Tag Archives: how to write engaging characters

Tips from a Literary Trickster

A friend of mine is interested in trying out role-play (in the writing sense), but was a little concerned that he was not nearly good enough to risk it.  Everyone has a chance to bring something valuable to writing in general, but I thought that sharing with him (and you) a few lessons I’ve learned about writing and/or RPing wouldn’t go awry.  Whether you’re writing a story, novel, or simply having fun with a friend, there are tricks to writing for maximum interest.

Don’t hide anything.  Every action and reaction has a cause, we learned this in science class, right?  Well, psychologically it’s the same deal and most of the time there are impulses and ancient history driving everything your character does, even if you don’t know it immediately at the time of writing it.  You don’t have to know what they know in order to write it instinctively, but you do need to allow yourself to explore their thoughts and feelings while you describe actions and dialogue.  If your character knows about it, it should never be off-limits in your exposition and you should never try to delay the reveal of information for the sake of creating a ‘mysterious’ character.  Which leads me to a big pet peeve of mine (mostly because I used to do it): If there’s some big secret you are trying to hold inside when you are writing from that character’s perspective, then it isn’t a major plot point and you need to forget about it.  There are ways to get around this, such as the simple concept that your character doesn’t know something about their own past yet, but the rule remains: if they know it, they know it.  That is part of who the character is and bound to be on their mind. If your character knows something about the villain, or the plot, if there’s some big element in his or her past, then they’re going to think about it whenever they think about it.  It affects most of their actions and drive, so don’t hold back.  Just because you write it doesn’t mean the other character knows it unless it’s spoken.  Unless they’re psychic.  In which case, just because you don’t write it out doesn’t mean they’re less psychic and you’re just making things harder on your friend.

Why should you describe every little thought and motivation?  Well you don’t have to go overboard, but interiority is an important part of a character.  In fact, it is the character itself, who they are.  People are what they think, how they feel, and what they do, so put all three into your writing and you’ll have a very complete person coming off the page.  Another reason to ply your prose with personality is because that’s what helps people decide whether or not they like them, it gives them a bond with the character because they understand their actions.  It also makes it much easier to interpret just how an action might come across.  The following examples show how letting a character’s feelings and thoughts come through completely changes the perception of simple actions.  Bet you’ll feel you know what sort of person they are, too.

Without interiority: He reached sharply toward her, paused, then dropped his hands and stepped away.

With interiority style 1: He reached sharply toward her thinking that the car wasn’t going to stop.  He was wrong, though–he felt like he was wrong so often these days–and hesitated before he dropped his hands and stepped away.  He was both relieved and embarrassed; glad she was okay and yet he lacked confidence in himself.  This was why she didn’t want to be with him anymore, he realized, because there was nothing left of him to be attracted to.

With interiority style 2: He reached sharply toward her, furious with her for making such a decision without him.  Didn’t she know this affected him too?  Didn’t she know how much it would hurt him?  Of course she didn’t, she was only thinking of herself, but it had been his baby too.  He realized he might do something he’d regret and made himself stop mid-reach.  His hands clenched as he forced them to his sides and stepped away to get himself under control.

If you’re RPing, write it like you’re going to publish it as a story.  Get everything out of what you write as you can.  It’s good practice even if you aren’t going to publish it and it’s more interesting to read and reply to detailed and engaging posts.

Write what you know.  Everyone and their mother says this, but it’s for good reason.  It’s easy to fool people who don’t know either, but those who know their shit will see you lying from a mile away.  Besides, there is a sense of authenticity added to anything you write when the little nuances of your own experiences come through.  Someone who’s never gone through it will think it’s written very well, but those who’ve experienced it too will instantly feel a connection to you and your character because they’ve been there.  So while it seems like a good idea to fool around with what you think you might know, consider this: It’s never okay to write a character who’s been raped if you are not a rape victim yourself.  You don’t know what it’s like, what the fallout really is, and you will most definitely offend anyone who knows better.  That truth infiltrates just about everything else you could write that you don’t know from first-hand experience.  It’s absolutely possible to have supporting characters who have trauma or facets you do not know too much about, because you have a) research on your side, b) you are not writing from their perspective and therefore cannot do them as much injustice, and c) you have experience viewing those subjects from an outsider’s perspective.  Be smart about it and you’ll be just fine.

