How to Create Dynamic Fictional Characters (Part 1)

“The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat.” E.M. Forster

For many readers, a novel not populated with engaging, believable characters isn’t worth finishing. The author of a novel in progress can feel that same lack of motivation. If the main characters seem flat even to their creator, finishing the manuscript will be a grind.

Readers want to become entranced by fictional characters. Readers want to be drawn in and wonder, “What will the character do next?” Readers crave characters that are consistent enough to be recognizable and plausible, yet possess a potential for change. Round characters compel readers to turn the page.

“The real question isn’t whether the characters are likeable,” says Professor Timothy Spurgin of Lawrence University. The professor makes an important point. Would you choose to pal around with Harry Angstrom, the protagonist in John Updike’s four “Rabbit” novels? Probably not. He’s not very likeable.

Get a copy of James Leo Herlihy’s novel “Midnight Cowboy.” The two main characters are rootless hustlers. Owing to their well-defined, round personalities, the story of Ratso and Joe is compelling, moving reading.

Professor Spurgin contends that readers are fascinated by characters that embody a sensitive, insightful understanding of human motivations. Round characters possess emotional depth or psychological complexity. Readers feel satisfied and rewarded for investing time in a novel peopled with round characters.

Developing round characters is rewarding and stimulating for their creators, too.

Flat or cardboard characters aren’t bad. They serve a purpose. You need both types in a story.

Jotting down character sketches before writing a story enhances an author’s ability to develop rounded characters. Sketches aid in creating characters with backgrounds different from the author’s own. One author can and must create many kinds of characters.

Character sketches include basic biographical data: Age, gender, birth date, place of birth, level of education and so on.

Your challenge is to flesh out the data bones. If your character was born in the United States of America in the 1950s, President Kennedy’s assassination will be a poignant memory. Knowing this, you can incorporate the weight of that memory into an argument about gun control. Another example: if the character has a G.E.D, how does he feel about not graduating from high school? How do those feelings pop up in thoughts, words and behavior when his teenager is graduating or when he meets a woman at a party?

Brainstorm a list of questions about your characters. Then answer those questions about your characters before you work on the story. Knowing the answers will help you give characters depth when you write. Caveat: Do not feel obligated to work the answers to every question into the story. Just knowing the answers gives you authority.

This is a sampling of questions I might use to help me develop a protagonist’s personality.

Does the character:

• Fudge numbers on income tax forms? Or cheat on school tests?

• Buy drinks for everybody or accept drinks bought for her?

• Hate or love surprises?

• Mingle and schmooze at parties or stay in one spot and let people come to her?

• Kiss and talk to animals or ignore them?

• Buy only what is on her shopping list or buy whatever strikes her fancy?

• Occupy a small space with legs crossed, arms close to sides, head bowed or use a lot of space with legs open, arms out, head moving, fingers splayed?

• Initiate touching, kissing, lovemaking or wait passively until another character makes overtures?

• Tell other people’s secrets or keep them in confidence?

• Feel proud of or ashamed of her hometown, her parents, her siblings?

“Follow” this blog to receive Part 2 of “How to Create Dynamic Fictional Characters” as soon as it is posted.

To meet characters a reviewer described as “so real you can actually sense their presence,” get Fowler’s eco-thriller The Universal Solvent at bookstores, or at


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