Creating compelling characters – Basics

creating compelling characters

How do you go about creating compelling characters who jump out of the page and haunt your readers’ dreams? This is Part 1 in an ongoing series that will explore just that. The basics are anything but, as you will see, however it will all be worth it when you see fans cosplaying your characters at the con.

Description, mood and feel

Creating compelling characters is a deep and interesting subject, due to the mixture of psychology and creativity that embodies the process. I’ve started out wanting to write a quick article on how to characterise for your novel, but the dang planning document ran over three pages before I stopped. I guess it should be an e-book. I’ll get right on that. But for now, I would like to provide you with a primer for creating compelling characters.

Basic character impressions

Not all characters need more than the basic impression of them for your reader to be able to get an impression of them. Think of it like waiting at a supermarket checkout and you’re describing people walking past to the cashier. The quickest character impression is made up of a noun of vocation and an adjective of manner. I first came into contact with this basic description tool from the writing of Dwight V. Swain.

Noun of vocation

The noun of vocation describes what the character does, such as urchin, used car salesman, stay-at-home mom, or lawyer. These basic terms give you the beginnings of figuring out the character and what they’re like. A used car salesman will usually appear to act differently to a lawyer or a stay-at-home mom. The reason this is so effective as a way to create compelling characters, is that the reader already has a preconceived notion of how a person with such a tag would act. Use this in your favour.

Adjective of manner

The adjective of manner colours the character’s way of doing things, for example a lawyer can be described as hawk-eyed, which immediately brings an idea of the character to life. What if we called the lawyer frazzled? How different is this image from the previous example? This type of behavioral quirks are distinctive and unique to each character and even they might not be aware of it.

Be clear about your noun of vocation and adjective of manner – be brutal and straight to the point. That way, your reader will pick up on the character quickly without undue description.

This might be enough for bit players, who hop onto and off the stage of your novel without any further impact on the events. For characters who will stick around, a bit more work is required. Creating compelling characters may start with these two descriptors, but to make them truly stand out, a little more work is required.

Role tag

First off, characters need a purpose. Roles are usually one word that describes what the character does in the story, and what they bring to the story. This can be hero, victim, love interest, villain, anti-hero, or any other role your story requires. The only reason for this step is to make sure you don’t have too many of a single role hanging around, and can point out where you can roll characters sharing roles into single characters.

Appearance tags

This one’s easy, these tags describe what the character looks like, such as blonde, red-head, peg-leg, ridiculously, ridiculously good looking, demure, avant-garde, old, young, of indeterminable age, whatever you need the character to be, this is where you put it.

For example, I’ve tagged a character as a relentless police detective (adjective of manner and noun of vocation), with cropped salt-and-pepper hair, weather-beaten features marked by habitual alcoholism, a strong jaw, and a bushy mustache.


A photo can help, the internet is full of photos. If you have an idea in mind, have a look for a photo that matches the idea of your character. Sometimes even a celebrity’s photo can serve. You’re not publishing the photo for any gain so there’s no harm in stealing a few for your research. For example, my police detective above turned out to look somewhat like the older vintage Burt Reynolds, should Burt have needed to work outdoors for an extended period of time while drunk. My Evernote has a whole folder dedicated to interesting looking people.

Speech markers

People often have different ways of saying things, usually influenced by socio-economic and locality factors. Creating compelling characters demands that you as the author take this into account as well. Many factors are involved in the creation of modes of speech and quite a lot of information can be conveyed this way without blatantly explaining anything in the text. Speech markers are a way to describe a character’s upbringing and past exploits without needing to tell the reader about it.

For example, no matter how well dressed and groomed the person appears, the way they talk can reveal a more humble upbringing. The opposite is also true. Speech markers also help identify the character to the reader, such as if the character uses certain phrases or turns of speech repeatedly, like, “for goodness sake”, or “I’ll bet”, or even “right?”

Sounds like

How a character sounds can also be taken from people you know or celebrities as with the photo example. Good old Burt will most assuredly remain the inspiration for how my police detectives sound. Hell, at this point if they ever make the movie they may as well cast him to play the role.

Shall we go a little off the reservation?

The above will give your character all the attributes required to be unique, we’ve not touched on depth and the effects of the character’s backstory on characterisation at all, which I will cover in a later article. For now, I’ll give you the one thing that’s helped me get under the skin of my characters quickly and effortlessly. From this one trick, I usually develop depth for my characters.

Theme song

I give my character a theme song. Something that I can relate to the feel and emotional mood baseline of the character. This I consider a great asset. Should I want to write from a character’s perspective, I listen to his theme song just before starting to write. It puts me in his head quickly and makes me emotionally invested.

Can you guess the theme song I picked for my detective?

For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Metallica.

Suddenly an additional layer of characterisation became available. My detective became a war vet, struggling to deal with his past. The song’s heavy approach and consistent beat became his heartbeat and temperament. He became brutal, but methodological. He had moments of lapse, just like the song, and the song’s lyrics told me why he became alcoholic. It made me feel for him, listening to that song makes me want to write about him. There is also some nice resonance with the Earnest Hemmingway novel of the same title, so my detective got some of Robert Jordan in him as well.

What creative ways have you used to bring your characters to life?

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