Speaking of research, there are a lot of things you can write about purely with the knowledge you look up.  Most locations, for instance, can be researched in depth and pictures can be used to get a real sense of what it would be like to be there.  Hell, Google gets you right down to ground level in most cases and you can pretend you’re walking down the street.  You may not know how the place smells, but you’ll know how it looks and if you really wanted to get detailed you could look up what birds or other animals are in the area, how they behave, and what they sound like to amp up the authenticity.  Or you could visit, because nothing beats being there, but that just brings us full-circle to writing your personal experience.

Go big or go home. Do not, and I mean do not, write tiny posts or paragraphs unless absolutely, strategically necessary.  If you think a few sentences are enough, you’re probably wrong.  If it’s that short you probably didn’t put enough interiority or intrigue into what you wrote.  So unless it’s a stunning reveal moment for your storyline, or something meant to make a big impact (do this rarely or it has no impact), then you should probably beef it up.

Do-overs are more than okay. This is going to tie right in with the next two tips, but let’s start with this.  Sometimes you will write yourself/yourselves into a corner, sometimes you’ll really hate what you did, and sometimes you’ll change your mind about what you wanted to do with a person’s past, or reaction, and so on.  I’m telling you right now that it’s absolutely one-hundred percent okay to re-do stuff.  It can be a single paragraph or post, it can be a whole scene, and in the case of time changing all things, you can even re-start an entire storyline because you know damn well you can make it more amazing than the first (or even second) time around.  Nowhere does it say that things cannot be changed once they’ve been written (unless you publish too quickly for your own good, but that’s an entirely different subject right there).  In the case of RPing, you can even change details between you and your partner and simply assume the new information from there on out and not worry about the stuff written before it.  Trust me, re-writes are good, good things.

Don’t be afraid to assume certain basic actions. One reason some RPers write short posts is because they don’t want to assume what the other person will do and so they stop to allow that person to react to something said or done before they move on.  In some cases this is perfectly reasonable, but in many cases it’s actually quite safe to assume an action is taking place.  For instance, if you open and door and invite someone in, it’s perfectly okay to assume the other character comes inside instead of waiting for the other person to say they did so.  Another example might be that if your character suddenly starts choking the other character, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that the other person is going to be shocked and fight back.  I promise you that if the assumption you make is incorrect and the other character would have done something differently, it’s okay to re-do it.  Gasp!  Yes, the thing I said before!  It ties in!  You can rewrite your post to then allow the other character to go ahead and do their actions or to react to an unexpected non-action, such as wondering why the invited character chose to stay outside or why the choked person is just letting it happen.

Practice makes perfect. If you think you’re no good at writing, if you think you’re no good at RPing, then it’s probably because you’re unpracticed.  The more you do it, the better you get at it.  Like anything else, you usually start out on the crappy side, so you should never blame yourself for being new to it.  Allow yourself the time to get familiar with the process and what works or not.  You may not know much about your character when you first begin, but through interaction with others you learn plenty about them and your writing with them will improve.  This is true in an RP setting, but it’s also true in story-writing.  Many writers, including myself, will often write random bits and pieces with their characters just to get a sense of who they are.  This is why, when you re-write a story idea or an entire RP, it’s better than the last time you did it.  Your own personal experience has grown, your own writing style has improved over time, and your knowledge of the characters and setting are far greater than when you first began.  So, again, do-overs are fine, my love.

I hope that you find these tips illuminating and helpful.  And remember, this is from my own experience with writing over the last twenty years, though most of it has been realized in the last ten, so do what works for you.  Keep an open mind and do your best, no one can ask more of you.


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