The Hard Truth About Creating Great Characters


We live in an imperfect world. It is this imperfection that defines our existence. Everything we do as people, every decision we make, every book that we read, every new car that we buy, is a result of this imperfection. We are filling the holes in ourselves, one decision, one distraction, and one purchase at a time.

It’s this imperfection that leads to art, adaptation, and innovation in our world, for in a perfect world, where all are happy and whole, there is no need to change.

Likewise, it is this desire to be complete that leads to conflict and chaos. In a world shared by billions, with limited land, resources, wealth, and food, it only makes sense that one must go against another to achieve what makes him or her feel whole. Most of us do this indirectly, unaware of the consequences. You got that job? Great! But what about those who didn’t? The single mother of four, the college student forever indebted to her university, the sixty-something-year-old man who never could get it together. Disturbing, no?

Others take a more proactive stance. These are the warmongers, the cheats and scoundrels, tyrants, pirates, and… the list goes on. Those who knowingly put themselves before others in a bold attempt to gain the things we all desire.

So here we are, a people warring with one another, fighting for jobs, for prosperity, for companionship, and so much more.

I’m reminded of this fact when thinking of what makes a story. Because in every great story, you’ll find a cast of characters at odds with one another, each with their own motivations and desires, fighting tooth and nail to achieve the impossible. Like us, they want to fill the void.

It’s why almost every Disney movie begins with a beloved character dying. Death has a way of digging its claws into those left behind and excavating their cores, tearing past the flesh and into the sweet, gummy center of our heroes and villains. What’s left is a gaping hole, a void to be filled.

But Death isn’t the only creature lurking in our midst. There are, sadly, an innumerable amount of ways in which one may find himself a desolate wasteland beneath his skin.

And as our characters strive to fill those holes, here we are. Authors, creators, gods. We have at our fingertips the claws that will do that excavating. The click-clack of our fingers upon the keyboard gives sound to the surgical incisions we make into our characters’ souls as we scheme against, betray, and deceive them.

And yet, many of us struggle to fulfill that role. We make characters who are bland and lifeless, we play out the same tired tropes again and again, as if we don’t really know what being a person is like.

The point I’m trying to make here is this: We *are* our characters. We know what it means to yearn, to hurt, to fear. We know what it takes to break someone down or build them back up. We have around us *billions* of real world human examples. Seriously, look to your left. Is there a person there? No? Okay, then look to your other left. Still alone? Grr…

Okay, fine. Forget all that. Here’s what I want you to do. Take a moment, and look within. Grab a flashlight ’cause were going in deep. Take inventory. What’s there? Find the empty spaces. Poke around. If it hurts, take note. These are the things that make us human. These are the things that move us forward and force us to change. The things, which you do not have, or you DO have and wish you didn’t, these are the things your characters need. Use them.