The 3 Pillars of Writing Great Characters

Ernest Hemingway once said that “…a writer should create living people, not characters.” However, I’m sure most of us would agree that this is far easier said than done. It’s certainly something I struggled with for years, until I finally stumbled upon a solution: employing the “3 Pillars” of Writing Great Characters.


What are the “3 Pillars”?

As readers, most of us can recognise great characters. They’re the ones we love, the ones we want to hug and strangle at the same time, or the ones we hate so much they make our blood boil. Invariably, what makes them great is that they seem ‘real’.

But real people–your family, your friends or that stranger you accidentally waved at thinking it was someone else–don’t just pop out of their mothers fully-formed. According to Developmental Psychology, we develop our personalities by reacting to influences in our lives.

Writers can create characters in much the same way. By using these categories of influence–Social, Experience and Innate–we can truly get to grips with who they are as people. We can work out what makes them tick and, most importantly, how to make them real.


The 3 Pillars of Writing Great Characters

Prepping your character for development

Before you skip straight to the question-and-answer stage of this post, it is important to lay the groundwork. In order to do this, you should know your character’s basic Character Aspects and Personality Traits.


What’s the difference?

Character Aspects are qualities that make up a character’s identity, e.g. gender, sexuality, age, race and ethnicity, disability, neurotypicality, religion, class, nationality and culture.

Personality Traits are qualities that make up a character’s personality, e.g. courageous, lazy, calm, dramatic, fair, intuitive, hardworking, heroic, cheerful, organised, messy, loyal, pessimistic, patient.

It is not enough to define a character by their Aspects. You need both Aspects and Traits to create great characters.


Authors are rightly criticised for creating characters that don’t give readers anything more than census information (Age, Sex, Ethnicity, Religion).

Defining a character only by their Aspects is how you get stereotypes, flat characters and blank slates. No author wants that!

Additionally, if your character comes from a minority background / is LGBTQ+ / has a disability and their only defining / memorable feature is that Character Aspect, you are in danger of Tokenism.

Avoid this at all costs. A person is more than their situation in life–please craft accordingly!


OK. Do you have a handle on your character’s basic Aspects and Traits?

Let’s get started!


The 3 Pillars of Writing Great Characters

The “3 Pillars” of Writing Great Characters


The “3 Pillars” are Social, Experience and Innate. I have included some items for consideration beneath each heading as a starting point.

As you go through the list, see if you can think of any other influences I might have missed. Feel free to add them in the comments below!

The 3 Pillars of Writing Great Characters

1 – Social

Social influences have a great bearing on personality formation in real life. This is no different for fictional characters. Think about the way your character interacts with the following groups–and why they interact the way they do.

