3 Tips for Developing Enthralling Characters

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

Early reviews are starting to roll in for my newest release, A Noble Groom (officially releasing next week on April 1). And while I always cringe when I open up those first reviews, not knowing what to expect, I'm also always fascinated to hear reader impressions.

One of the first blog reviews on A Noble Groom was by Dawn Crandall, a fellow inspirational historical author. And when I get reviews by other writers, I tend to cringe even more (especially when they're by someone who writes in my genre!).

As I read Dawn's review, I was relieved. She liked my book! But I also appreciated her insights into what made the book especially memorable for her. Here's what she said:

"I really don’t know how exactly Jody makes reading about two mismatched people working on a farm in the middle of nowhere - so enthralling. But like I said, she does it every time, no matter what she’s writing about. 

I know what it is, actually. It’s her characters. Their emotions are so true, their thoughts so amazingly accurate. The situations they find themselves in... so complexly and perfectly orchestrated." (Emphasis mine)

I think Dawn summarized some of my characterization aspects fairly succinctly (thank you Dawn!). Whether she realized it or not, she brought up 3 key points in developing enthralling characters.

1. Make the character's emotions come alive. 

To be honest, there isn't an easy way to make character's emotions come alive. I believe developing emotional characters comes from writing out of the passion and emotions that are inside us.

But if I had to list a couple of practical things I do to help bring out my characters emotions, I would list these two:

First, get to know the characters' back stories really well, particularly the things that have hurt them most. When we delve deeply into their past hurts before we start writing, then we'll have more emotional reactions naturally flowing through the present. Of course, we'll only share a fraction of the back story with our readers and in very gradual increments. Nevertheless, those past difficulties will often be the driving force of our character's emotions.

Second, make sure we weave in their emotional reactions to what's going on around them. I try not to gloss over the hurts and pains, but instead thread them in so that the reader never loses touch with what the character is truly feeling.

2. Don't neglect the character's thought-life. 

In the era of "show don't tell" I've read too many stories where the characters are acting out the plot, where the external tension and conflict is all there, but the story fails to grip me.

When I stop to analyze those stories, I realize the author has gone to the extreme of the showing. They expect a smart reader will catch on to the character's thoughts (without needing to be told). And so they never (or rarely) let us inside the character's head .

But part of the beauty of books (versus a movie which is all showing), is that we get to go deeper inside our character's minds. We get to understand why they're acting a certain way. We get to hear some of their reactions (that none of the other characters are privy to). And we learn (hopefully in small, palatable snippets) their back stories.

Much of that happens in the thought-life, or what is also known as internal narration. The characters are "speaking" to the reader and letting them in on things that run deeper than mere actions can portray.

And while we do need to show the story happening on stage, we bring our characters to greater fullness when we allow the reader to get inside their heads.

3. Place the characters in the middle of a complex plot.

Dawn said this in her review of A Noble Groom: "I had no idea how Carl and Annalisa were ever going to end up together by the end of the book."

Amidst the development of real feeling and thinking characters, we need to toss them into a plot that seems impossible. Sometimes I get my characters into so much trouble that I don't know how I'm going to get them out (at least realistically and believably!).

A complex plot intertwines the past pains into the present difficulties and challenges the characters to grow. And yet through it all we have to continue to keep the characters real and deep (by threading in their emotions and revealing their thought-life).

My Summary: There are other ways to bring our characters to life (see this post  and this post for more character building tips). The point is, we have to move them from stick figures to flesh and blood if we want our readers to care about them.

What about you? What are some ways you bring your characters to life? 


  1. I think about my characters all the time, not just when I'm sitting at my computer ready to write. I ask myself questions about them, how would they react to certain situations, what would they say, feel, etc.

    I also never go too far without having a pen and paper handy just in case I have a good insight or need to write down a piece of dialogue that pops into my head unexpectedly. Notebooks and Post-its are my best friends!

    1. Great tips, Shelly! I like the idea of continually asking questions about our characters and trying to understand them better. I think the more alive they become to us, the more real they become to our readers. :-)

  2. Oh, the dominance of Show over the good old Tell...

    Too many writers fall prey to "writing rules" like that one, obeying them blindly, allowing their novels to turn into scripts. But its precisely the inner turmoil of the characters, expressed through conflicting feelings and thoughts, through this deep and subtly revealed second dimension, that make novels so much richer than scripts.

