Character Building is vital in fiction. The most compelling characters are those who appear internally consistent and yet are capable of some sort of  surprise.

In an article I read recently, the author described several qualities great characters possess: a driving need, desire, ambition or goal; a secret; a contradiction; and vulnerability. Here is an explanation of each. As you read each description ask yourself as I have — do the characters in my stories possess these traits?

A Driving Need, Desire, Ambition or Goal

The fundamental truth to characterization is that characters must want something, and the stronger the want, the more compelling the resulting drama. This is because desire creates conflict.

A Secret

For your character, a secret is that inclination or trait or an incident from the past that, if revealed, would change forever the character’s standing in her world.

A Contradiction

We all know people who are both shy and rude, cruel but funny, bigoted but protective. This complexity is what can make a person inherently unpredictable, setting the stage for the kind of surprising behavior.


Nothing draws us into a character more than her vulnerability. When people appear wounded or in need of our help, we are instantly drawn to them.

Now that we have some general ideas about character types, let ask ask some questions about our central characters. This is a great exercise for the novice writer and the expert as well.

  • How would I describe this character in a single sentence?
  • What type of personality does this character have?
  • What is this character’s purpose in the story?
  • How is this character different from any other character in the story?
  • What makes this character interesting to readers?
  • What does this character care most about?
  • What are this character’s key physical traits?
  • What is the most important thing that has ever happened to this character?
  • What are the things this character cares the most about?
  • How does this character deal with problems?
  • What would it take to make this character change significantly?
  • What relationship does this character have with the other characters?