What makes characters great?

Our last article looked at common mistakes with characters, but now we look at what writers are already doing particularly well and celebrate the worlds they have been able to create thanks to great characterisation. We will use our latest issue, Firewords9, to illustrate this and give real examples of great character development.

As always, good writing does not follow a prescribed tick list but the ideas below are a place to start if you are struggling to bring your next short story to life.

Rounded and realistic

This is where the different elements of a strong story all come together. To create good character, we also look at plot and setting, and how everything interlinks.

Soulmate Inc. by Neil McGowan, is an excellent example of how a realistic character is achieved, even in surreal situations. We are taken on a lighthearted journey but nonetheless a range of emotions show themselves, from hope to frustration.

The writer is careful to ensure that the tone of the piece is sustained overall. He is never maudlin. But he ensures his character reacts realistically to different scenarios imposed on him which can mirror the kinds of frustrations that every reader will feel in some area of their lives. Therefore he is identifiable, even in a futuristic context.

In Bonne Femme, by Tom Antony Davies, character development is really driven by the protagonist’s lack of knowledge about a very specific situation that is looming over her life. Then, when the penny starts to drop, she is too involved to get out. This shows how mental jail cells can be created by setting, the epoch in which a story is set, social constraints and also mind games that are uncomfortable but exist everywhere. The slow revelation throughout this story makes the reader unsure that they themselves would not get trapped in an identical way if they were living through it.

So these examples show what can be achieved when you don’t look at a character in isolation but take a realistic approach to how different elements affect them.

Diverging from the stereotype

Eurasian Makes Okonomiyaki, by L. P. Lee, is a clear divergence from stereotype – unless people out there think it is stereotypical for a pancake to talk to you every day! This works well as, seeing the world from this perspective, is highly entertaining.

A more subtle divergence comes in The Smile, by Ruth Edgett. On first take, this is based on a theme which we see a lot of because of the profound effect it has in real life: death and dying. Usually this is undertaken from the point of view of a grieving family member. However, in this case we hear about things from the position of the man who is dying.

This is compelling and beautifully done because the story is full of hope. However, the hope is not to live, but in a liberating death following years of suffering. This paradox really helps the reader by refiguring what is important to them and the reasons that really drive us forward in everyday life – and the contrast here between what the man wants and what some of his family want shows the layered dimensions of life. This has universal importance and transcends the parameters of the story. So it is individually meaningful to each reader.

Leaving his own perceptions behind, showing his relationship to other characters strengthens the characterisation here and makes him more believable. He is a character who would have a lot to live for. The fact that things are not that easy make the character multi-dimensional. He can look at the different layers of his existence and not just hang on to life at the cost of all else; and he can clearly see the negative repercussions of what might initially seem to be the most positive outcome. The best option, and what he wants, is to go. There is a link between this and the realism we discussed before.

Emotion best portrayed in a wider context

This follows on from a concern in our previous article: common mistakes with characters that, sometimes, people try too hard to make their reader feel something rather than focus where this emotion is going.

In The Cut, by Lorna Malone, the protagonist is dealing with the loss of his wife. This is a key element in the story, but it is not overpowering because the focus remains set on the interactions within a barber’s shop – a regular moment in everyday life. This setting is used to portray the emotion and heartache that can take place all around us when, for most of us, things are continuing like normal. The whole story hinges on how the barber chooses to deal with what is presented to him. This affects the protagonist and also the reader, making them think about their own actions, what they might not be privy to which could be going on in the private life of others, and how their own actions can have an impact.

This shows how emotion is not being used here for emotion’s sake. It forms an element of the protagonist, as there is heartache in his life, but there is also the heartwarming qualities of friendship. The barber and the customer travel together from the beginning of this story to the end. The story arcs as they learn about each other and, while we do learn a lot about their characters along the way, they are never just there to be vessels of emotion. The way they interact and help each other shows many nuances that transcend the tragedy of Bert’s wife’s death. Looking at the situation as a whole, each character is developed with shades that can only be fully appreciated by considering the wider context in which he finds himself.


So hopefully we have highlighted some of the effects of good characterisation, from the frustrating, emotive, shocking, to the purely entertaining. Whatever character you are striving for, have fun creating someone unique and seeing them flourish in a world where they belong.