Crafting Strong Characters

By Kerstin Wolf

Pacing, plot, and voice all play a massive role in creating an unforgettable novel. Just as important as all of that though are the characters. If anything, I would argue that strong, relatable characters are the single most important part of a novel. Without interesting characters that readers can relate to, the book is forgettable. Think of your favorite book. While you may love the book for a number of reasons, I would bet that you really liked at least one of the characters. Heck, I plan on naming one of my future kids after a character in my favorite book of all time! Characters are important, and one of the things I’ve noticed a lot as of late while reading manuscripts is that the characters aren’t able to hold their own. The whole story suffers if the characters aren’t strong enough. For that reason, this blog post has come to be! In this article, I hope to address some of the key aspects to a great character.


Relatable characters are massively important in fiction. What I mean by relatable is that the readers can feel some kind of connection between themselves and the character. It’s vital that there is connection because without it, readers may not care about the character and what happens to them. Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 1.28.23 PMThe goal is to have readers feel as if they are living in this world that you have created and that what is happening to the protagonist or the other characters feels like it’s actually happening to them or their friends. This connection with the readers can be as small as a human connection. If readers can’t relate to the character’s occupation or situation, then they at least need to be able to relate to the character’s emotions or thoughts. A character doesn’t have to be exactly like the readers to be relatable. For example, let’s say that there is a character that is a wizard and a mad scientist. Just because most readers are not likely to be mad scientists or wizards doesn’t mean that they can’t relate to this character. Perhaps the character doesn’t have many friends. This character is then relatable to anyone who has ever felt lonely.

Another thing that I have learned over the years is that dialogue and character reactions play a massive role in relatability. Nothing causes me to lose interest in a character faster than one that talks and acts like a robot (unless the character is in fact supposed to be a robot). Stiff dialogue is a surefire way to distance readers from the characters. Similarly, if a character’s family was just murdered and yet the character doesn’t even blink an eye, readers won’t be able to connect. When crafting characters, keep an extra close eye on these things. If your beta readers are struggling to feel concerned when the protagonist is surrounded by flesh-eating zombies, it may be because the character just isn’t relatable enough.


Every character needs to have a motivation Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 12.34.49 PMof some sort. Every real person has a goal or dream that they wish to one day achieve. Similarly, if a person punches someone in the face, there probably was a reason for it. Just like real people, realistic characters need to have motivations that drive them as well. A real person wouldn’t rob a bank for no reason, so a character shouldn’t do that either. If you notice that your story is dragging even though there are back-to-back action scenes, it may be due to your characters not having a motivation to drive them forward and in turn move to plot forward.


Characters needs to be likable. Now, I don’t mean that every character needs to be a kind person who is always looking out for the underdogs and volunteers every chance they get. I don’t mean that at all. A character can be a raging alcoholic whose life is in shambles and still be likable. That actually describes Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities to a T! Sydney’s life is in utter disarray and he’s honestly a jerk most of the time, but he is the most likable and human character in the entire book. Why? Because he is flawed and broken, but he still cares about some things (although there are very few); and in the end, you have to respect the decision he makes. There just has to be something there, whether it be respect or understanding or something different all together, that keep readers wanting to read more about the character.

Even villains can be likable. We all have our favorite villain from a book or movie. Why do you like that specific villain so much? It’s probably not because they have a glittering conscience and a heart of gold. It may be because they are devious and manipulative or brutal and insane or cruel and calculating. None of these are admirable traits, but they all make up the perfect villains that we love to hate.

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So remember these three points the next time you’re crafting characters. Characters have the power to affect what emotions the readers feel, how quickly the book seems to go by, how readers perceive the world you created, and if the book will be one that the reader remembers. If you never forget reliability, motivation, and likability, then your characters will be jumping off the page in no time!




Crafting Villains

If you’re crafting a story, you’re creating conflict for your characters. Without this conflict stories turn into journal entries, the boring stuff most people don’t even bother posting on social media. Conflict creates worry, which keeps the reader turning pages into the wee hours of the morning. It makes them ask, will the hero live, find love, figure out the mystery, beat the clock, graduate, save the world?

