How to Create Compelling Characters | The Mind's Guide (2023)

Kira-Anne Pelikan

is a writer, educator, and screenwriting consultant focused on helping writers create more compelling films and television series through evidence-based psychological insights. she isthe science of writing(2020). He lives in London.

AuthorChristian Jarrett

I have to know

I have a lot to do first thing in the morning, but I can't stop thinking about Nicole Kidman's character in the American drama I saw last ruin. It's a psychological thriller and Kidman is compelling. When characters are well written, they grab our attention and compel us to engage. They stay in our minds long after we've finished a novel, watched an entire series, or left the classroom. We reflect on their relationship, wonder if they did the right thing, and think about how they would act in different situations. But why are some characters more compelling than others?

As a writer, you may struggle to create your own compelling characters. Or maybe you're an avid consumer of novels, movies, and TV shows, and you're curious about what a makeup artist can do for you. Regardless, I believe that scientific psychology can provide a new and insightful perspective, and I will demonstrate thisHow are you.

Traditional methods have drawbacks

Many books that explore the art of fiction writing point out that the best way to create compelling characters is to make sure they are believable, complex, and flawed. Suggestions often include drawing on personal observations, giving the main character conflicting conscious and unconscious goals, and developing interesting backstories for the character. One of the most influential books of this genre isaspects of fiction(1927) British novelistEM Foster.He believes that the most compelling characters touch us emotionally because they seem real and continue to surprise us as we turn the pages. Forster described these complex figures as "circular", citing Madame Bovary, the romantic heroine in Gustave Flaubert's novel of the same name, and characters written by Jane Austen as prime examples.

In contrast, according to Foster, "shallow" characters have only two or three distinct character traits that can be summed up in a sentence and touch us in no other way than humor. When these shallow characters are reduced to supporting characters, they can support the main story without distracting the reader. For Foster, however, the most compelling characters exemplify human complexity. They also change and surprise us in compelling ways.

Like Foster, many other writing guides offer similar advice about the importance of creating character complexity—but in this case, what "complexity" is and how we create it is surprising and psychological. What about trusted characters? As a graduate psychologist and later writer, these questions preoccupied me during my doctoral dissertation. Early in my writing career, I received a message from a respected screenwriting consultant about one of my scripts. Aside from the character aspect, they are full of great observations and helpful advice. I totally agree that my character needs more complexity and is missing something, but the comments themselves are too vague to be helpful. What I need is a better understanding of what character complexity means so I can see exactly what my character is missing and how to fix it.

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Personality psychology offers another way

While some literary critics reject the idea that fictional characters are more than just textual constructs (ie writers' devices or tools), another approach—which I think is more useful for practitioners—is to see them as relating to real people. Since most authors want their fictional characters to be representative of their human counterparts, it arguably makes sense to examine and understand their characters using many of the same scientific models that psychologists use to understand real people. More specifically, the field of personality psychology can be particularly insightful, as writers describe their fictional characters by describing their thoughts, feelings, motivations, and behaviors—the very factors that psychologists believe make up personality.

The most widely used scientific model of personality is the 'Big Five'. The method originated with American psychologists Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal and was further developed by Paul Costa and Robert McCrae, among others. The philosophy of these pioneers was that what we consider to be the most important personality traits should be encoded in everyday language. Their factor analysis of personality survey data revealed five broad semantic groupings in the words we use to describe each other that have become the Big Five personality traits or dimensions: Extraversion-Introversion, Agreeable-Inappropriate, Neuroticism-Emotional Stability, Conscientious -Unconscientiousness, open to experience - closed to experience. The idea behind this is that these dimensions are independent of each other. So how well a person performs on one dimension has nothing to do with how well they perform on another dimension.

By applying this framework to understanding what roundness means for fictional characters, we have a very useful way of analyzing fictional characters and solving problems. Using this five-factor model, writers can check whether they are describing their characters on all five dimensions of personality and whether they are doing so consistently enough in their writing to evoke the feeling of another being. In addition, the Big Five model provides insights into how people typically change over the course of their lives—knowledge that writers can use to create more believable character transitions in fiction, and fiction consumers find that reflection on evolution of their favorite characters can be very funny. The background of the real character changes.

