How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss: how to create your characters

Welcome to the 3rd part of our series on how to write fiction without the fuss.

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar on the right —>>>

How to write fiction without the fuss Writing fiction doesn’t need to be torturous or difficult. In this series of articles novelist and publisher Lucy McCarraher shows you how to do it easily and well.

Character Development

With an overview of your plot in place, let’s work on the most important element of any piece of fiction: the characters. Every other aspect of your story – plot theme, genre, exposition, engagement – depends on the characters you create to wrap them around. They are the single element that will keep your readers absorbed; even one believable, fascinating character that inhabits their imagination can make up for less than perfect plotting or writing style.

Think back to any memorable novel, story, film or TV series and see if it wasn’t one or two of the main characters who kept you reading or viewing, stayed with you long after the end, and who you still see, hear, love or hate in your head, even if you’ve forgotten the details of the plot.

A key step to creating such characters is the ‘composting’ process. It is vital to spend time living imaginatively with your cast before committing them to paper, letting them take shape over time, growing from a look or single trait into a rounded personality with a life of their own.

HowToWriteBetter: fiction, character development

Would you know how to create
a truly credible character?

Often, your main protagonists will have introduced themselves as the starting point of your novel or short story; surrounding or lesser characters may take longer to materialise.

To build a credible character, you could start from someone you know, from life, the media or other fiction, making sure they grow into an original creation as you envisage them in your own settings. Never leave a character recognisable as a real person – for legal as well as creative reasons!

Alternatively, start from an archetype – heroine, villain, confidante, trickster – or a plot requirement – jealous ex, interfering parent – and gather physical and emotional traits around this.

Although the details may not play a part in your story, you, the writer, must know all your main characters’ ‘back stories’. Where they were born, grew up and were educated; how they were raised in what kind of family; the key emotional events in their lives before they arrived at your starting point – all these will have produced the attitude, motivation and purpose which are essential to writing a convincing character.

Whether you have all this material at your fingertips, or feel stuck on some areas, the next section of your story’s ‘bible’ is getting your characters into written form.

Characters aren’t robots: you don’t design and build them then expect them to perform a function; they must be people who develop organically through their own actions, reactions and interactions.

This exercise, though, will give you a solid grounding from which to further build your plot and storyline.

Whether you are writing your fiction ‘bible’ on paper or electronically, start a new section called Characters. Assign a page to each main character headed by their name, and perhaps half a page to each lesser character (don’t get carried away by detail at this point).

Depending on the structure of your work, you might want to group them in sub-sections such as Main Plot, Sub-plot 1, Sub-plot 2; or in different families or settings. The more order you bring to your ‘bible’ now, the more clarity it will offer when you start writing.

Give each character a factual background: date of birth, place of upbringing, family of origin, education, dates of key life events (marriage, trauma, career achievements…) their current home and environment; and brief physical description, although this is less important to readers than you may imagine, they will always create their own picture. If possible, assign them an archetype.

Follow this information with a one-line description of their role in your story, such as ‘Main protagonist, unwilling seeker of truth about his mother’s murder, falls in love with X after initial dislike’. You can return to this succinct summary to keep your character and plot on track while writing.

After the facts, allow your imagination freedom to describe your character’s emotional base – especially the motivation for their action and purpose in the story.

You might want to note down a typical snatch of dialogue or scenario. Quirks are a great way of signposting them to the reader, such as turns of phrase, beliefs, habits or tics – although don’t let these become clichés or excuses for real characterisation later.

Keep these descriptions to the suggested length to clarify and focus your thoughts and keep your full creative powers for the story itself.

Next week we’ll work on the setting of your fiction.

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy McCarraher


Managing Editor, Rethink Press.

Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”...over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published

…AND, check out Lucy’s novels here


photo credit: Humphrey King via photopin cc




  1. Hey Lucy…ur blog is of great help. I have written 3 books until now and I enjoy creating dark characters more. They turn up to be larger than life. At times thoughts clutter my mind n can’t seem to get anythg am trying to write a love story n my mind is blocked. Where do I look fir inspiration?#amwriting

    • Hi Supriya – lovely to see you here and share your experience. Lucy will be along later and I’m sure will answer your question expertly as always! Suze.

