Posted On September 5, 2011 by Print This Post

10 Ways to Create Vivid, Compelling Characters, by C.J. Redwine

Good morning, RU Crew! Today’s post on creating vivid, compelling characters wraps up C.J. Redwine‘s HolyCowAwesome Story series. Let’s give C.J. a big round applause for presenting such a fabulous look into crafting a great story. But first, let’s checkout C.J.’s 10 ways to building awesome characters.

In our last Writing a HolyCowAwesome Story post, we’re going to look at ten ways you can create vivid, compelling characters. Characters are as integral to writing an amazing story as conflict and pacing. Your characters must be memorable, relatable, fascinating, distinct, flawed … they must leave an indelible imprint on the story. In fact, their choices, flaws, and agendas must drive the conflict.

How do you write characters that breathe life into your story? Here are ten suggestions:

  1. Understand your character’s backstory: You should be able to sit down and write each of the pivotal moments in your character’s past. You don’t HAVE to write them out, but you need to know these moments like you know your own. Your character doesn’t arrive on page one as a blank slate. The things that happen in your story aren’t the only things driving your character. There are wounds, agendas, fears, foundations, beliefs, misconceptions and more from your character’s past: What happens in the story must either reinforce or challenge these.
  2. Learn what music defines your character: This is a trick that works really well for those of us who respond to music. Get inside your character’s head and then create a playlist of songs that resonate with him. ( is an excellent place to create free playlists.) Every time you sit down to write this particular story, start the playlist. Before long, you’ll find those songs instantly transport you into your story’s world and more importantly, into your character’s head.
  3. Know what your character wants: You must know what drives your character—what motivates the choices he makes. In every single scene, your character wants something. If you can’t easily explain what your character wants in each scene, you’re either not delving deep enough into your character, or the scene is superfluous. A well-motivated character resonates with readers and drives the plot. Every character, no matter how minor, has an agenda in every scene.
  4. Give your character complicated relationships: I don’t just mean complicated relationships with the new characters he comes in contact with. Your character should have relationships fraught with pain, misunderstanding, anger, not-quite-healed wounds etc. that carry over from your character’s past. These relationships serve to give your character authenticity and help you to SHOW the character’s motivations rather than tell them.
  5. Develop your character’s voice: Each character in your story should sound distinct from all the rest, just like every person in your life sounds distinct from each other. A character’s voice is made up of his unique perspective, dominant personality traits, understanding of a situation, upbringing, longings, education, interests … you see where I’m going with this. No character will ever be exactly the same as any other character, and it’s your job as a writer to make sure you bring those differences to life on the page. For a master’s class in how to make a huge cast of characters all vastly unique, study the Harry Potter books.
  6. Know your character’s strengths: What is your character good at? Where does he excel? Look at physical, mental, creative, social, and moral traits and figure out where your character’s strengths lie. Once you know these, you know a) how this character will choose to handle conflict, b) what kind of situation/conflict will push him to his limit, and c) how to use these strengths against him.
  7. Know your character’s weaknesses:  Where does your character fail to excel? What are his flaws? Where is he likely to struggle, need help, or give in to temptation? Again, look at physical, mental, creative, social, and moral traits. Once you understand these, you know either what your character must overcome or what will be his Achilles heel.
  8. Write in deep POV: Depending on the type of story (and your narrative style), writing in deep POV can be an excellent way to create vivid characters. To do this effectively, you must SHOW your character’s emotional reaction as things happen instead of just telling the reader how the character feels. For example, if a character is angry, you can tell us he’s mad enough to punch someone or you can show him punching a wall. Writing in deep POV requires you to cut out author intrusion (telling) which often show up in long passages of exposition. Instead, you as the author disappear inside the character and show conflict, emotion, and the developing arc through action and dialogue.
  9. Give them opposites: A good way to really make your characters come off the page is to create a character who is the opposite of your hero in many ways. You can do this by having both characters share an agenda but have opposite methods for achieving what they want. You can set up two characters who have opposite agendas, but who share similar traits in how they work to achieve their goals. The end result will be tension and conflict, the primary drivers for any good story.
  10. Push your character to his limits: Expose your character’s fears. Cause your character pain. Push your character to the very edge of what he is capable of handling mentally, emotionally, and physically. Let your character battle his weakness and find strength. Those are the characters that burn themselves into our hearts and won’t let us go.