Where does this conflict come from? Lots of places, but in many stories the biggest source will be your antagonist. Let’s look at Harry Potter. JK Rowling created a huge adversary for Harry to face, one so scary no one would even say his name. She also crafted him in a way that made the story stronger. As people who study craft we always ask, how? What makes a villain real and terrifying? How can you avoid the pitfall of the melodramatic villain? Apart from cutting all instances of “Muahahaha!” of course.

Step 1: Objective

When you’re crafting a villain for your hero to face, start by figuring out what his objective is and how it contradicts the hero’s. A villain’s objective can be…

  • The same as the hero’s –athletes racing for the same prize, a race to the top of Mount ReplicatorEverest, or students vying for the same scholarship
  • In opposition to the hero’s – offence and defense in sports, Frodo & Sam versus Sauron in Lord of the Rings
  • Impersonal – the Replicators from Stargate SG-1: These are robot spiders whose sole purpose is to consume raw materials and replicate. They destroy all life in their path as a byproduct of their function

The trick with objective is to connect the hero and the villain in such a way that neither of them can walk away. In Stargate, the replicators are on a path toward Earth and SG-1 is the front line of defense. Harry and Voldemort are connected by a prophesy and the past. A class project, a locked door, or personal stakes are all great ways to keep your hero and villain at odds.

Step 2: Motivation

The best villains think they’re heroes. They create a sense of sympathy in the reader. Sure, we know they’re evil and that their logic is totally twisted but… they’re trying to do good, right? We want them to get caught, to lose to the hero, but we also can relate to them on a basic level.


Ask yourself why the villain feels it’s imperative he or she win. Is he protecting a loved one? Righting a wrong? On a path of revenge? Does the villain have a twisted sense of honor or selflessness he’s bringing to the table?

What I consider one of the most gut wrenching episodes of Criminal Minds comes to mind here. A killer is kidnapping innocent men at a rest stop and torturing them to death using sleep deprivation. Why? Because he believes he’s on a valiant quest to save his daughter and they have the information he needs to save her. He also blames himself for her disappearance because he stopped at a rest stop where she was taken to sleep. His sense of honor and selflessness is heart wrenching. Especially when we learn what these past events were that caused him to suffer a psychotic break and what was honorable to him was what made him a serial killer terrifying enough to call in the FBI.


Step 3: Background

With Disney’s recent venture into the origin stories of their villains, it probably isn’t surprising to see backstory on this list. Even though you won’t use all this information in your story, knowing your villain just as well as your hero will naturally create a more realistic villain as you write.

Not sure where to start? Ask yourself who the negative influences were in the character’s 1441483353_91975b5b83820088476e90a1a86af5fd.jpglife. Why does she make evil choices in her pursuit of her objective? What’s going on in her mind to send her down the path to villain-hood. What about the villain mirrors the hero?

My favorite example here is Regina from Once Upon a Time. She used to be a good person who wanted to be with her true love, and she grew up constantly fighting against her mother’s attempts to darken her worldview. It was when her mother murdered her love, Daniel, that Regina started her descent into becoming the truly terrifying Evil Queen.

Step 4: Skill

I cannot stress this enough. Your villain MUST BE COMPETENT! When my younger brother was a kid, he was obsessed with Phineas and Ferb. I couldn’t stand the villain from the show. He always screwed up his own plans and Phineas and Ferb won despite hardly trying.

wc_neal_2To avoid the bumbling idiot villain, ask yourself what he is good at? How does this help him? Heist novels include skilled thieves and detectives. Voldemort and the Evil Queen were skilled with magic. Or you can look at con artists such as Neil Caffrey in White Collar. Ask yourself if other characters are drawn to your character and if he has that charming personality that makes him even more dangerous.

Whether you’re working with a smooth talking con artist, a mad scientist, or a blood thirsty wizard, crafting your villains with these things in mind will help you create the three dimensional story you’ve always dreamed of telling.  While it’s always important to make your reader root for the hero of your story, crafting a realistic and sympathetic villain will bring your story that sense of realism and suspense we all crave.