The Big Five model also gives us insight into why some roles are more exciting than others. In fact, rating ranges for all personality dimensions are usually includedThey are distributedIn crowds (of similar height or weight), most people we meet are moderately extroverted, moderately agreeable, moderately conscientious, moderately neurotic, and moderately open to experience. They probably won't impress because they are quite ordinary. Conversely, people were more likely to stand out from the crowd when they achieved extremes on at least one or two dimensions. These characters are remarkable because they are different from most people we meet on a daily basis. Whether real or fictional, we are more likely to remember these people precisely because they were different.

what to do

Examine your personality using the "Big Five" dimensions.

When we meet someone for the first time, the first dimension of personality usually impresses usExtroversion. Extroverts are outgoing and get their energy from social interactions. They are full of energy, steal the show and keep us watching. They are usually warm, sociable, active, confident and optimistic individuals who are easily attracted to stimulation. There are many fantastic examples - from William Makepeace Thackeray's cynical social climber Becky Sharpvanity fair(1847-48), for inventor and superhero Tony Stark in the Marvel Cinematic Universe film series (2008-).On the other end of the spectrum, introverts are naturally more serious and gain energy by spending quiet time alone or with close friends or family. While extroverts command our attention with big, confident gestures and wide-ranging conversations, introverts are just as persuasive because they reveal so little. If they are well written, they make readers want to know more about them. Take Mr. Darcy in Jane Austen's novels or Elizabeth Bennet's cold romantic interestPride and prejudice(1813) or Little/Chiron/Blake, the son of a very nice junkie in the Oscar-winning filmmoonlight(2016).

The second dimension we quickly discover in other people iscompatibility. Kind people are usually kind, trusting, cooperative, open, humble, and kind—traits we generally like in others. We see these traits again and again in likeable characters like Samwell Tarly, the butler of the Night's Watch.George R.R.Martins Fantasy-SerieA Song of Ice and Fire(1996-), the heroine of Woody Allen's romantic comedyAnnie Hall(1977). In contrast, unlikeable people are often more selfish, opinionated, suspicious, competitive, arrogant, and sometimes even deceitful. Unsurprisingly, when they struggle, opponents usually score high. However, some annoying side characters also help create strong protagonists. Consider Mildred Hayes, the title character of the BAFTA-winning filmThree signs outside Ebbing, Missouri(2017). When we learn that Hayes is fighting for justice for her raped and murdered daughter, she earns our sympathy for her directness, determination, and disregard for who she might offend. Strength of character often comes from the determination to fight for what is right and not compromise.

third dimension,Nervous, it has to do with the way we experience the world emotionally. People with higher Neuroticism scores tend to be more sensitive to life's ups and downs. They are often more prone to anxiety, anger, hostility and depression. You feel more vulnerable, more confident and more impulsive. In fictional characters, these traits often lend themselves to dramas that focus on the protagonist's inner journey. Take for example faded Hollywood actor Regan Thompson in the Oscar-winning TV seriesVogelmann(2014), his narrative is driven by his emotional vulnerability and his urgent need for critical approval. Emotionally stable characters, on the other hand, act as if they can handle anything that happens in the world. Therefore, the vast majority of action heroes rate emotional stability as very high.

On the fourth dimension, people who score highsense of responsibilityDriven by a sense of duty and responsibility. You tend to feel competent. They are careful, conscious thinkers. they are organized, self-disciplined and goal-oriented. As fictional examples, we could cite characters from William Shakespeare's Macbeth to Emmy-winning chemistry teacher-turned-pharmaceutical manufacturer Walter White.breaking Bad(2008-13). While goal-oriented or high-achieving characters work well for many types of protagonists, there are plenty of equally interesting characters on the other side of the spectrum. Irresponsible personalities tend to be more spontaneous and free-spirited. In a world where we have learned to be responsible and conscientious, their utter irresponsibility is often fascinating. Take Ignatius J. Reilly, the eccentric and philosophical protagonist of John Kennedy Tull's novelLeague of Idiots(1980) or John Bennett in the American comedy Refusing to Grow UpTed(2012).

