How to write engaging characters who feel Alive and pop off the page

Image courtesy of Nathan Rupert via Flickr Creative Commons. I promise, the pirate is relevant at the end.

Alright, short post.

Because NaNoWriMo.

You want your main characters to feel three dimensional?

Like real people, and not characters in “a fan-fic of a fan-fic that you read on some backwater internet forum” story?

Read this post to find the EASIEST way to write engaging characters who pop off the page.

1. Give your characters stronger motivations.

Readers need to know your characters want something. Always.

Doesn’t matter how big this “want” is, or how desperately the character wants it.

Note: it is fine if readers do not know what the Character wants – this is a great opportunity to show instead of tell.

“Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”
― Kurt Vonnegut

For the next scene you write: make sure your main character wants something.

Find ways to prevent your character from obtaining that “want.” This will allow readers to see how far the character is willing to go.

This will get readers wrapped up in any character’s struggles.

2. Write weaker characters.

New writers tend to make their characters too strong. This problem extends beyond everyday “overpowered protagonists.”

You see it in romance, in mystery, and especially in fantasy. If you want more believable and sympathetic characters you need to lower their competency. 

There is a great podcast on this idea from Writing Excuses, but I have a faster way to look at this. Here’s a quote:

O, do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men!”

Unless you are writing an intentionally flat character (see Sherlock Holmes), your characters need to wish they were stronger. 

Ah, but in order to do so…

…you have to make them weaker to start out with.

Sherlock.Holmes.Writing.Character.Arc.jpg
The all-seeing Sherlock. It is only the seemingly impenetrable mysteries that make him interesting.

These techniques work for ALL genres:

  • Lower the character’s skill level
  • Add more obstacles to overcome
  • Give them weaknesses that can interfere with their motives

Write your characters weaker than you think you should. This will give you plenty of space to amp up their character arc. Your readers will be immensely satisfied – and hungry for more.

3. Make sure your character is interesting in the beginning AND after they “change” at the end of their growth arc.

Let’s say you come up with a great character.

We’ll call him…

Captain No-beard. He’s a dangerous, swashbuckling pirate captain who sails the high seas – and he doesn’t even have a beard.

He’s got a mean crew, he uses a parrot to pluck the eyes out from his enemies, and his chin is always clean shaven. Your readers love him.

But you discover something terrible:

You can’t write 300 pages about a dangerous pirate captain who never changes (unless you want to follow in Conan‘s footsteps)

So, you decide that your dastardly pirate captain needs a lover. The prince of a nearby island catches his attention (yes, a prince. They live in a very progressive part of the baroque era).

They meet. They fall in love.

But the Captain can’t be with the Prince unless he gives up his wild ways…

Now the great, sightless eye turns on you, oh writer:

“Do you give in? Do you turn your Captain into the prince’s Prince Charming: boring, and bland, and vanilla?”

Yes. I mean no. NO. You don’t do that. Definitely don’t do that.

Find a way to keep your main characters riveting, engaging, and conflict-inducing at both the FRONT and the BACK of their character arc.

For our Pirate Captain, perhaps he says…

“I am but an old sea rat, and I could never mend my ways. But I always get what I want. Therefore, I will blast down my fair prince’s town, and kidnap him and-”

You get the idea.


These ideas will make your major characters more life-like. Readers will engage faster and get swept up in their lives.

Follow these three techniques and your characters will pop off the page and dance into your readers’ imaginations.

Thursday, I’ll come back with some advice on how to make your individual scenes and chapters so juicy, your readers will be salivating at every page-turn.

For now, leave a comment. Tell me what you think about character development and arcs and swarthy-yet-open-minded swashbucklers…

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