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How to Write Engaging Characters

15:00 EST - Aug 03, 2022

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Oksana Marafioti  Avatar

Oksana Marafioti

Oksana Marafioti is the bestselling author of AMERICAN GYPSY: A MEMOIR (FSG, 2012). Her writings have appeared in RUMPUS, SLATE, TIME magazines, and more. Oksana was the 2013 BMI - Library of Congress Fellow and the 2020 recipient of the Picador Excellence in Literature Award from the University of Leipzig, Germany. She is the founder of Lounge Writers, an online creative writing studio that offers craft classes to writers of all genres and levels.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

You can find Oksana as an editor through her Reedsy profile

My name is Oksana. Since I can remember, I was already writing stories. I originally lived in the former Soviet Union. I remember watching one of the Friday The Thirteenth movies — the one where Johnny Depp was killed very soon into the movie. I protested against that and decided to rewrite the story without realizing that I was writing fanfiction. I started doing this and never stopped. I got my MFA in my thirties. My memoir was published in 2012, it's called American gypsy — it's about immigrating to the US, the culture shock, etc. 

I also founded the Lounge Writers. You can find it at loungewriters.com. It's an online creative writing studio, and I invite other authors worldwide to teach. I've been a book coach for a while, and I edit a lot of books. This is how I know Reedsy, and I love doing that the most — to the point where I write my own stuff less. I just love editing and teaching writing. 

Introduction to the class

So, how to write engaging characters! This is one of my favorite classes to teach because I love creating characters and I feel like most stories run on the quality of their characters. Either they’re amazing or they don't do so well. Usually, when I pinpoint something that doesn't work or does work, it leads down to the characterization. It's one of the most important craft skills to learn. Many people ask me, especially those who are starting out, “Well, I don't need to learn about creative writing. I mean, you just...start writing.” 

This is partially true, it takes years to hone a skill. But there's also another part of it in addition to resilience and talent, and that other side is like the wheels that keep greasing the creative side. That other side is learning the craft of something. Does this mean that after you take this webinar, you'll know exactly how to create a character, and this is the only way to do it?

No, it does not mean that. The information in a class like this is meant to be used as a tool, especially when you are in the editing process. That's where this is the most useful. I don't know what level everyone's in, you might already be bestselling authors or just starting out — it doesn't matter. 

Write your book first, whatever the story is, let it come out. Be creative about it. Don't worry about whether or not your characters are good enough. But when you are going back and you're editing, or you have an editor who's doing it for you, use tools like these to strengthen the story. 

So this is what we're gonna be talking about ⁠— how to strengthen your story through knowing the craft skills that might be useful to create an engaging, compelling character.

I am going to start with a quote. This quote is by William Sloan, who wrote a book called The Craft of Writing:

“Tell me about me. I want to be more alive. Give me me!” 

This is his quote when he talks about characterization (creating characters). He says that because when we sit down to read (and this also applies to when we're watching a movie),  we want to experience the story as if it's happening to us. Even if it's scary, even if it's set on Pluto, it doesn't matter. Otherwise, we won't feel it, right?  So, suspension of disbelief is a very important part of the reading or viewing process - when you're sitting down and reading and you forget that you're reading, and your heart starts racing. So, characterization is all about creating a character that seems real. 

Let's go on to the next section. To relate to characters, readers must: 

  1. Find the character interesting. If you're reading a boring character, you're gonna stop
  2. They must find characters believable. 
  3. They must care about what happens to them. 

Now, by believable, I do not mean that the character must be human and must be a certain age, etc. I mean does everything about them (their actions included) make sense to the reader. I'm sure all of you have heard the phrase ‘out of character’. When we talk about something that a character does in a story and it's out of character for them, it's not usually a good thing. It's an indication that they're not believable enough. And of course, the reader must care about what happens to them, whether they're a protagonist or an antagonist. 

Have you met your characters?

How well do you know your characters?  If I were to ask you questions about your character, how easily would you be able to answer? You should know your characters. Even if all of those characters don't show up fully in a book, you should know them more than what the reader might know about them. 

What does this mean? So, this is a trick from, from theater - you bring your character onto the stage in character. That means the first time your character appears in your story, they're going to do something that characterizes them for who they are, even if they will change later.

This is really important because when most writers introduce characters for the first time, we don't really think through the scene itself. How are we presenting them in the first scene? What is it that they do the first time that the reader sees them? Believe it or not, first impressions do count. If you do have your book or your story already, find all the sections where your characters appear for the first time and see how you're presenting them. What is it that they're doing? And does that serve the story? Does that show the reader who they are? If not, some things need to be tweaked. 

How can you tell if your character is doing something out of character? You might not know, but if you have beta readers, friends who are reading your book, or your editor - they will know immediately. Something that's out of character for your character is something they wouldn't do. For example, if you have a character who's allergic to fish. And then a few scenes later, they're eating fish. So that's an example of something that's very out of character. And your reader will look at it and say, wait a second. They made this big thing about how they're allergic to fish, and now they're eating it? 

Now, characters in terms of their ambitions and their desires will change. I am not talking about a stagnant character who doesn't change. But something about their true personality should come out in the very beginning when we see them. Who are they? Book people are different from real people. So, when we're talking about characters in stories, we have to remember this one thing -  in real life, we are all multifaceted. You could be one person one day, the next person the next day. I'm sure you're all familiar with people saying “you're all over the place”.  But in a story, if you have a character that is all over the place, they might be difficult for your reader to understand. So, think of a few main character traits for your protagonists and your antagonists, and use those as the strengthening pulse or the backbone of who your character is.


Avoid telling us what to think of the characters. This applies to those of us who are writing memoirs, especially creative nonfiction, but also with fiction. The first instinct for many writers, especially beginner writers, is to tell the reader -  this character is a bad character. This character was really rude to everyone.

The was more acceptable in classics. In classics, we have a narrator who is the author themselves narrating the story.  Charles Dickens, for example, did that a lot. At that time, authors had the authority to tell the reader how to feel about the characters, but the contemporary reader really wants to see what the characters are about.

So, instead of telling us this character is greedy, show us an action that makes them greedy. It will feel real. The best way to persuade the reader to describe the character's reality and let the reader decide. If you want me to believe that this character is the worst person in the world, maybe the worst parent in the world, instead of writing a line that says, ‘this was the worst parent in the world’, show us a scene of them doing something. Something so unsettling that the reader will feel it. 

Character Exercise #1: 

Here’s what I mean by saying that we need to think of the main core character traits that our characters are made of. I have some examples here of characters, pretty much all of them are older characters from books and movies. 

  • Rumplestiltskin
  • Sherlock Holmes
  • Braveheart (William Wallace)
  • Inigo Montoya
  • Ebenezer Scrooge
  • Peter Pan
  • Norman Bates
  • Alice (in Wonderland)
  • Wednesday Addams
  • Or… pick your own

If you think of Sherlock Holmes, what is the main character trait that comes to mind? What is Sherlock Holmes all about?  When I think of Sherlock Holmes, what comes to mind is methodical. If I think of a Rumplestiltskin, I think of somebody who is deceptive. If I think of Wednesday Addams, I will say, I don't know, depressed.

When we think of Scrooge, we think greedy, right? Or short-tempered. Even though Scrooge makes a drastic change in terms of personality growth, there's still things there. What does this mean? In the beginning, when we identify the character by their character traits, we're setting up a scene along with the plot to tell the reader-  this is the stuff that this character will have to work with. This is the stuff that you, as a reader are going to be working with as well.

There's gonna be characterization, this person is going to either grow out of it or they're gonna change somehow, there's gonna be additional traits that overshadow the one we start with, but it's important for us as a reader to have an anchor. I don't mean that characters do not change. In fact, if you have a character that never changes, you probably need to rethink the plot because readers read books for change.

They want to see characterization, character, story, and plot development. They don't wanna see stagnation. 

If you apply this exercise to any character you love or hate, you will see that you choose a primary character trait for that character. And if you're really into analysis, you can go back to the book or movie and analyze the scenes where you see these things.

They will act in a certain way that determines these character traits. 

How do we create characters that will make an engaging story? The character doesn't necessarily have to be predictable or nice or good. Nowadays, the anti-hero trope is very much used and probably overused. Why do we love these? Probably because of things that what's happening in the world in the past couple of decades, because literature is always reflective of what we're going through as a society.

Three Ways of Writing Characters: Universal/ Typical/Individual


This is one thing that's really important to take note of - what kind of character do we write? Many people that I coach will say I want to write a universal character. Or they'll say I really wanna write a *typical*... this. 


There's a really great quote by Lauren Gonzalez that says “Fiction, lets you wander around and someone else's hell for a while and see how similar it is to yours.”It is very true because stories are about conflict. We have to remember that fiction is about stepping into someone else's shoes.

Universal vs. Typical vs. Individual

Let's say we know this and we'll say, I want to write a universal character or a typical character or an individual character. Let's look at the differences. The key to rich characterization or character development is in attention to detail that is significant. 

When we write universal characters, we usually create a dull character without an audience. A universal character means that you want to appeal to everyone. Is it possible to appeal to every reader? Every viewer that ever comes across your work? It is not. Let's just get that out of the way. It is not possible for everyone to love you. No matter how amazing your book is, somebody's always gonna hate it. 

Now, when we are writing a universal character, we are thinking that if I write a character that will appeal to everyone, then everyone will love it and my book. That usually results in a character that is not universal at all and is not very interesting. 

When we write typical characters, we often create and enforce stereotypes. This conversation about writing diverse characters, trying to avoid stereotyping cultures and groups of people is a big conversation today. And a lot of people are getting in trouble because they're writing just that. I was revising a book I wrote about 10 years ago, a satirical fantasy. I was surprised at how differently I was reading it this time around. I've revised it probably about seven times already, but this time when I was reading it, I was finding things that I was trying to do with writing a typical character and instead writing a stereotype. I ended up removing some things that felt typical to me 10 years ago when I wrote it first, but no longer do. None of us are immune to that. It is in the editing stages, mostly where you catch yourself doing that. What's important is knowing the tools that help you improve that. 

So, in both cases, when we are writing universal or typical characters, we are writing about all the things that are alike, not unique, right? Now my question about the typical is this — is there such a thing as a typical….writer, a typical man, a typical dog, or, you know, a typical person from Chicago?

Narrow it down as much as you can. There isn't, right?  So there isn't a typical …anything at all! This is why this can be dangerous because as soon as we say typical, we start researching stereotypes without sometimes even realizing it. And that's usually what comes out. So then how do we avoid writing a stereotype or how do we avoid writing a dull, stagnant character? We write individual, particular characters.

Writers do this through characterization, dramatization, which are the same -  they're the process by which the writer reveals the character's personality. So writing individual and particular, what does this mean? 

There's some tools that you can use to really get to know your characters. The story is not about a typical New Yorker. Or a typical five-year-old. The story is about them as an individual. What is it that they're afraid of as a person? What favorite food do they cook every day as an individual? Why do they not cook at all? So if you can avoid thinking about how to appeal to everyone, and how do I make everything typical or universal, and think about the unique experience of your characters, then you will create a character that feels real. There's something about them. Again, if you have favorite characters in movies and books, think about what things make them unique, and you will be able to make a list of things that make them unique.

Even if you haven't seen the movie in a while or read the book in a while, if they're your favorites, I guarantee you, if I were to ask you that, you would be immediately able to answer. Those are the things that stick in the reader's mind. 

So, keep that in mind. But also, to connect to the global discourse on writing diverse characters and ensuring that we're not writing stereotypes, we cannot please everyone. As long as we're true to our craft , sticking to really getting to know the people in our stories, treating them with respect that they deserve, we can write a story that we love. But that doesn't mean that we will not offend someone, someone who has had a very particular unique experience with something that you're describing.

And if that happens — where as an author, you have a book out and the reader reaches out and says, “I can't believe you just wrote this part” -  it's all right to apologize. Because in the experience of the other person, it might be bigger than it is in your experience.

This actually happened to a friend of mine recently. She just had a book out and it's historical fiction, wonderful books. And she had a writer who wrote to her and said, “You used the word "spastic" somewhere in the story, and I have a child who is neurodivergent. It was really hurtful, and I just stopped reading.”

She was shocked because she didn't mean it that way. Her book was set in the 1920s and this word was used by a character. At that time, that word had a slightly different meaning. But she still apologized and said, “I'm so sorry that this happened.”

And the reader was grateful for that. It's okay to take ownership of something that we do. But when you're writing, this is not our first priority. Our first priority is to write unique individuals that we then drop into the story. Who are they as people? Not as universal people or typical people.

What Makes a Character Engaging?

So what makes a character engaging then? So, let's say we are writing about a very unique individual. We're thinking about them as a person. Aristotle in The Poetics said that ‘“There will be an element of character if what a person says or does reveals a certain moral purpose. ” So a character has a purpose. All characters, even the minor characters, will have a major desire in a story. This desire will drive them through the story from the beginning to the end. They might get what they wanted, most of the time they get what they deserve. But how do we make them engaging? How do we make the reader hold on to the character, take them by their hand and walk with them through the entire story. That's our main concern as writers. How do we make the readers keep reading? How do we make viewers keep watching? 

1. They must be credible

We looked at that before - appropriate actions. ‘Out of character’ moments are usually a mistake. What does this mean? If you have a character who is set up as generally having a moral core of some sort, and you have a scene where they come across a little puppy on the street and they're kicking them and getting a lot of pleasure out of it, it's an example of inappropriate action. The reader will see that this is out of character and question why they're doing it. Now, this is an extreme example. Another more subtle example is that let's say you have two characters, partners in love. Then, one partner decides that they're going to get rid of the other partner (in whatever way you can think of). Now, if nothing has been set up to explain this action, the reader might question it. Let's say you don't have anything set up, which is usually the case in mysteries, then there's an investigation right? As that investigation unfolds, that action of them getting rid of their partner is somehow explained. However, if neither of those things are present in the story, the reader will question that. 

Has anyone heard of Chekov’s gun? If you have a scene and you show a gun sitting on a mantle on the fireplace and you never do anything about it, the reader will question it. Why is it there in the first place? Every time your character acts in a certain way, there should be a reason why they're doing it. At the same time, every time a character does something, maybe there's some reflection for why they're doing it, or maybe we're seeing it through an action that comes after. This stuff is often caught through the editing process, not in the first drafts. When you're editing or have beta readers, they might ask you questions like, “I don't understand why the brother suddenly didn't want to talk to his sister?” These kinds of questions should be an indication for you that there might be some out-of-character stuff that's going on that either has not been set up or is not explained sufficiently enough after. 

So, stuff in this class is really useful for editing and also for when you get feedback from people who are not writers themselves.  Let's say you have a family member who's reading your stuff, right? They're not writers. So they don't know the terminology. They really know very little and they tell you “I don't understand half of the stuff they do. I don't understand why they did this here. And then they did this other thing there.” If you are a sensitive writer, especially as a beginner, you might think that you're just a bad writer. And I really hope that more writers learn the craft so that this doesn't happen, because I feel like a lot of really great books have not been written because a writer has been given some weird criticism and stopped writing. So, instead of thinking, I must be a really bad writer, you say, “I think what they're talking about is credibility”. And then you go back to your story and you say, “Okay, where is this action and how did I set it up? Or should they actually even do this? Maybe I'll take that out completely.” 

So, everything that we're visualizing as a reader comes from the character's actions, their reactions to other characters' actions, how they appear, their tone of voice, and all these kinds of details about the characters.

So for those of you who are into story building and feel like you get overwhelmed with the fact that you need to spend 30 pages building the world because it's a new world, let's say on a different planet or whatever, you really don't need to do that. If you have characters and they're moving through the story, whatever they see and their reactions to what they see will inform the reader about how they need to react to it too. 

For example, let's say you have a character riding a horse down a dirt road. To us this might seem kind of like a medieval-ish setting, right? Horses, dirt roads, etc. But then suddenly, a flying car whizzes by, and the person in the car is like, “Hey Ellen.” And the person on the horse goes, “Hey Bob, long time no see.” That reaction tells us that these two things that seem abnormal to be together —  flying cars and horses — in this story are normal.

2. They must have a purpose. 

The desire that compels them to action must be powerful. Whatever the character wants in the beginning — whether they want to find true love, defend their family, or free their country —  whatever that is, must be really, really strong because it's gonna carry them through the entirety of the story. 

The story is a record of a character having a desire, and all the obstacles preventing them from getting what they want. So, it's those obstacles that they have to face throughout the story. This really is true, regardless of the genre. If the character doesn't want anything at all, and if they're perfectly happy where they are, there's really no story, right? The character's happily sitting in their cottage, drinking tea, having a great day, loving everything, loving life, and no wizard barges through their door. Anyone know what I'm talking about?)It is because the wizard barges through that door that the story begins. The character starts desiring something. The desire determines the reader's degree of identification, sympathy, or judgment. The desire is what makes the reader relate to some really unrelatable characters.

I'm sure that if I ever were to ask you to give me a really nasty antagonist, someone that you just love to hate, and then give me their desire — you would see that there's something there. The desire is not just about the ‘good’ characters having it. Maybe you have a cast of 12 characters, and you're just jumping from point of view to point of view, they all must have a desire. That desire will create sympathy, apathy, or judgment between the reader and their character, depending on who they are. 

3. They must be complex.


Conflict is at the core of character as it is of a plot. Actually, in all stories, we have dual story arcs. So we have the plot, the physical happenings. And in a regular long-form story (I'm generalizing here, it depends on the genre you have about), if you were to break down the plot, you would break it down into scenes. So in a general, standard story, you have about 42 to 45 scenes.

The conflict is inside the story arc of the plot, but we also have a character story arc that runs parallel. So physically, things are happening, but there's also an emotional level that is more important than the physical level. Because you could have Mount Vesuvius exploding and a character doing absolutely nothing — wanting nothing, desiring nothing, not even to die with a volcano — then you have a flat plot point. 

The characters also must be capable of change, even the bad people. Even the worst people. That is integral to the quality of the story itself. If we have a stagnant character, and they never want anything, they never change, then why am I as a reader reading the story?

You might want to write it to yourself, as a fun thing to do. And I actually encourage you to do that. Just see what happens. You might really love it, but then let other people read it and see what their reaction is.

Right so, the characters need to exhibit internal conflicts and contradictions. And we'll talk about this a little bit more.  These are called consistent inconsistencies. What does this mean? Internal conflict. You want something, but then what if something comes into your life and changes your perception of what you want?

This is very common in romance novels, where one character wants to be left alone. They never wanna be paired up with anyone. That's the biggest conflict in a romance, right? (Which, by the way, is the best-selling genre in the world to this day.) And then somebody comes along and changes their mind. This internal conflict doesn't happen overnight. They don't just change their mind, they fight against it. Any of you who have seen Bridgerton, it doesn't matter how you feel about it, but that's at the core of the story's conflict! It's the character’s internal conflicts, not really the plot. There's not so much going on outside physically. 

So we need to keep these things in mind. What makes a character engaging? They must be credible, they must have purpose, and they need to be complex. 


Characterization is the process by which the writer reveals the character's personality. And it happens over time. Now, as I mentioned, the story is a record of how a character deals with danger to their desire. Human character is in the foreground of all fiction and creative non-fiction. However, humanity might be disguised. George Saunders has some incredible short stories where he writes characters who are not human. In one of them, a can of tuna is the main character.

So, if you're not writing humans, you're still gonna be writing humans — disguised as not humans. So, there's a point of emotional contact. You give them a trait, and that trait is going to be human. And that will make them credible and believable. They want something. The desire. The can of tuna never wants to be opened, it wants to remain whole. It's a human desire to remain whole. The reason for this is that we relate to stories through emotions. 

I'm one of those people who say I'm very analytical. I teach critical thinking and logic at the university here, but when I'm a creative writer, I understand the reader can only connect to my story through emotions. So I need to reel them in, to put them inside of my characters and make them feel things. 

Fiction can only be as successful as the characters, I do believe that. I know there's a lot of high concept, Hollywood novels like Jurassic park where there's not that much character development and everything kind of focuses on the plot. So, we have room for all kinds of stories. Those characters might not be so compelling, but they work in tandem with the plot. Maybe they don't want as much, maybe the fact that they are stuck in this incredible environment and they have to just survive is enough for the reader and the viewer to stay in the story.

Methods Of Characterizations (Revealing Character)

1. Authorial interpretation: 

Miss Havisham had shut out infinitely more; that, in seclusion, she had secluded herself from a thousand natural and healing influences; that, her mind, brooding solitary, had grown diseased, as all minds do and must and will that reverse the appointed order of their Maker…

— Great Expectations, Charles Dickens

It is when you're telling the character's background, motives, values, and virtues as their narrators. Classics — Charles Dickens, Brontes — all of them were doing a lot of this. The reason for that is that we lived in a different world. Readers did not travel as much, and they trusted the author. As if the author was a teacher. This is not used as often nowadays, but this is not to say you cannot use it. It's still useful depending on what kind of a story you're telling. And maybe it's not something you're doing all the time, but sometimes you do need to come in as an author, as an omniscient narrator (if you're writing from a third-person omniscient point of view), and you need to interject.

2. Appearance:

His khaki sleeves were rolled over his sunburned arms, and he had the flat green eyes and heavy facial features of north Louisiana hill people. He smelled faintly of dried sweat, Red Man, and talcum powder.

— The Neon Rain, James Lee Burke

The way your characters look, their mannerisms, their gestures, physical traits, behavior and body language will tell the reader about who they are. Whether you want it or not, the reader will perceive it that way.

Often we will spend very little time on appearance, and sometimes, authors don't show the characters very well. Some people claim that the reason Twilight was so popular was that Bella was not really described in the story, and that the readers could just put themselves in the story. Whether that's true or not, I cannot say. What I will say is that you don't have to describe a character in terms of how they look in great detail. Still, their body language will tell us something about them, and their physical behaviors and traits and mannerisms, and gestures will definitely tell us something about them.

3. Action: 

Ender did not see Peter as the beautiful ten-year-old boy that grown-ups saw, with dark, tousled hair and a face that could have belonged to Alexander the Great. Ender looked at Peter only to detect anger or boredom, the dangerous moods that almost always led to pain. 

— Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

Characters must be capable of causing action and being changed by it. Whatever your character does, whatever act they perform will tell us something about them. 

4. Speech or Dialogue

“By the way, love that jacket, old man,” Bunny said to me as we were getting out of the taxi. “Silk, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it was my grandfather’s”

Bunny pinched a piece of the rich, yellowy cloth near the cuff and rubbed it back and forth between his fingers. “Lovely piece,” he said importantly. “Not quite the thing for this time of the year, though.”

“No?” I said. 

“Naw. This is the East Coast, boy. I know they’re pretty laissez-faire about dress in your neck of the woods, but back here they don’t let you run around in your bathing suit all year long.”

— Secret History, Donna Tartt

The good thing is that most of the time, if you know your character enough, this kind of falls into place. By the way, dialogue is part of the action in stories. The reader will immediately feel that if your dialogue is stagnant and you're just using it to fill things. And they will say this is not interesting. So, remember that whatever the characters say to each other must serve a purpose.  Whatever your character says will determine who they are. 

5. Thoughts

I am an invisible man. No I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe: Nor am I one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, simply because people refuse to see me.

— Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

Whatever your character's thinking will tell us something about them, and the characters cannot control their thoughts. So maybe your character is doing something, but they're thinking something different. Maybe your character commits an atrocious act physically, but in their mind, they're thinking, I cannot believe I'm doing this. This is wrong. The thoughts will be more telling. This is an example of a consistent inconsistency where there's a contradiction.

A great way to create a complex character is that once you know these five characterization methods, you can play around with them where there are inconsistencies. With the best fiction and non-fiction, you'll see these things. If you need proof, analyze books that you love and movies that you love. For example, your character's body language says one thing, and their thoughts say a different thing. Or the character's speech says one thing, but their actions counter what they just said.

So, play around with methods of characterization, usually, we have more than one in a scene. You can make them interesting by contradicting and making your character less reliable than you might think. This creates an incredibly rich subtext for the reader.