The last major five dimensions areopen experience. People who are open to experience tend to be imaginative, willing to try new things, and intellectually curious. They are interested in different ideas and values ​​and often enjoy art and culture. Examples include the middle-aged stockbroker Charles StricklandW SomersetSomerset-RomanesThe moon and sixpence(1919) left his family to become an artist. On the other end of the spectrum, people who are closed to experience tend to be narrow-minded and closed to new ideas. Instead, they prefer something down-to-earth, familiar, traditional and close to home. Examples from fiction include Miss Pross, the straight governess in the novels of Charles DickensA tale of two cities(1859) and matriarch Violet Crawley in the British television seriesDownton Abbey(2010-15). Put a character who is open to experience against another who is closed to it and sparks will fly.

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Applying the "Big Five" model to Nicole Kidman's character Grace Fraser, a clinical psychologist in the TV series' private practiceto ruin(2020), their most impressive characteristics are related to their introversion, conscientiousness and emotional stability. There's something inherently interesting about the character, and when combined with her strength of character and emotional vulnerability, her unpredictable behavior is compelling. We get the feeling that she has secrets and keeps important decisions to herself. Coupled with her high level of conscientiousness, it becomes clear that she has difficulty overcoming her sense of responsibility to do what is right for her son and husband, and that these underlying conflicting motives are tearing her apart. Too bad the show's narrative arc isn't as good as its characterization.

Take time to get to know your personality

As a writer, if you don't yet clearly experience your character in your mind, try to see it from your life. Whether or not you consciously align your character with the qualities of those around you, it's often helpful to refer to real-world observations when you need more detail about the character you're developing. This can mean observing a person's behavior, their speech patterns, certain words they use, or even events that have influenced them. I haveResearchthereHowThe Big Five are associated with everyday behavior - even the way people walk and their physical presence. ForExampleMen who are taller, more muscular, and physically fit tend to score higher on extroversion—you can use these associations to stimulate your imagination, for example, to make your portrayals more realistic or more surprising and unusual.

Another option is to try casting your character or create a mood board that represents your fictional avatar. Don't limit yourself to using photos of actors - photos of people you find online can be just as useful. It is interesting that they existEvidenceWe can accurately assess every dimension of personality except conscientiousness from a neutral image of a person's face. The avatar mood board allows you to visually discover new aspects of your personality that you previously had difficulty recognizing.

Calm down. Identifying your role is often a process that requires a lot of reflection. Newly Published NovelistsI'm learningA Durham University study in conjunction with the Edinburgh International Book Festival found that it took a while for people to start experiencing their characters as if they had separate services and felt like they were coming to life in their minds. For some writers, this may not happen until midway through the first draft.

Think about how your readers will emotionally interact with your characters

Some characters stand out because we understand their plights or stories. For example, one of the characters already mentioned, Mildred HayesThree signs outside Ebbing, MissouriWe sympathize as we learn that she is fighting for justice for her murdered daughter. ResearchstimulationThis is more likely when we think of a character as the good guy, or at least the best of a bunch of bad guys. We can also admire some of their qualities: personality traits associated with high pleasure are often liked by others, as are humor and intelligence. When we like a character, we are more inclined to support them and understand their situation. we get moreEmpathyThe more emotional we feel about a character, the more emotional we feel about their experiences. However, we can connect with characters for reasons other than liking them, such as finding them interesting. These characters can be impulsive, unpredictable or especially dangerous. Or they lie or keep secrets that annoy and fascinate us. If your characters offer none of these, they are unlikely to hold readers' interest in the long run.

If your role changes, make sure the change is believable

While our personalities are often thought of as fixed and resilient, decades of longitudinal studies of the same individuals have shown that our personalities tend to mature over the course of life. The average person becomes more emotionally stable and comfortable throughout life, their conscientiousness peaks in middle age, and their extroversion and openness to experience declines with age. These are modest effects, so many people will resist the trend, but it can be useful to know the general patterns that represent a character's life. In fact, we often see similar character arcs in fiction, even if they are usually compressed into shorter periods of time.

Just like in real life, readers also expect the characters to betransformedEmotionally intense life events, whether positive or negative, because these events provide people with a sense of purpose and identity. Returning to the example of the character Mildred Hayes, the murder of her daughter inspires her lonely pursuit of justice and gives her a reason to live. While many people are left with deep scars from certain traumatic events, others can thrive after a stressful event. existstheory of everything(2014) is a biopic about theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. It has been suggested that he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, which causes his characters to seize every moment and live life to the fullest. After receiving an incurable diagnosis, the character has arguably experienced post-traumatic growth, with people reporting finding new meaning in their lives and having closer, more fulfilling relationships.

