Writing a character personality for your story, novel, or script is a key part of bringing your words to life. It’s the protagonist at the heart of the story that will make your readers want to keep going, to follow them to the end point. Think about a book you’ve read or film you’ve seen where you didn’t believe in the main character. Were you even bothered to see what happened to them at the story’s climax? It doesn’t matter how twisty or exciting a plot is – if we don’t care about the main character, we won’t care about the story either.
But what makes a good main character? Your protagonist doesn’t have to be a hero, or even a good person. But they have to be understood, at least on some level, by the reader. And this sort of thing needs preparation and time to develop.
The definition of a main character is ‘the principal character in a literary work, such as a drama or story’ (Merriam-Webster). We’ll mainly focus on developing your main character profile today. But really you ought to go through this with all your characters. To keep it as simple as I can, I’ll run through my top tips and advice for creating a character profile, and how to make sure your main character is a real, living, breathing person.
What makes a good main character?
There’s no quick answer to this – as a good main character will be based on lots of things. The best thing is that developing a well-rounded character personality isn’t difficult.
From using project management methodologies (oh yeah baby, sexy stuff), to drawing out character profiles, read through the following main character development tips to find your own way to create a fully fleshed-out protagonist.
Define your character’s personality with a SWOT analysis
Though it’s usually reserved for project management, doing a SWOT analysis can help an author to identify a main character’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Include as many as possible. I’m a huge fan of big paper.
This is where you record your main character’s skills, interests, and specialisms. This is the sort of stuff they’ll do in their spare time, things they’re good at, and things that matter to them. It might tie into their job, their self-worth, or even their life goals.
This is a place to record your main character’s weaknesses, their Achilles’ heels, the things that make them fail (or they think makes them fail). This could include phobias, anxieties, or character personality flaws. Things they struggle with – either consciously or subconsciously.
Here, record your main character’s opportunities. This includes your characters goals, or life aims. It can also improve things that are going well for them – including careers, family, or friends. You could also record the gaps in your protagonist’s world where there are opportunities for things to happen. A really basic example would be if they’re single, there’s an opportunity to meet someone special.
This is where you’d record your main character’s threats. This could include unstable careers, rocky relationships, or any emotional issues that are on the verge of tipping. This is also where you’d include details of your antagonists or story villains.
Cast your story with actors, singers, and models
I do this with everything I write! I like to be able to properly visualise my characters, so I literally cast them as if I was producing a film.
You’ll likely have a rough description of what they look like in your head, so type these qualities into Google to see what comes up. ‘Tall, black-haired, French, man’ will bring up a huge range of results, but add in words like ‘quirky, in knitwear, puppeteer’ and you’ll get even better results. Make yourself a Pinterest board and pin your cast to it to remind yourself of your characters when you get lost.
Draw a character relationship map
I’ve written about this one before. What makes a good and believable main character is partly his or her relationships with other characters. ‘No man is an island’, as the saying goes.
A good tip while you’re drafting is to draw all the characters your protagonist encounters on a map, rather like this:
Include a few little nuggets about them that you’ve including in your writing, so that when they pop up again later, you’ll remember their quirky features. Make sure your main character has a network of characters to demonstrate their very real place in the world. If your character doesn’t have a network, why is this? It might be a deliberate move – in which case you can weave the explanation into the setting or your story plotline.
How to develop a character worksheet
You can find lots of downloadable character worksheet templates online, but you can always make your own.
Brace yourself for my own mini-worksheet (and no, I never use a ruler. And yes, you can really tell).
Planning out character traits such as hobbies, interests, goals, fears, and mannerisms helps you to develop a character personality, and record all the elements needed for a good, all-rounded character in a story. Pin it up near where you write, and add to it as you go along.
Write character histories
You might think that whatever happens to your character before your story doesn’t matter, but it really does.
Your history is what’s brought you to this point today, for better or worse. If you’re writing a character history, don’t worry about writing an essay. Write the main points in your protagonist’s life as bullet points, or even better – a timeline. You might be surprised as how you can weave traces of past events, successes, or traumas into your main character’s present and future.
Merge additional characters together
This is something to work on once you’ve written a first draft. You can even keep doing this with each further draft.
While working through some of the above character development activities (particularly the character relationship map) start thinking about what purpose each secondary character serves. Every single character needs to have a purpose. They might have their own storyline related to the main character’s journey, or they might serve to demonstrate the consequences of the main themes of the story. These characters need to be as vivid and thought-through as your main character, even if they only appear in a couple of scenes.
When you’re working this out, you might find that a few characters serve the same purpose, and could be merged together. It can be tempting to make your story an ensemble piece full of quirky characters, but fewer characters create clarity and focus. See if it’s possible to twist certain plot points to merge a few minor characters together, to help focus the story and to create better well-rounded characters who have more weight in your story.
So, what makes a good character in a story? Lots of things. But there are lots of tools out there to help you develop your character personality and their quirks. You don’t have to do all of the above ideas, even just one or two will set you on the way to creating a good main character profile.
Keen to find out more about writing novels and poetry? Head on over to my guide to being a writer. Let me know your character-building tips in the comments, and I look forward to meeting all of your protagonists!