From Hum-Ho to Captivating: How to Give Your Characters a Personality They Deserve
When you start to draft or plot a new novel, you probably have a vague idea of who your characters are or will be. A lot of people start with the basics first, such as age, sex, gender, and hair, eye, and skin color.
And that is a very good place to start.
But to create memorable characters that leap off the page, you’re going to need a little more. Probably a lot more, in fact.
That’s where a character’s personality comes in. This is where you’ll really grow your characters into distinct people that don’t blend together with everyone else in your story. Doing this can be challenging, as you’re often trying to create people who differ from you completely. But don’t worry, we’ve got some ideas to help you out.
In this article, we’ll discuss:
- Character archetypes
- Tips for giving your characters personality
- Personality tests for your characters
Let’s start with a basic character development tool—the character archetype.
If you’re not familiar with what these are, they’re essentially blueprints for the kinds of characters you’ll see represented in literature, movies, tv over and over again. They work because people love them and recognize them.
They’re almost like tropes for characters in that they provide a general framework for your audience, who are inherently drawn to characters they already understand.
The fourteen character archetypes are:
The Caregiver: Sometimes referred to as the mother, this is the selfless person who supports everyone around them, often at their own expense. These archetypes often play the role of parent, best friend, partner, teacher, mentor, guardian, sibling, etc.
The Common Person/Everyperson: This is a character that most people can relate to. They work with their hands and represent a salt-of-the-earth personality. They seek security and aren’t usually looking to shake up their lives.
The Creator: This character is always making or building something in a way that consumes their thoughts. They want to leave a legacy, and their drive to create rules their actions and goals.
The Explorer: This character seeks out adventure and is never satisfied with the status quo. They yearn for more than a normal life and are constantly pushing boundaries for themselves and those around them.
The Hero: This is the character that meets any challenge head on. They might be reluctant and resistant to this role or they might revel in it. It’s not surprising it’s one of the most popular and common archetypes you’ll encounter, especially in speculative fiction.
The Innocent/Child: This character is pure of heart and often childlike in their thoughts and actions. They don’t have to be children but can be. Their arc usually includes opening their eyes to the world around them and shucking off those rose-tinted glasses.
The Joker/Jester: This character is there to provide comic relief and usually plays the role of a sidekick. They live in the moment and prefer to march to their own drum.
The Lover: This character is ruled by their heart and their emotions. They sacrifice themselves in the name of love, whether that’s romantic love or not.
The Magician: This character can play hero or villain, but their goal is power. They may or may not wield actual magic, but their skills come from the ability to acquire and wield power, whether that’s knowledge, political capital, wealth, physical or mental strength, or even magic.
The Orphan: This character doesn’t have to be a literal orphan, but rather someone who is seeking a sense of belonging. They’re driven by their need to find a family they’ve never had or one they’ve lost.
The Outlaw/Rebel: This is often one of the most popular archetypes who inspire love and devotion. They play by their own rules and are seeking to disrupt the natural order. They want change and nothing will get in their way.
The Ruler: This character type embodies the power in your story. They’re kings and queens, generals, or CEOs. They can be evil or benevolent, but they are the ones responsible for their kingdom.
The Sage: This character often plays the role of mentor. Their goal is to use their knowledge to benefit others. You’ll often find these characters playing the role of parent, guardian, or teacher.
The Seducer: This character often leans to the villainous side and makes use of their personal charms–intellect, wits, body, leverage, etc.—to get what they want.
Read a more detailed analysis of the archetypes in this article.
Tips For Giving Your Characters Personality
Now that we’ve covered the archetypes, let’s look at some more ideas to give that archetypal character more personality. You don’t want to fall into a trap of developing a cookie-cutter cardboard cutout of the above archetypes. You want to use them as a jumping off point for developing your bright, shiny, and totally interesting characters.
- Give them motivations and goals: One of the most important things—no, the most important thing—you can do for your characters is give them motivations and goals for their actions. They need to want something. Desire something. Crave something. A character without a goal is just a person standing in a setting. There is no point writing a story about them if they aren’t trying to reach for something. And it needs to be a hard something—if they can get their heart’s desire too easily, then you’re going to have a rather boring story. For more about motivation and goals, check out this article.
- Choose your POV: How are you going to share your character's thoughts and feelings? First person? Third person? First or past tense? Choosing first person can help get deeper into the thoughts and feelings of the character, while third person can give you a wider scope that includes more of your character's surroundings. What you choose can determine how the personality of your character comes across. For more on choosing point of view, check out this article.
- Choose your conflict: Much like motivations and goals, your character is nothing without some conflict in their lives. That can be internal conflict, such as battling their misconceptions about love and trust, or it can be external conflict, such as battling an evil overlord. Chances are you’re going to have a bit of both. Their conflict should directly tie to their goals and motivations, too—that way they’re all working together. For more on developing conflict in your story, check out this article.