Exercises to Develop a Character’s Voice

Developing a character’s voice can sometimes be difficult but is necessary in every novel. As mentioned in the last blog post, Do’s and Don’t’s of Believable Dialogue, every character needs to have their own distinct voice. Unless all the characters in your novel are emotionless robots that are programmed the same way, each character needs to “sound” different to the reader. Nothing is more confusing than reading a line of dialogue between three or more characters that all sound the same. Things start getting jumbled and soon enough, the reader is completely lost on who is saying what. In order to have good dialogue and strong characters, each character must have their own unique voice.

Understandably, this can be challenging. As the author, you are essentially creating life using only your imagination. The world that your novel explores is completely your own, and every character is of your own creation. Congrats, you’re a parent! Now, as a creator of this world, you need to know everything about your characters. Even the tiniest details of their past could affect their voice. Where they grew up, where they live now, what hardships they faced, their greatest fears, what motivates them, what their personality is, all of these could play a role in your characters voice. Giving each character their own voice isn’t easy, and that’s why I’ve listed a few tips or exercises you may want to try if you’re struggling.

Character Interviews

Conduct a character interview to really get inside their head… your head…your AuroreDamant_CharacterDesignInterviewcharacter’s head which happens to come from your head. You can’t create their voice if you’ve never met them, so what better way to get to know your characters than to interview them? If you want you can conduct these interviews totally inside your head, just be sure to write down your questions and how your character responds. Where’s the fun in that though? Why not become your character? Truly embody your character and behave as if you are them! Not only is it fun and you get to practice your acting skills, but it may help your character to become more real to you. Now, if acting isn’t your thing, but you don’t want to just interview your character in your head, try a combination of the two. Imagine your character and what they’re doing in your head, but respond aloud in their voice. This is my favorite method to further develop my characters and strengthen their voices. Do my next door neighbors probably think I have a few screws loose? Yes. But I don’t care so long it helps improve my writing!

Change the Environment

If your characters’ voices still aren’t coming very easily to you, try the old switch up method! Completely change their environment and see what happens. Is the world that they live in an icy tundra? Try dropping them in the desert. Write a short side story where they are all suddenly transported somewhere totally different. How do they react? This is generally my cure-all method. Changing the environment or situation is great way to get to know your characters better which always helps with creating their voices.

Become Your Character

Thoughtful writerPerhaps try being your character for an hour. Now, this doesn’t mean do anything dangerous or harmful in anyway. Maybe your character loves knitting. Learn how to knit or scroll through knitting patterns online and react like your character would. Does you character despise knitting hats but loves socks? What would your character say if they came across a zebra hat pattern? Have fun with it! Be creative and relax. A little bit of practice, and your character will have their own voice before you know it!

Natalie Charles on Writing, Publishing and Projects


Natalie is the award winning author of six romantic suspense and contemporary romance novels. Her latest book Seeking Mr. Wrong is scheduled to be released on February 17, 2017.

Where are you from originally? 

I’m from the Hartford region of Connecticut. I grew up in a middle-class town, the oldest of four children in a single-income household. My parents struggled. As a teenager I was acutely aware that some of my friends were vacationing in Greece while I’d never even been to Canada. They were shopping at stores I’d never heard of. (The GAP? What’s that?) The characters in my books reflect this experience: They are often a little bit off, a touch gauche, and slightly uncomfortable with wealth. Their clothes never fit quite right, or they can’t quite figure out how to carry a conversation with certain people. I can relate to that awkwardness.

What do you do for fun when you’re not writing?13051595_986624674763850_5662782988932496113_n

I enjoy reading, exercising (anything that doesn’t require coordination–Zumba is out), and going for walks or hikes. Besides that, I like to make things. I always have a project going. I quilt and sew, I knit, and I bake or do things like make my own sauerkraut or water kefir. Last spring I decided I’d start making my own soaps and lotions from scratch. I would visit with a friend and bring her four bars of soap, I had so much. Now I make my own laundry detergent, candles, carpet freshener…Yes, I realize this is strange. I just like to make things. I get curious about how something works and I go along with it.

Who are some of your favorite authors?

Margaret Atwood has had a huge influence on me. I love her writing. I also love Gillian Flynn, Kristin Hannah, Michael Connelly…those are some of my favorites. But I read widely and I’m discovering amazing new writers all the time. I like to go into a bookstore and pull books I’ve never heard of off the shelf.

What are some of your favorite television shows?