Family
  • What is your character’s relationship like with each of their parents? Why is this the case?
  • Does the character have any siblings? What is their relationship like?
  • Where in the family hierarchy does your character reside? Are they:
    • the eldest sibling (typically leaders and protective)
    • the middle child (peacemakers, often ignored) or
    • the youngest (can be slow to mature, creative; can be coddled; alternatively can be advanced for their age due to older siblings’ influences).
  • Now take a step back. How does your character’s immediate family fit into the wider family? Are they the ‘odd ones’ or the popular ones?
  • Does your character share any traits with their family?
  • How does the character’s relationship with their family affect their decision making?
Friends / Enemies
  • Who are your character’s friends / enemies?
  • How many do they have (of each) and is that number significant (are they popular, unpopular, social butterfly or shy)?
  • Who do they trust most among their friends? Why?
  • Who do they trust least among their friends? Why?
  • Is there anyone they want to be friends with but aren’t? Why is this the case? (And vice versa.)
  • How long have they been friends / enemies?
  • Do they have a best friend / worst enemy?
  • How did they become friends / enemies?
  • By what method have they remained friends (frequent socialisation, determination despite distance / interference, etc.) or enemies (bullying, deliberate avoidance, unwilling to overcome prejudices etc.)?
  • What traits does your character share with their friends? How do their personalities differ?
  • What traits does your character share with their enemies? How do their personalities differ?
  • What are some positive / negative emotions your character feels about:
    • their friends?
    • their enemies?
  • What are some positive / negative emotions their friends feel about your character?
  • What are some positive / negative emotions their enemies feel about your character?
  • Are they in the same social class? Does this affect their relationship at all?
  • Do they share the same political, social or religious values? How does this affect their relationship at all?
Their immediate society
  • Where does your character rank in their immediate society?
    • Why is this? How does your character feel about this?
    • How do other characters feel about this?
  • Do they get on with people at work? Are they appreciated for the work they do?
  • What kind of work do they do?
    • How do they feel about it? Does it clash with their hopes and dreams, or fulfil them?
  • How do they get along with their neighbours and the village / town / city in which they live? Does this differ from how the family unit (or members thereof) interact with their immediate society? Why?
  • Do events happen in the neighbourhood / town / city that they feel strong about, in a positive or negative way?
Culture and / or nation / country-wide beliefs
  • What is your character’s relationship with their country of origin? Do they still reside in this country?
  • If they do not reside within that country, why did they leave? What is their relationship with their country of residence? Do they wish for different circumstances?
  • Does your character agree with the government of their country?
  • What is their political alignment? Are they active in politics or does it pass them by?
  • How well do they fit into the culture of their country of residence (i.e. if they’re British, do they love tea, football and complaining about the rubbish weather?) / is there anything about that culture that they disagree with (i.e. the strained politeness of the British under pressure; binge-drinking / irrational xenophobia left over from World Wars I & II)
  • Is there a country-wide belief that they agree with? Is there a country-wide belief that they disagree with? (Prejudices etc.)
Religion
  • Does your character have a religion? What is it? Do the rules of this religion affect the way they interact with the world around them?
  • How does your character feel about their religion? Are there any aspects of it that they disagree with?
  • How does your character feel about other people’s religions?

The 3 Pillars of Writing Great Characters

2 – Experience

Life experience can create traits and quirks that are unique to your character. Think about how your character’s experiences (before the start of your novel and during it) might influence their decisions within the story.

A trip
  • Has the character been on a trip that changed or informed their view on something that happens in the story?
Trauma, disaster or accident
  • Has the character experienced a trauma, disaster or accident that has changed how they react to things?
  • Does this event influence the way they react to the people around them, or to a situation that they may experience during their novel?
  • Has it physically or mentally changed them (broken bones, missing limbs, PTSD etc.)? How did they react to that?
  • Has it created a fear, prejudice or phobia as a result?
  • Has it changed their state of being, making them more cautious or volatile, for example?
Education or lack thereof
  • What level of education does your character have? Does this affect their ability to perform necessary tasks throughout the novel?
  • How does your character feel about their level of education? Does this affect their confidence levels? Does this affect how they view and interact with their peers and / or authority?
  • How does your character’s level of education compare to their peers? Is it something they wish they could change?
  • How do the character’s peers react to the character’s level of education (or lack thereof)? Are they scornful, fearful, dismissive or in awe?
Grief or loss
  • Have they ever experienced grief or loss?
  • Who was the subject?
  • What happened?
  • How did they handle it?
  • Are they still handling it?
  • Has it changed how they react to things in your novel / the people around them?
Happiest memories
  • What is your character’s happiest memory? What are their 10 happiest memories?
  • How do they think of these memories throughout your novel (wistfully / as a source of strength)?
  • Did these memories form or change a part of their personality? Did it help form relationships with any of the characters in the novel?
Attitudes to their own bodies and the bodies of others
  • What kind of body does your character have?
  • How does their body compare to:
    • the others around them?
    • their society’s ‘ideal’?
  • How do they feel about their body? Why?
  • How do other characters feel about your character’s body? Why?
  • How does your character feel about their society’s ‘ideal’ body shape / type?
  • How does your character feel about other characters’ bodies?
  • Does this affect the way they are treated / treat other people?

The 3 Pillars of Writing Great Characters

3 – Innate

Lastly, there are some character traits that cannot be taught by experience or by those around your character. They are simply ‘there’. These are called innate traits and although they exist, they are RARE. Think about the following traits and if they are truly innate. What could have caused them?