- Create a backstory: Strong characters have pasts that have helped shape the people they are today. They bring with them the trauma and triumphs of the experiences they’ve been through. So think about where they came from. What happened in their past? You can use a character interview to help dig into this. We’ve got a few options for you here and here.
- Visualize your character: I said at the outset that you would need to know more than the surface level details of your character, like eye color and height. But knowing those details can also be surprisingly useful in creating a well-rounded character that breathes on the page. Take it a step further and look for inspiration of what your characters look like. Use Pinterest or take real-life cues from celebrities who embody your character’s aesthetic. One of my favorite new tools are A.I. art generators, like Midjourney, that offer up all kinds of inspiration for character creation.
- Share details as needed: Be mindful of sharing information about your characters in slow drips rather than a cascade. If you dump a whole slew of “personality” on the page, then you might end up doing the exact opposite of your intention. Think about what your reader needs to know and ways to show rather than tell them about your characters. Instead of telling us they tend to make rash decisions, show them making a rash decision, instead.
- Make use of side characters: You can compare and contrast the personalities of your main characters by creating side characters that either complement or conflict with your main characters. If you have a soft-spoken side character and a loud main character who is always interrupting people, you can demonstrate this through their interactions.
Use Personality Tests
A fun way to really get into the heads of your characters is to give them a personality test. There are countless options online you can find through a simple Google search, but two of the most common are the Myers-Briggs and Enneagram tests. These personality models break down the key traits and characteristics and can be an amazing tool to help develop your characters.
This test breaks it down into four pillars, each with two points as follows:
Favorite world: People who focus on the outer world who follow Extroversion (E), versus those who focus on the inner world who follow Introversion (I).
Information: People who focus on the basic information as they take it in are known as Sensing (S), versus people who prefer to interpret and add meaning to information are known as Intuition (N).
Decisions: People who make decisions by first looking at logic and consistency fall under Thinking (T), while people who focus first on the people involved and any specific circumstances are Feeling (F).
Structure: Those who deal with things by making firm decisions fall under Judging (J), while those who prefer to remain open to new information and options fall under Perceiving (P).
These four pillars give you sixteen different personality permutations that you can read more about here. To take the official test, it’ll cost you $50, but you can also search for plenty of free options that will probably give you what you need for your character.
The Enneagram is similar but relies on nine different types as follows:
- The Reformer: rational, idealistic, principled, purposeful, self-controlled, seeks perfection
- The Helper: caring, demonstrative, generous, people-pleaser, possessive
- The Achiever: success-oriented, pragmatic, adaptive, excels, driven, image-conscious
- The Individualist: sensitive, withdrawn, expressive, dramatic, self-absorbed, temperamental
- The Investigator: intense, cerebral, perceptive, innovative, secretive, isolated
- The Loyalist: committed, security-driven, engaging, responsible, anxious, suspicious
- The Enthusiast: busy, fun-loving, spontaneous, versatile, distractible, scattered
- The Challenger: powerful, dominating, self-confident, decisive, willful, confrontational
- The Peacemaker: easygoing, self-effacing, receptive, reassuring, agreeable, complacent
I don’t know about you, but just reading that list gives me all sorts of inspiration for my existing characters and new ones. To read more about how you can use the Enneagram to build stronger characters, we’ve got this handy resource available.
If you found this article helpful, we’ve got tons more available at DabbleU. We’re posting multiple articles every week and have lots more about character development that you can read including:
- Fleshing out a character
- Giving flaws to your characters
- What is a character arc?
- The best character template ever
- How to write a character’s thoughts
If you like all that, you can even sign up for our newsletter where we’ll deliver our latest and greatest straight to your inbox every week!
TAKE A BREAK FROM WRITING...
Read. Learn. Create.
While the terms "story" and "plot" are often used interchangeably, they are actually two distinct elements of narrative, and understanding the difference can be a useful tool in your storytelling arsenal. You’re going to need some of both to create a compelling book that’ll have your readers coming back for more.
Editing. That tricky little step between drafting and publishing. Okay, maybe it’s not so little. Actually, it’s kind of important. I’ll even go out on a limb and say it’s actually the most important part. And the limb is very short. But where do you start? You’ve got all these words and now you have to take your messy first draft and make them actually readable. You know editing’s a thing, but you’ve probably heard there is more than one kind of editing. One of the most comprehensive is known as content or development editing. This is often the first kind of editing any book sees and, for new writers, can be a valuable step in honing their craft.
We tend to give a lot of thought to our characters when we’re writing. Their likes and dislikes. Their appearance and disposition. Hopefully their wants, goals, motivations, flaws and all the things that make them feel like real people. But how much thought do you give to actually introducing them to your readers? A strong introduction to a character can help make or break that character and the way your reader perceives them. So what’s in an introduction, anyway?