I don’t watch that much television and I’m probably about five years behind (thanks, kids!). Some of my very favorite television series are Breaking Bad, The Wire, The Sopranos, and The Office. Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model are guilty pleasures. Also, I’m a little bit obsessed with old Columbo episodes. I get a kick out of the dated clothes and that fact none of the investigators wear latex gloves, or that the key to the crime might concern new technology called “an answering machine”. It’s amazing.
10991260_772062062886780_2681714091044272467_nHow did you get into writing?

I have always been a storyteller. As soon as I could speak, I was asking my mother to write down my stories. I stopped writing for a while when I was in law school but I don’t have any idea why that is. Maybe I was thinking that I was too serious or something. But for years, I stopped writing fiction. I loved law school and did a lot of legal writing, but after I became a lawyer, I was deeply unhappy. I felt mismatched in the profession from the very first day. It wasn’t long before I returned to writing as a way of sorting through this unhappiness. For me, writing is both therapy and escape. It’s saved my life and I don’t say that lightly.

How do you juggle a professional career, writing and being a mother?

It used to be that I would work all day as an attorney, come home to make dinner and put my children to bed, and then sit down at my computer to write. That went on for about four years, and to be honest, I found it unsustainable. It was absurd to put on a pot of coffee at seven o’clock at night so I could stay up past midnight, then wake up at five with my children. Something had to give. My husband opened his own law firm and after a couple of years, I joined him. That has allowed me much more flexibility. I work part-time now doing non-legal work and I’m able to devote the rest of my work day to writing. I’m incredibly fortunate.

Has your career influenced or inspired your books? If so, how?

Some of my romantic suspense features attorneys, and a lot of my books–if not all–touch in some way upon the legal system. But I don’t really enjoy writing about lawyers. We’re sort of boring and we argue a lot. More than anything, my legal training has influenced my work by teaching the value of being clear, concise, and logical.



How do you pick a setting for your stories?

My books tend to swallow me while I write, so I pick a place where I want to spend some time. I love to write about seaside towns for that reason. Lately I’ve been setting my books in Connecticut. I choose the kind of place I want to explore, basically. Most of my towns are fictional. I like the freedom of that. But they’re all inspired by real places.

How much of your story do you plan before you start writing? 

I usually plot the high points of the story: The premise, the first and second turning points, maybe the ending. But I’m more of a pantser to be honest. I like to have a general idea where I’m going but I don’t like to be told how to get there. Plus, the story will inevitably surprise me, so any outline I might make is quickly abandoned

Your bio says you first wrote literary fiction. Do you think you’ll ever go back and work in that genre again? 

Maybe? I’ll never rule anything out. My interest right now is in telling a good story in my own voice. I took myself too seriously when I was writing lit fic. Everything felt like it had to be so profound and important. I’m happier with my writing now.


The first novels you published were romantic suspense. What made you transition to writing lighter contemporary romance? 

I love mysteries. I devoured Agatha Christie as a child. So when I started writing seriously it made sense to me to write what I loved to read. But reading a book and writing a book are two different experiences. My books consume me while I write them. With romantic suspense, I had to do a lot of research about forensics, which meant that I was reading about blood splatter and horrific true crimes. I’m sensitive, and this brought me to a very dark place. I don’t like violence and I don’t like guns. I like puzzles, but I didn’t want to be inside of a character who feared for her life. Even more, I didn’t want to add to the fear in the world. I felt like this wasn’t my purpose. So I set out to write something happy and joyful. I wanted my readers to leave my books feeling better than when they picked them up.

You’ve published traditionally and self-published some books. What made you want to make the switch to self-publishing and now back to traditional publishing? 

You may have figured out that I’m a person who wants to try All Of The Things. I had to try self-publishing, just like I had to make my own soap. I wanted the experience of choosing my own cover, finding my own editor, funding my own audiobook, etc. And it was great! Self-publishing is a very brave act. There is no one who will validate you or tell you that your book is good enough. I spent a lot of time in sheer terror, but it was important for me to have the courage to strike out on my own. Still, I understand the value of having a team of people who can do things better than I can do them myself. Traditional publishers have leverage that a self-publisher may not. I still have a lot to learn from excellent editors and marketing professionals. So I’m back to publishing traditionally, but not necessarily exclusively.