    Thanks for the great post, Jody!

    1. You summed it up well! We writers are always looking for ways to improve and so gobble up all the writing advice we can. And while we DO want to continually be learning, I've seen some writers become too enmeshed in the "rules" and the writing become sterile. The showing vs. telling is a perfect example of that!

  3. I look for things in real life that remind me of my characters and try to work those things into my stories (without seeming contrived, of course; if it doesn't fit, it doesn't fit). One of my characters right now is a librarian, so of course she loves books--old books, new books, out-of-print books. Any time I see a used book shop on a side street, I look for things that might interest my character.

    1. Love that tip! Just shows that we as writers really need to be observant and keep our eyes open to all the little details that others might miss! :-)

  4. Jody, I am loving A Noble Groom. I absolutely love Carl's character. He immediately jumped out at me - I love his wit and care for Annalisa. Idette is a character I'm crying for! When I first met her on the page I thought: "Man, I wish Idette could have a Prince Charming, too." I don't know what will happen to her, but I'm still holding out hope in a fairytale ending... I can't wait to share my review on my blog and to encourage everyone I know to read this book. I know they'll love it.

    As for me, one way I bring my characters to life is, like you said, get to know their backstory so well, I can have them react to a situation out of their fears, hopes, dreams and the lies they believe about themselves. If I don't know those things about them, I won't know how they're going to react. Thanks for another great post today!!

    1. Hi Gabrielle,

      I'm SO glad to hear that you're loving A Noble Groom! That's wonderful!! And I hear you on Idette. Sigh. She deserves a prince charming too. That would be fun to write in another story!

      And thanks for sharing your character-writing process. I agree, that it's so important to know the backstories so well that they seem real. In fact, sometimes I know more about my fictional character's lives than I do about the real people in my life! :-)

  5. Great tips, Jody! Thank you! I agree so much with #2, when extreme showing can distance readers from characters. Thoughts from characters are a good way for readers to get explanations, even if it's a memory, it can feel like readers are listening to a story across the lunch table. Thoughts gives characters a self-awareness to their expressions and dialogue. Thoughts combined with the right punctuation can indicate mood beneath the words. Lastly, thoughts are great for changing up pace; it gives readers, along with the character, moments to process all the action. Don't get me wrong--I love showing. But telling and character thoughts are valuable too! Thanks again. I enjoy your blog!

    1. Hi Stacy,

      Thank you for sharing your additional thoughts! You took #2 deeper and I appreciate that! I like the idea of using the right length of sentences and punctuation to portray characters thoughts and emotions too. It's a great technique and not one that we often think to use! Thank you!

  6. I love using Internal Monologue in my books. I love it when they just have thoughts, and you as a writer don't stop and say "Elijah thought . . . " You just have him think it. Like this:

    Great. His little sister. . . If she had half a brain, she’d duck behind him for protection.
    But most little sisters didn’t have half a brain, and his didn’t have even a quarter of one, which was why she straightened her back and walked right up to Gilbert.
    No brain. It was the only answer.

    I feel like that excerpt says more about how a ten year old boy views little sisters than a thousand actions would. But it's not cluttered up with "He thought this" or "He was frustrated" or anything else that might distance the reader from the characters thoughts. And that's one really good way to have readers connect with characters.

    From reading this post, it sounds like some writers think all thoughts have to be told, but you can totally show thoughts. Above, Elijah's real thoughts are "My frustrating little sister doesn't have an ounce of common sense, is going to mess everything up, and get herself hurt in the process."

  7. Wonderful examples, Naomi! Thanks for breaking down how to make the internal narration come alive!

  8. I'm revising my WIP at this time. As I read through each interaction of my characters I label the prevailing emotion in the margin. Then I refer to The Emotion Thesaurus and find ways I can more vividly show the emotion in the mannerisms of the characters.

  9. I'm so glad you enjoyed my review and used my words to help make such great points about characterization! Your characters... wow, they rip my heart out. I cannot wait to read #5!

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