      • Hi Surpriya, so glad it’s helping you. I know what you mean about dark characters, sometimes they are definitely more fun and interesting to develop than the light ones. I would say when you get blocked and there are too many thoughts floating around your head, it’s time to stop and have a break. Going for a walk, doing something mundane or physical, or simply sleeping on the problem can help. Your conscious mind (or working memory) can only process a certain amount of material at a time, and when it gets information overload, the processing becomes inefficient. What you have to do then is allow that information to feed back back into the subconscious, which can deal with any amount of data, and does so in a much cleverer way. You can only get this to happen by stopping the conscious thoughts – which is what happens at night when you sleep – so you have to divert your mind while this process happens. This is why you so often find that even with something as simple as not being able to remember a word, when you stop thinking consciously about it and trying to find the answer, after a break it appears to pop into your mind of its own accord. That’s the subconscious doing its stuff – and it’s often the same when you’re working creatively. Step away, stop thinking about your characters – if necessary divert your attention by doing something very different – and you’ll come back to it fresher and to find your subconscious has probably come up with the answer to your dilemma. This might take an hour, a day or a week – but learn to trust your subconscious and allow it time to work.

  2. I’ll add that setting is an integral part of character. At least for me, the character develops, reacts to, and reacts against the setting that they are within. Different setting bring to light various aspects of character that would remain hidden otherwise. For example, if Dave visits his loving grandparents in a home that has housed four generations of their family, it illuminates Dave’s character in one way – but if he is at the mall with a vindictive ex brother-in-law, then a different set of characteristics are shown.

    I wonder: is it possible that a character consists of what a reader is shown and believes about a character and not what a writer believes a character to be?

    • That’s a very interesting question Jeff, and I am looking forward to reading Lucy’s answer. In the meantime thanks for commenting and please come back again soon!

      • Hi, Jeff,
        I completely agree that setting and characters are intertwined and characters cannot exist in a vacuum. That’s why I suggest that writers “know” their characters’ back stories well, including where they were brought up, where they currently live, work, etc. As many novels are also about some kind of physical journey, the way a character travels through and interacts with the writer’s imagined world can be the crux of the story. I’m going to talk about creating settings next week and, while I agree that the two are inseparable in one sense, in this kind of “without fuss” course, I need to address these aspects of fiction writing individually.
        A lot has been written about whether a piece of fiction is what the writer intends, or what the reader interprets. I think it has to be both – for every reader, the experience of reading a novel or short story is individual but will somewhere coincide with the writer’s. If you asked ten readers to draw or describe Elizabeth Bennett, you would have ten different portraits. A number of people who know me personally and who read my novels about Mo Mozart say they picture her as me – although I go to some trouble to describe her as looking quite different! But one reader told me she visualised her as Dawn French (again, not what I think I’ve written!). On a rather higher plane, Chekhov wrote his plays as comedies, but directors usually stage them as verging on the tragic. So whatever you write, perhaps especially in regard to characters, will not necessarily be taken in the same way by every or any of your readers. But what is important is that the essence of the character a writer has created fires the imagination to produce something believable and engaging for the reader.

        • Despite being a nonfiction wallah, I’ve often been described as a “very visual writer” – and certainly when I read fiction I almost immediately form a picture in my mind of what the characters look like. Often, when watching a movie made from the book, I am horribly upset by the fact that the characters don’t look like my visions! As you say, Lucy, readers’ interpretations are likely to vary enormously and within that category you need to include film casting directors … and in the case of Hollywood, lawyers… 😉

        • It sounds that for every story there are two stories written: the one that the writer envisions and the one that the reader imagines. Do most professional writers (I don’t know – as I am not one of these) use language to minimize the difference between the writers story and the readers interpretation or do they encourage the differences?

          I am sure that authors fall along different points on the continuum, but I am curious as to where the majority lay.

          • Hi Jeff,
            I think writers must write as they want, develop their style along their own trajectory although perhaps take into account feedback from readers on their next book. But there are not just two stories (one writer and one reader), but as as many received “stories” as there are readers, a writer could hardly try to write for each and every one. No, I think a writer has to have the integrity to believe in his or her own vision and style, and expect variations in how it is understood and received by readers.


  1. […] They are the single element that will keep your readers absorbed; even one believable, fascinating character that inhabits their imagination can make up for less than perfect plotting or writing style.  […]