What have you learned from self-publishing that you’re looking forward to applying to your new books being published traditionally?

Self-publishing gave me the opportunity to hone my voice without the pressure to conform to a publisher’s standards. It’s liberating to sit down at a computer and think, “I’m going to tell this story my way.” Was I always successful? No. Every book is an experiment. But self-publishing gave me some creative space, and now that I have a better understanding of who I am as a writer and what stories I want to tell, I’m very excited to team up with Simon and Schuster. And I’m also a little more business savvy after self-publishing. For me, the experience of self-publishing has been great.

One aspect of your books that gets constant praise is your awesome characters. Any tips for authors looking to create great characters?

Well thank you! My characters are three-dimensional human beings to me. They have unique ways of looking at the world. Sometimes they are deeply flawed–who isn’t? But they often regret this and strive to be better.

My best advice for an author who wants to create great characters is to come to your page open and vulnerable. Please don’t give us a Mary Sue, some woman whose only imperfection is that she’s too darn good-looking and cheerful. That’s the worst. Give us a character with the parts of yourself that you try to hide. Drag out your shame, because that’s what we relate to. Oh, you’re painfully awkward at times? Me too. And sometimes you can be stubborn, or proud, or quick to anger? I get it. I want to read about something that’s honest and real. Writing is about connection, and those honest moments give us the best opportunity to connect with our readers. I won’t lie, it’s a scary way to write. You feel fully exposed. But if you’re a writer, you’re already pretty darn brave so you may as well go all the way. And then after you publish, stay off the internet. Don’t read your reviews. They don’t matter and they shouldn’t influence your work. Instead, write the next book with another flawed character.

If you could pick one character from your books to hang out with for a day, who would it be?

I’d spend the day with Jessie Mallory from my book A Sweet Possibility. First, because she makes chocolate and loves wine. But also because she is a person without guile: A real innocent. I love that about her.




Your latest book Seeking Mr. Wrong comes out in February of 2017. Tell us about it!

Lettie Osbourne is a kindergarten teacher who writes children’s books about manners to supplement her income. But when her publisher is sold and Lettie is forced to write erotica to fulfill her contract, she sets out to find the right Mr. Wrong to expand her rather vanilla horizons.

This was such a fun book to write. I can’t wait to share it with you!

Keep up with Natalie and follow her on Twitter at @Tallie_Charles!

Amber Mitchell on Great Characters and Writing Inspiration


Amber Mitchell is the author of Garden of Thorns, which is to be released March 6, 2017. She graduated from the University of South Florida with a BA in Creative Writing. She currently lives in a small town in Florida with her husband Brian and their four cats.

On your site you mention that you love movies. Which are your favorites?

I think my favorite recent movie release has to be Zootopia. It was adorable! I can always watch Clueless, the Harry Potter movies and pretty much anything with Ryan Reynolds (loved Deadpool). However, I think the best movie I’ve ever seen is The Princess Bride. I can pretty much quote every word of it. I saw it when I was about 8 and it inspired my love of fantasy.

How have these movies influenced your writing?

I’m not sure how much the movies I watch influence my writing. I enjoy that they have such concise plots (which is something I struggle with in my own writing). Anything with a fantasy setting always captures my interest since I admire how movie makers (and game developers) create even the tiniest details that many people won’t even see for the backgrounds and sets.

You also call yourself a papercrafter. Tell us more about that.

Sure! My husband and I began a small business a few years ago crafting all manner of nerdy subject matter out of card stock. We take the shapes and layer them in a shadowbox frame using foam adhesive dots. It creates a 3D picture. We can make pretty much anything and it’s a great way to relax.

Here is a link to our Etsy shop: A Paper Place by ThePaperPonyPlace


You seem to really be inspired by fairy tales. Which are your favorites? Have you based any of your writing on them?

There are three fairy tales that I’ve loved since I was a kid: Beauty and the Beast, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland. I was so excited to see Belle from Beauty and the Beast because of her adventurous spirit and her love of reading. I felt like I was looking at myself! The thing that stuck with me as an adult was how so many fairy tales were originally much darker than the tales I got as a child. I feel really inspired by that blend of childlike innocence and darkness. I think it’s also the thing that draws me toward stories where magic has a cost, a darker side.