The highs in our lives also have the potential to make us better. in the children's classicsecret gardenIn Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel (1911), the life of the 10-year-old protagonist Mary is greatly enriched by the discovery of the eponymous garden. She opened her eyes to the world and the feelings of other people around her. Research shows that it is the emotional intensity of these life events that can transform us, for better or for worse. When writers depict such riveting experiences in their narratives, they are not only dramatic but also believable agents of character transformation.

Takeaways - How to create compelling characters

  1. Traditional methods have drawbacks. Writers are often instructed to create complex characters, but the details of how to do this are few. A particular challenge is to create believable and surprising characters.
  2. Personality psychology offers another way. The "Big Five" model of personality psychology provides a comprehensive framework for thinking about personality traits. The five main dimensions of personality form the core of character and determine how the character interacts with the world, relates to others, experiences the world emotionally, takes responsibility, and even speaks.
  3. Examine your personality using the "Big Five" dimensions.. Great stories begin with complex characters. Be sure to capture this complexity of characters by showing the sub-traits that express them most strongly on all five major personality dimensions (Extroversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, and Openness to Experience). Since the most memorable characters are memorable because they are different, think about how your character will stand out from the crowd.
  4. Take time to get to know your personality. This is a process that requires a lot of thought. If you need more details about the character you're creating, such as, for example, their behaviors, language patterns, certain words they use, or even events that affect them, it's often useful to base them on actual observations.
  5. Think about how your readers will emotionally interact with your characters. When we like a character, we are more inclined to support them and understand their situation. The more we sympathize with a character, the more emotionally we react to their experiences.
  6. If your role changes, make sure the change is believable. If your character takes on a variety of different traits at different times without achieving consistency, it will be difficult for your readers to understand who the character is. Instead, these out-of-character actions are the most educational and compelling given the character's background and past. Use emotionally intense life events as catalysts for role transitions.
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ifEM FosterIt is worth noting that the most captivating characters are not only round or three-dimensional, but surprise us in incredible ways. The Big Five dimensions of personality describe consistent patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving that we experience when we feel most "authentic." In reality, however, most people tend to show significant differences in their behavior.Appearthey are contradictory, even irreconcilable.

So, while our characteristics play a role in the long run, our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are also influenced by our moods and emotions, social context, and internal goals. The consistency we experience in our behavior and the behavior of others—that is, in what we consider our personalities and theirs—isit's after. Extroverts are often the heart and soul of the team in social situations, but when work calls for it, or when they're upset or in a bad mood, they're likely to be calm and thoughtful. Introverts are usually most comfortable in the company of close friends, but they can also surprise themselves by telling stories at parties and dancing the night away. However, constant out-of-character behavior can be tiring, and in real life this rarely happens without a major personality change. So we're pretty sure that your fictional character will be capable of anti-character behavior in a scene that makes sense given your character's social or emotional context if it goes on for too long without proper justification (and it might actually lead to long-term personality-changing events, including brain injury, psychological trauma or major life events such as a complete career change).

Some of the funniest anomalies happen when we are in danger. As a fictional example, take Stieg Larsson's world-class hacker and researcher Lisbeth SalanderMillenniumSeries (2005-19) and its film adaptationThe Girl with dragon tattoo(2009/2011). Salander is reclusive and submissive in every sense of the word, but when physically threatened, she becomes not only hyper-aggressive, but sadistic. The key to believability is that it makes sense given the context and her traumatic background as a rape survivor. Just as importantly, Salander acted this way every time she faced a potential male attacker. We understand their behavior as part of their behavioral habits. There is a realistic consistency to the way her traits interact with her situation.

The most compelling characters draw from the most intriguing elements of our human nature, constantly revealing truths we rarely think about. They give us a deeper understanding of ourselves and the different ways we behave in situations we have never encountered before. We read, observe, and interact with characters not only to be moved and entertained, but also to learn. How would we react to this situation? what will we do If we met a similar person in our life, what knowledge could we gain from a closer examination of this personality that would be useful to us? How is this situation? How should we react? Who should we trust? The most compelling characters take us away from our own experiences and offer experiences so tangible to others that we willfully ignore our own reality and immerse ourselves in the imagination of their author. It reminds me that there is a show I absolutely must return to and a character of my own to write.

links and books

Use this free personality to examine your Big Five personalitycontrol.

