Creating Characters – From Inception to Compelling Protagonists

Illustration: Paul Morton
By Kate Walker

Books are crammed with characters, drawing readers into their worlds and emotions. But how do writers create them? Can you harness a persona to fit a plot line? Do the same tactics work across genres? 

For many SCBWIs, the characters pick the writer, turning up when they least expect it.

Matt Killeen
Matt Killeen says, “...their dialogue pops, fully formed, into my head as I write." He also says that his protagonist “...wakes me up in the middle of the night to tell me what's going to happen. Then she harasses me for not writing it all down.” Luckily it's only the one character keeping Matt up at night now he has a newborn.
(Thanks Matt for the commitment to Words and Pictures, responding to my questions on the way to the delivery room!) 


This sudden brain ping happens for Janet Foxley too.

"Mine just appear from nowhere. I know their personalities when they arrive and never work out any profiles.” 

Linda Lawlor

Other writers go to great lengths to discover absolutely everything about their characters. Pinterest is useful for scrap-booking ideas but Linda Lawlor prefers to gather images on a notice board that hangs above her desk as she writes. 

Linda Lawlor's character board


Amy Robinson goes further, drawing floor plans of her character's house, the layout of their bedroom and she even compiles a whole wardrobe of clothes. 


Picture Book Author/Illustrator Paul Morton also starts by drawing his characters, depicting emotions from childhood memories. 

But a crowd of imagined people doesn't make a story. So should writers start out with characters or plots? 

Julia Donaldson states on her website that she has no problem creating characters but has trouble figuring out how to make them part of a compelling story with a beginning, middle and end. I also suffer from this problem, (although I wish I also shared Donaldson's prolific success). I have a mental room full of characters, but they are just mind sketches until they actually have a purpose. 

How do you know how these characters will react to whatever conflict you construct within your book? 

They may have crept into your mind for the first draft, but is that enough to remain believable and inviting for your reader and for you, though multiple re-drafts? To clarify motivations you might try creating Tag Lines like advertisers do, or a catchphrase much like Spiderman's “With great power comes great responsibility.” 

Naming characters can to help define them, indicating where they are from and what social class they fit into, or imprint assumed characteristics in readers' minds. Creed and Monty are opposites of the spectrum and their very names make it implausible for them to inhabit certain realms. Oliver Jeffers swerves this dilemma with several picture books in which the protagonist is just the 'Boy', like an every man, making himself less important than his experiences. 


Other writers put characters last, like Clare Welsh. She works out the plot first and then tries to identify the types of characters needed to push it forward, like chess pieces. This removes the tendency to keep a superfluous character just because you love them. 

However you create your characters they have to appeal to your reader. 

If we don't care about them we won't root for them or become engrossed in even the most ingenious plot. If your character’s traits or actions are too predictable or stereotyped or just annoying, readers switch off, particularly if the writer scoops their darlings out of catastrophe. Characters can be nice or not, but they have to be three dimensional. This can be achieved by using quirks or contradictions, like a disloyal cat who everyone loves (Six Dinners Sid) or an ordinary squirrel who gains superpowers (Flora and Ulysses). 

The options are limitless, but ultimately they will only succeed if you make them engaging so that readers want to follow their adventures. 

Kate lives in Kent with her two children who provide her with limitless ideas for stories. Kate writes Middle Grade and Picture books and is a member of Muddle Graders Critique Group.



  1. Interesting post, Kate. Thanks everyone. I like Robert McKee's advice in Story. He suggests asking, 'If I were in these circumstances, what would I do?' every time a character faces an unexpected event. And when you've decided, think of the opposite reaction. Watching the BBC's brilliant Sherlock series again last night, I could see how that sort of technique can keep a plot tumbling forward in unexpected ways.

  2. That's an interesting idea. I often think about what would be the sensible thing to do then scrap that because it would make boring reading so I choose more extreme option.

    1. It's all about progressions, isn't it? Making things harder & harder but in a credible way.


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