As far as basing writing off them, I’d been searching for something that would be a good twist on the fairy tales I love but nothing ever seemed to be original enough. I finally came up with an idea I like for an Alice in Wonderland inspired story which I am writing right now. Alice’s theme of identity makes for a really good young adult novel and I’ll take any chance I can get to ship Alice with the Mad Hatter!

You’ve said that the characters are your favorite part of a novel. Who are your favorite characters and why?

I tend to fall for a different character in every book I read! A few of my favorites:

  • Tris from the Divergent series by Veronica Roth because I really admired her blend of toughness but also her vulnerability.
  • Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling because she was allowed to be clever and bossy but those are the things that made her endearing.
  • Yelena from the Study series by Maria V Snyder because of her unwavering strength

I recently finished Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo and fell in love with the Darkling!


Any tips on creating awesome characters?

Creating characters is something I still strive to achieve. When I was a newer writer, I worried too much about what they looked like and spent a lot less time trying to understand the world from their view. I’ve found that the best thing I can do in when writing a scene is to look at that scene from every character’s perspective. I do a lot of writing in first person perspective which I enjoy but it also gets me stuck in one perspective. Pulling myself out of the main character’s head and figuring out how the other characters in the scene would react (even if it goes against how you originally saw the scene or plotted it) makes for a more exciting and real character!

One other tip is to give each character a few ticks or mannerisms. Even if they never get revealed in the book, I think it goes a long way to helping understand who they are.

You used to be a 911 dispatcher, how has that position inspired your writing?

Being a dispatcher definitely gave me insight into the different ways people react to stressful situations. I also got much better at reading between the lines of what people said versus what they actually meant. I haven’t had a chance to write an officer into a story yet but I’m also very well versed in police procedures and investigative techniques. Many nights, I would question whichever police officer that walked into dispatch about what it feels like to hold a gun or what they saw on a regular basis.

On your website you write about facing your writing fears. What have been some of the biggest writing fears you’ve faced?

I believe the greatest fear most writers have is that nagging question: am I good enough? Am I good enough to write this book, am I good enough to get an agent, to get a publisher and when all that happens, will people like my book? We spend all this time putting words to paper, having our character face things we’d never face in real life, and infusing our books with things we might not even want to admit to ourselves just to turn around and put it out in the world and let people judge it.

The ugly truth is that failure is part of every step of the writing process and something every writer faces daily. I’m not sure I have a good answer on how to face this yet. I just remember that we can only grow by trying.


As you’ve traveled along the path to publishing your novel, what has surprised you about the publishing industry?

I’m a firm believer in doing research to prepare myself in whatever I do so I gathered as much knowledge as I could before going through the publishing process. Still, there have been a few surprises along the way. I’m in the very early stages of the process but the biggest two surprises have been how long each step of the process takes and my reaction to waiting. I’ve always considered myself a patient person but the publishing process has shown me that I’m clearly not. I’d always read stories of other writers constantly checking their email and thought that I’d be okay with just waiting for my phone to alert me if anything was going on but I was totally the opposite! Some days, all I could do was stare at my screen and wish for something to happen!

Your first novel, Garden of Thorns, comes out next year. Tell us more about it!

Garden of Thorns is a young adult novel that takes place in an Asian inspired fantasy setting. It follows 17-year-old Rose who escapes from the Garden, a burlesque troupe of slave girls, and joins a rebellion against the current Emperor. There she meets the handsome rebellion leader, Rayce, and tries to convince him to aid her in her quest to end the cruelty of the Garden and free the other dancers still held captive. But she harbors a secret that she fears might force the rebellion to use her as a pawn and she’s not sure who she can trust. There is lots of adventure and kissing and even a bit of science-inspired magic!

gardenMy book will be published by Entangled Publishing (who are amazing) March 6, 2017.

I’m so excited to share my YA fantasy novel Garden of Thorns with everyone! The main characters, Rose and Rayce, have been such a big part of my life for a long time and it has been so surreal to talk with actual people from within the industry who know and care for them as much as I do!



To keep up with Amber check out her website and follow her on Twitter @Amberinblunderl