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How do you create vivid, compelling characters? Did anything in this list resonate with you? 


Tomorrow, we have a special lecture with the fabulous Margie Lawson. Stop by and see what she has in store for us this time!

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C.J. Redwine writes YA fantasy and is repped by the fabulous Holly Root. Her debut novel, DEFIANCE, will be published in Fall 2012 by Balzer & Bray. To learn more about C.J., visit her blog at

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26 Responses to “10 Ways to Create Vivid, Compelling Characters, by C.J. Redwine”

  1. Fantastic advice. I especially liked the idea of the music for a character. Thanks for posting the article i enjoyed it very much.

    Posted by Antonio Angelo | September 5, 2011, 12:47 am
  2. Great info! I’m going to bookmark this one 🙂

    Posted by Malia Mallory | September 5, 2011, 1:04 am
  3. Hi C.J.,

    Thanks so much for the great list. Love #10. I read somewhere that whatever fear your introduce in the beginning of your story make sure your plunge your character smack-dab into the middle of the fear at the end of the story. The 360 effect. Gotta say that I had fun with that in my previous story. 🙂


    Posted by TraceyDevlyn | September 5, 2011, 4:37 am
  4. Hi, CJ. Thank you for another great checklist!

    I like to come up with one word that describes my character and then see how I can make that flaw a strength and a weakness. In my WIP, my hero is honest. It’s been a lot of fun to make that honesty get him in trouble!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | September 5, 2011, 7:25 am
  5. And we have a winner! Congrats to Cia for being the first to email me the code.

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | September 5, 2011, 7:40 am
  6. Hi CJ,

    I try to make my characters people. Everyone you meet has a story. I play a quick game of 20 questions.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | September 5, 2011, 8:37 am
  7. Nice to hear music sets you in the story, too. Have you discovered other genres as a result of your characters? The more I write, the more my tastes are expanding. I’m a metalhead, and all about hard rock.

    My one character (YA romance) loves sixties music. Of course that was before my time, so I had to start hunting down music from the sixties. I discovered the girl groups–especially the Superemes, the Hollies, DC5, Paul Revere & the Raiders, etc.

    In another story, my character enjoys adult contemporary. Now I have Dan Hill playing while I type this!

    I mean, I wasn’t just strictly in one genre, I did listen to others, but not as much as I do now.

    Funny how our characters can lead us into new places.

    Posted by Mercy | September 5, 2011, 9:37 am
  8. Morning CJ…

    What a great list! One of my favorites is #9, using opposites. Brings out conflicts left and right! I can honestly say I don’t listen to music very often, but I’m off to play with the grooveshark site…you just never know!



    Posted by Carrie Spencer | September 5, 2011, 9:43 am
  9. Another great post – thanks, C.J.!

    I do #1 a lot – I’ll write out scenes that take place in the past and then delete them once they are clear in my head. (Well, not really ‘delete’ them. I save them…just in case.)

    #5 and #10 are tough, but I’m working on them!

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | September 5, 2011, 12:31 pm
  10. CJ! Another post to print out and put it in my writer’s notebook!


    Posted by Robin Covington | September 5, 2011, 2:48 pm
  11. CJ –

    Thanks for another great “Top 10” list. This is going to be a great help as I’m developing the characters for my newest story!


    Posted by Kelsey Browning | September 5, 2011, 5:42 pm
  12. Love the Grooveshark idea and this is a great list to keep handy. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Posted by Jennifer Probst | September 6, 2011, 9:33 am
  13. Love the list! Thank you. I’d say #10 resonated with me the most. In writing our characters’ fears, we sometimes/many times must come to terms with our own.

    Posted by Julie Robinson | September 6, 2011, 9:16 pm


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