing his failure before one of his companions offers him a Twinkie she found, resolving his personal goal while reinforcing his story goal. Though Tallahassee doesn't get nearly as many Twinkies as he would have liked, he comes to realize that the desserts are merely cheap substitutions for things that are far sweeter: the kindness and generosity one receives from family.

Character and Believability

Another factor that can contribute to a successful character is an element called “verisimilitude,” also called “believability.” When writers talk about believability, they talk about whether the constituent parts of a character make sense and feel cohesive. For example, we might expect a character who gets paid minimum wage to struggle to pay her bills, so if we see her driving an expensive car or spending several hundred dollars on a meal at a fancy restaurant, we would question these details. There are, of course, stories in which these situations could exist, but the reader would need to know what allowed them to happen (inheritance from a late relative, perhaps, or an irresponsible approach to personal debt).

Stories that take place outside of a realistic modern setting will generally require some extra work on the part of the writer to make them believable. This is becaus of an idea called “suspension of disbelief.” This refers to the tendency of readers to challenge details of a story that seem out-of-place, but not to question those details if they are presented with enough contextual justification. If a story contains people who can fly with human-size wings, for instance, the reader would need to learn early on that this is a normal event that occurs in the story world. A reader who unexpectedly encounters flying humans three-fourths of the way into a short story could easily be baffled by this development, and might also consider it a cheap cop-out if it's used to resolve a plot conflict.

Adding Physical Detail

In addition to planning your characters thoughtfully, you must also sketch them coherently on the page. Careful selection of physical and environmental details will make some of your character’s traits visible to your reader without you having to tell them outright what you mean. A character who is disorganized might have wrinkled clothing or might consistently arrive late to appointments. An introverted character might bring a book or notebook everywhere they go and might also stay out of crowded spaces (or feel uncomfortable in those spaces).

It’s important to be aware of the other meanings that a detail can bring into a piece. A physical detail, especially one that appears multiple times within a work, might also develop symbolic meanings in addition to its literal meaning. An example of this can be found in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels. Harry is well-known in the wizarding world because of a prominent scar on his forehead, which resulted from a violent magical encounter that also claimed the lives of his parents. The scar becomes a symbol of Harry’s past—not only of his parents’ sacrifice, but also of the evil that he encounters in each book in the seriesand Rowling is able to draw the reader’s attention to these ideas without always referencing them directly by simply mentioning the scar in her descriptions of Harry’s feelings.

Exercise: In a short vignette, and using only physical details (e.g., characters' clothing, appearance, or body language), make it clear to a reader that a character is experiencing one of the following conditions: worry, hunger, grief, joy, confusion, lack of sleep, anxiety, homesickness. The word you chose should not appear in your vignette, nor should any synonyms.

Adding Personality

Broadly, “personality” refers to the collection of beliefs, thought patterns, and other mental qualities that dictate a character’s actions. A personality trait could be the character’s bubbly disposition, their self-deprecating humor, or the fact that they’re always nervous. When constructing a character, it’s important to think about how she would react in a number of situations. Here are some questions to help you discover your character’s personality traits:

  • Is he fond of attention, or does he avoid it?
  • Is she curious to learn more about a topic/location/person, or does she keep to herself?
  • How big of a role does fear play in his day-to-day activities?
  • How does this character react if things don’t go the way she wants them to?
  • Does he think that he’s more intelligent/less intelligent than others around him?
  • Does she think she’s average? How would she define “average?”
  • How does he feel about making decisions?
  • Does she make decisions quickly or slowly?
  • Does he tend to regret decisions they’ve made?

See also our "Brief Introduction" to characters, which contains additional questions to spark your creativity as you write a character.

It’s helpful to connect these traits to elements from the character’s life or past. For example, a character who grew up with a controlling parent might have difficulty making decisions once they start living on their own. Personality traits might also overlap with physical traits: talking too loudly or too softly or interrupting others, for example.

It’s also important to make sure that your characters aren’t good at everything they come across. Doing so will reduce your story’s believability becauselet’s face it—no one is good at everything. To this end, you should allow your characters to fail at something, whether that something is huge or inconsequential.

Exercise: In a short vignette, deliver some news to your character. The news can be good or bad. It can affect just the character, or the entire world population, or any number of people in between. How does this character react? Who do they tell, if anyone? How do they interact with the space they’re in (e.g. punch a wall, hug a stranger)? Try this exercise several times with the same character but different contexts (e.g., the character receiving the news alone versus receiving it in a public place) to see how they react under different circumstances.

A Word of Caution on Using Fictionalized Versions of Real People

It’s common for writers to borrow details from real life—the shape of a stranger’s chin, a classmate’s clicking of their pen during a quiet exam, or the restaurant server’s shrill laugh, to give just a few examples—but a writer should be wary of recreating an entire person on the page. There are legal reasons not to do this, of course, but there is also the danger that a story filled with too many real-life people and events will be flat and boring. Fiction should generally be a healthy mix of the ordinary and extraordinary. If the mix is skewed too far in one direction, the reader can find the piece too unbelievable or too boring.