Most positive trait, e.g. bravery, selflessness
  • What is your character’s defining positive trait?
  • What are three other, minor positive traits?
  • Does everyone in the novel consider them positive traits?
  • How does your character feel about these traits?
  • Are these traits affected by any of the events in the novel?
  • Do these traits affect any of your character’s decision making throughout the novel?
  • Does anything happen in the novel that endangers these traits (an honest character being tempted to lie; a brave character being tempted to run away etc)?
  • How do they feel about other characters who share these traits?
  • How do they feel about other characters who do not share these traits?
  • Does it affect their relationships?
  • Is there a reason your character might have these traits?
Biggest / serious flaws
  • What is your character’s worst habit, trait or flaw?
  • What are three other, minor negative traits?
  • Does everyone in the novel consider them negative traits?
  • How does your character feel about these traits?
  • Are these traits affected by any of the events in the novel?
  • Do these traits affect any of your character’s decision making throughout the novel?
  • Does anything happen in the novel that endangers these traits (redemption arcs / changing views on prejudice)?
  • How do they feel about other characters who share these traits?
  • How do they feel about other characters who do not share these traits?
  • Does it affect their relationships?
  • Is there a reason your character might have these traits?
Fears / phobias / prejudices
  • What major fear or phobia does your character have?
  • What minor fears or phobias do they have?
  • When was the first time they realised this fear / phobia?
  • Was it caused by anything?
  • How does it affect them and the people around them?
  • Can they overcome it / do they want to?
  • Does it affect how they react to people / places / things or events in the novel?
  • Does your character have any prejudices? How do they feel about this? How do other people feel about this?
  • Do these prejudices affect people, interactions or events in the novel?
  • Do these prejudices change throughout the novel? What might cause them to change?
  • If your character has experienced prejudice / discrimination themselves, how might this affect their own prejudices?
  • Do their fears / phobias / prejudices come from a place of experience or ignorance?
Daily state of being (e.g. laid-back, anxious)
  • If your character was left alone with no positive or negative interactions, what would their mood be?
  • What can cause this mood to change?
  • How long would it take to change / return to normal?
  • Does this affect how other people see them / interact with them? (For example, a relaxed, calm person may be given more responsibility compared to someone who was naturally anxious.)
  • How does this daily state of being affect how they deal with conflicts in your novel?
Aversions to things other people find acceptable
  • Is there anything that is socially acceptable that your character finds utterly abhorrent (for example, kissing in public or women in education)?
    • Why is this?
    • How does this affect their daily life and their interactions with people?
  • Alternatively, is there anything socially unacceptable that your character considers acceptable?
Talents, hopes and dreams
  • What is your character’s main skill or talent?
  • Is this something they were born with or worked to achieve?
  • Did they inherit it from someone? What is their relationship like with this person and why? Does it affect how they see / use their skill or talent?
  • What are minor skills or talents that your character has?
  • Do their skills / talents affect their hopes and dreams?
  • Does your character have hopes / dreams / goals?
  • Why do they have this goal?
  • What steps have they taken to achieve it?
  • Is anything stopping them?
  • How do they / others feel about this goal?
  • How would they feel if people criticise it?
  • Do these talents / hopes / dreams affect how they interact with people during the novel?
  • Do they affect how they make decisions through the novel?

It’s a lot to think about, so don’t worry if it seems too much for one writing session. (It is.)

Creating great characters is hard work and takes time. No one makes a great one immediately. As you write your novel, your characters will develop alongside your plot and themes, but it doesn’t hurt to have a solid foundation to begin with.

Use “The 3 Pillars of Writing Great Characters” to give yourself that foundation. Then build on it, chapter by chapter, draft by draft, until you’re ready to unveil your cast of truly great characters.


A “Character Development” quiz I recommend

I don’t, as a rule, recommend character development quizzes. I find their structures are often more of a hindrance than a help. However, there is one quiz that I will recommend to writers–mainly because it is not designed for writers.

The Myers-Briggs test is a real, psychologically-sound questionnaire that businesses and professionals use to gain an understanding of themselves and others. It helps indicate how people perceive the world around them and make decisions.

Once you think you have a good working grasp of your character, take the test and find out what ‘Personality Type’ you have created. The psychological summary at the end may give you an extra insight into your character and add a little spice to mix!

Got anything to add to The 3 Pillars of Writing Great Characters? Please leave your comments below!