Seven Ways to Develop Compelling Characters

Gail Carson Levine, author of Ella Enchanted, spoke at the 2010 SCBWI LA Conference. In her keynote speech she shared the following tips on how to develop your characters.

Seven Ways to Create Compelling Characters:

1) What role will my character play? I always start with plot when writing a book, then I think about the role in which my character will need to play in this story. That role is essential to creating your character. Do they need to grow into that role? Is it something inherent about their character to begin with? Etc. This is a keystone to build your character from.

2) There’s a tarantula on your head. What are you gonna do? I need to be with my characters for awhile to learn how they will react. I discover who my character is through writing dialog, actions, and internal thoughts about who he/she is. Put your character in different situations and see how they will surprise you.

3) What if? What if? This is a book full of great questions that will help you to get to know your character. Answer the questions for your character.  A lot of authors also use a character form or questionnaire with a list of questions they have created. (Examples of character forms can be found at: Elfwood Character Creation Form or Character Development Form).

4) Invented characters vs. real humans. In a novel it is not possible to create a character with as many layers as a real human. The reader is going to end up doing a lot of the work themselves, that’s okay. The reader will build from their own experience to create depth for your characters. But you have to show the reader the way.

5) You know, like, dude! It’s just how I talk, duh! Look for speech mannerisms in your characters. For example, I have a friend who always starts a sentence with: “You know what…” and always follows it with something angry, “…this sucks.” Etc. Some people always start sentences with “I have to tell you…” How does your character start sentences? What tags do they put at the end of sentences? This will help each of your characters to sound unique.

6) Don’t invite the circus! Don’t overload the reader with a circus of exotic talkers. You want each character to stand out and be unique, but if everyone has crazy lingo and weird phrases, the audience is going to get tired. No to mention the in-authenticity of too much jargon!

7) I could have danced all night! Movement is a tip off to character. Use body language. Simple examples include: She rolled her hands. or Her eye twitched when she was nervous. Why do people touch one another? Some do it  to show dominance, others just have a touchy feely nature. Another character might twirl their hair while they are plotting. Show us actions! In a movie we see all these actions, but in a book you need to remind the reader.

Gail Carson Levine is the author of seventeen books for children. After nine years of manuscript rejection, many writing classes, and enthusiastic membership in SCBWI, her first published book, Ella Enchanted, won a Newbery honor in 1998. She blogs about writing at

3 thoughts on “Seven Ways to Develop Compelling Characters

  1. Awesome! I’ve been thinking about this very subject a lot since I’m contemplating writing a novel (as opposed to my usual PBs). I was thinking so much about plot that I got stuck on these character points. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Pingback: SCBWI LA 2010 – The Quick Take Away « Ingrid's Notes

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