A Writer’s Guide to Characters

It feels like writing characters should be easy. After all, we’re all people, we have a ready-made look at the inside of our own heads. So why is writing realistic characters so difficult?

Problem #1—Awareness

We just don’t pay that much attention to why we’re doing things, what we want, what brings us joy.

Writing the thoughts, feelings, actions, and motivations of a character requires a level of awareness and understanding that most of us don’t have. We just don’t pay that much attention to why we’re doing things, what we want, what brings us joy.

How to cultivate a Writer’s Self-awareness:

Start paying attention to yourself as a character. What motivates you? What triggers you? What brings you joy? What are your patterns? How do you react to stress? To disagreement? To pleasure? Not only is this a great way to improve your character writing, it’s also a great way to become an emotionally intelligent human being. Map out what you observe about yourself in your journal.

 Problem #2—Humans Aren’t All the Same

People aren’t a monolith. We aren’t all the same. We don’t all have the same emotional responses, the same experiences, the same patterns. Imagine how boring and predictable that would be! So even if I’ve done all the work of mapping out my own psyche, it really tells me nothing at all about what is going on in other people’s heads.

How to cultivate A writer’s awareness of other people:

Start paying attention to other people as characters. The only way to learn what is going on inside other people’s heads is to listen. Really listen. Ask questions, listen to podcasts, read opinion pieces and essays, there are endless sources of people talking about themselves in our world right now.

You might find it easier to start by listening to people who have radically different opinions, political leanings, or life experiences than you. Try not to have an emotional reaction to what they are saying, instead try to understand. Map it out, what motivates this person? What is their pain? What brings them joy? What makes them angry?

This kind of listening is also a wonderful way to develop real empathy and understanding of other human beings.

Problem #3—Stories Aren’t the Same as Real Life

In some ways stories are safer and more predictable than real life. People’s character is mapped out, it makes sense. I don’t know about you but I like it that way, it feels comfortable. If only real people would be so obligingly understandable! There are so many layers to real people that as writers we could never render them onto the page in a way that would feel complete.

My point is, its okay to simplify. Start with the basics and work from there. The point is to know your character well. To know what kind of person they are so you know how they will react, what they’ll say, what what they’ll do when the plot of your story happens to them.

How to Start Mapping Out a Character:

Ask yourself these questions.


  • What do they know/not know?
  • What are their skills?
  • What are their physical attributes?
  • What are their physical abilities?
  • How do all of the above help/hinder them?
  • How do they feel about all of the above?
  • How do other people feel about all of the above?


  • What are their flaws and blindspots?
  • What is their pain?
  • What do they want?
  • What do they think they want?
  • What are their triggers?
  • What do they avoid or hide from?


  • How do they cope?
  • How do they organize reality for themselves?
  • What do they believe?


  • What has happened to them?
  • How does this effect all of the above?

Don’t forget to include class, race, physical ability, sexual orientation, gender, and body size when you’re thinking this through. We often pretend that these things don’t matter or don’t make a difference but in truth we’re all affected by ideas of what is “normal” or “abnormal,” “better” or “worse.” If you acknowledge this when you’re creating your characters they’ll feel real instead of slightly flat almost-people.

How we feel about ideas of what’s “normal” or “best,” whether we agree with those ideas or not, has a huge impact on our behaviour, our choices, and our character.

I don’t mean that every character needs to push boundaries to be interesting or realistic, although we have had an outrageous number of helpless, able bodied, beautiful, straight, white, female heroines and strong, handsome, able-bodied, straight, white, male heroes in the last thousand years. What I mean is that every real person exists in a society which tells us what is “normal” or “best” whether we agree with those ideas or not.

How we feel about those ideas makes a difference. How we react to those ideas makes a difference. How the people around us feel about those ideas makes a difference. How they react to us because of those ideas makes a difference. All these things have a huge impact on our behaviour, our choices, and our character.

This week try your hand at mapping out a character. Let me know how it goes. I’d love to hear from you!

Banner Photo by Hisu Lee on Unsplash

I’m writing with you,

Laurie MacNevin, HF Associate Editor

Laurie is an editor, writer, and researcher. Her deep love of stories led to an Honours degree and a Master’s degree in English Language and Literature from the University of Windsor. Originally from Southern Ontario, Laurie has lived in Manitoba for more than ten years, exploring the stories, landscape, plants, and people of some of the most remote parts of the province including three years in Churchill and two years in God’s Lake Narrows First Nation. Laurie and her family now live on an acreage outside of Carberry.

Not a member of our FREE Book of the Month Club yet? What are you waiting for?

Book of the Month Club

Want a chance to win a free book written by a different Canadian author? Join our Free Book of the Month Club! Every month we review a book by a Canadian author and give it away to one of our email subscribers. Our goal is to share the work of other Canadian authors to help readers find other writers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *