SDCWG Conference Afterglow – Creating Characters, Not Bios

During the San Diego Christian Writers Guild Fall Conference, I attended a workshop held by Susan Meissner called “Writing The Novel Readers Can’t Put Down.” And while all of the advice she shared was solid, I found her tips on creating layered and lovable characters was especially thought-provoking.

A relatable character is the first step to any great story. If we feel a connection to the protagonist, we’re far more likely to care what happens to them. You can have action, suspense, and drama, but if I don’t care about the protagonist, there’s no tension pulling me in and making me wonder what will happen next.

Now, I’ve read many a story with unique and lovable characters, but how can I create one of my own? Susan Meissner presented several aspects of character development:

  • Characters must be multi-layered, not shallow
  • They should possess strengths and weaknesses
  • Everyone should have something they want
  • Their personalities are revealed by what they say and do

Your character is a person, as unique and complex as the people around us. Another guest speaker at the conference, Bodie Thoene, said something at the opening of her talk during our first general session. “DNA doesn’t tell the story.” Don’t write a character like a bio, or assume their heritage explains everything. Your heroine isn’t just a redheaded, green-eyed warrior princess. She should have hopes, fears, pet peeves, habits, favorite foods, things she’s grossed out by, and ways to handle stress. Your reader may see themselves in her quirks and flaws. In understanding her, they can admire and root for her.

Don’t write a character like a bio, or assume
their heritage explains everything.

Here are some tips for creating consistent personalities:

  • Interview your characters. Use icebreaker questions and think through how your characters would answer them. It may seem silly, but this process will help you to really know them inside and out so that when you’re writing the story you know exactly how they would react, and why.
  • Use Chinese and Greek astrology personality descriptions as a starting point. They’re basic, even stereotypical, but they make it really easy to go “character shopping” and then customize how they display those traits in unique ways.
  • Take a Myers-Briggs test as your character. The questions will force you to think about how your character would react in certain situations. It will also give you an accurate view on what motivates different types of people, their strengths and weaknesses, and what type of environment they thrive in.

Your character is a person, as unique and complex as the people around us

After doing all of that research, it would be easy to lay everything out for your reader, but Susan suggests that we treat our characters in the same way that we might treat a sibling. Yes, I might know everything about my little brother, but I don’t go around sharing every detail. Allow readers to come to their own conclusions about your protagonist based on how they talk, react to situations, and interact with others. Show, don’t tell. This will create a more believable character and a deeper connection to the reader.


 

How do you create complex characters? I’d love to hear about your creative process!

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