For example, a character could say in the speech, “I really do not love you, and I never wanna see you again.” Still, physically, something happens in their body language to indicate otherwise. Those are really emotionally connective scenes. They connect the character to the reader in a very compelling way, where a reader can feel it because the reader will feel like they've experienced this before. 

Character influences POV Setting, Plot, and Dialogue

1. Point of View 

Whatever is revealed in the story world will depend on whose head we’re inside. So, if you’re in one person’s head the entire duration of the story and its first point of view, we can only see the world through their perspective, right?  

Their thoughts, personalities, experiences, desires, and fears influence how the reader perceives the story. 

When you're jumping points of view, then you will switch, and we'll have multiple points of view of the same world perceived by different personalities

2. Setting. 

We really don't need to world-build as much as we do — for those of you who are writing sci-fi fantasy, alternate universes.

I've read books where for the first 50-100 pages, everything is being set up. I don't need a setup. I need to see what the emotional conflict is as soon as possible. I need to see who am I rooting for.

Worldbuilding can be accomplished in two ways: 

  • Exposition. 
  • Character reactions to surroundings and circumstances (cause and effect). The best way to world build is through the character's reactions to their surroundings.

If we have a character walking through a glass-domed terrain and they look up, and there's a sky up there, we realize that we're in a space colony or something. And it's perfectly normal for them. We then don't really have to then explain where we are, we can see it from their perspective.

3. Plot

What happens in the physical world (external plot) and the internal world is a cause-and-effect interplay between characters, their surroundings, and circumstances. Your characters must react to things that happen in the external world. If they stay immobile and oblivious, there better be a good reason for doing that. If you haven't introduced a good reason for that, the reader will question it and say I don't understand why this just happened. 

Characters are either responsible for the change or are influenced by the change. Change is seldom removed from character. 

4. Dialogue

Either people are afraid because many of us think we're really bad at dialogue, or we think we can just write it because we can speak after all. 

Dialogue in fiction in books is stylized, it's very different from how we speak in the real world. A six-year-old speaks differently from an 80-year-old. The words a character uses tells the readers a lot about who they are in many different ways.

To finish off, I'll leave you with some exercises you can use to develop your characters and how they fit into your story.

Exercises To Develop Characters

1. Journal. It’s a way to mine for observations, back story, physical attributes, behaviors, quirks, and voice. 

The writer…

  • … moves past invention and into imagination
  • … becomes the character
  • … hears the character speak
  • … knows all the influences: age, gender, education, etc.

Some questions to consider when journaling:

  • How do they think?
  • What do they feel?
  • How do they view/react to certain situations compared to how others might?
  • What’s their mental state?
  • What are their goals in the story? 
  • What are the influences that go into making them? Age, gender, race, class, etc. 
  • What are the details of their lives? 
  • What are their consistent inconsistencies? 
  • What do they want in life? 
  • Can you make a dramatic external alternation if a character is based on a real person?
  • Can you identify a mental or emotional point of contact if a character is imaginary or alien to you? 
  1. Conflict. Conflict is at the core of character as it is of plot.

Cheryl Moskowitz’s character imaging exercise: Make a list of qualities, images, and actions that describe incongruities (inner conflicts) in your personality. 


  • Silk scarves to the knees
  • Frowns at library noises
  • Plays classical piano
  • Throws costume parties


  • Hands out candy
  • Bites nails when nervous
  • Wears chucks with dresses
  • Unexploded hand grenade

4. Individualize a cliché character. Aging film star, staggering drunk, angry boss.

5. Write a scene from your life where a discovery led to a quick decision. Rewrite with a drastically different character. 

6. Two friends are in love with the same person. One describes their feelings honestly and well; the other is unwilling/unable to do so but betrays their feelings through appearance and action. Write a scene. 

7. Dig through their trash. In the sociological science of Garbology, human habits are assessed by studying what people throw out. Write a character sketch by describing the content of their wastebasket or garbage can. Let us guess what kind of a character they are. 

8. Why would they do that? Write a scene in which a central character does something palpably outrageous, violent, cruel, foolhardy, or obscene. Let us know that the character is behaving justly, kindly, or reasonably because we see into their minds.