Weigh the virtues and vices of your character in the light and in the darkTriadPersonality. A more believable character will have an even mix of good and bad traits, although most tend to lean towards the positive.

Find out more about the Edinburgh/Durham University International Book FestivalResearchLearn how published authors experience their characters as independent agents, then try some of the character development exercises used in this study.

Create a more believable role reversal by listeningPodcastDiscuss with psychologist Wiebke Bleidorn how our personality changes over time.

Discover more psychological tools to help you develop characters in my bookBuch The Science of Character Building: Using Psychology to Create Compelling Fictional Characters(2020). Includes chapters on creating characters using the Big Five, the effect of personality on dialogue, and creating supporting characters with dynamic relationships, character transitions, motivations, and emotions.

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Read more about the neuroscience behind character creation and plot development in the excellent book by Paul Joseph Gulino and Connie ShearsBuch The Science of Screenwriting: The Neuroscience Behind Storyteg Strategies(2018).

If your interests are more in line with a psychoanalytic approach to character development, read William Indick's insightful bookBuch Scenario Psychology(2004) the same is true for novelists.

noticeBuch Become Who You Want: Discover the Science of Personality Transformation(May 2021) by Psyche editor Christian Jarrett, which sheds more light on the character change.





stories and literaturecreativityCharacter

February 10, 2021


How do you come up with a compelling character? ›

What Makes a Compelling Character?
  1. Sympathetic (different from likable)
  2. Nuanced (they have layers)
  3. Flawed (they're not perfect)
  4. Active (they go after what they want)
Dec 16, 2021

How to develop a fictional character 6 tips for writing great characters? ›

  1. Establish the character's story goals and motivations.
  2. Give the character an external and internal conflict.
  3. Make sure the character has strengths and flaws.
  4. Decide whether the character is static or dynamic.
  5. Give the character a past.
  6. Develop the character's physical characteristics.
Feb 9, 2023

How do you create a compelling character fiction? ›


In my own work, I've found that the art of crafting such fully realized characters can be boiled down to four crucial elements: a driving need, desire, ambition or goal; a secret; a contradiction; and vulnerability.

How do you make a character guide? ›

Steps in this guide
  1. Start with a character archetype.
  2. Add specific characteristics.
  3. Build the backstory.
  4. Give them quirks, faults, and flaws.
  5. Give your character an arc.
  6. Add visual references.
  7. Organise & refine.
  8. Create the rest of your characters.

What makes a character stand out? ›

So there you have it. My measures of a great character come down to three qualities: page presence, unexpected reactions, and profound stakes. It's those traits that lend a character the power to evoke a strong emotion in a reader, that make them stand out.

What is the key to telling a compelling story? ›

A good rule of thumb is to start in the action of the story – this will draw people in. From there, ask yourself if you'll tell your story in chronological order, or if you'll start at the end and find your way back to the beginning, or if you want tell it in a series of flashbacks instead of a linear structure.

What are the 5 ways to build character? ›

Here are five ways to build your character:
  • Be Humble. Humility is the beginning of wisdom. ...
  • Live out your principles and values. ...
  • Be intentional. ...
  • Practice self discipline. ...
  • Be accountable.

How to develop fictional characters 8 tips for character development? ›

8 Tips for Character Development
  1. Establish a character's motivations and goals. ...
  2. Choose a voice. ...
  3. Do a slow reveal. ...
  4. Create conflict. ...
  5. Give important characters a backstory. ...
  6. Describe a character's personality in familiar terms. ...
  7. Paint a physical picture of your characters. ...
  8. Develop secondary characters.
Aug 26, 2021


1. The Power of Your Subconscious Mind (1963) by Joseph Murphy
(Master Key Society)
2. Three Magic Words (1954) by U.S. Andersen
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4. Three Magic Words By U.S. Andersen (Unabridged Audiobook)
(Brian Scott)
5. How You Can Use Secondary Headings to Control Pacing and Direction in Your Script
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6. MONEY MAGNETISM - How to GROW Rich Beyond Your WILDEST Dreams - FULL Audiobook by NORVELL
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