Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Tips for Writers Dig Deep to Create More Compelling Characters in Your Story

by PeggySue Wells @PeggySueWells

The more a writer knows the personality, background, and motivations about a character, the more compelling the story. 

A story is a snapshot of a character’s life, the noteworthy parts with the boring aspects conveniently trimmed away. Much about your character will not be included. But like a house that is built on a foundation not visible, the structure underneath determines a good deal about how the visible part responds to good and tough situations.

The same is true about character building. Each character has their own backstory, those unique settings and events that mold the interior and exterior of a person to be their own complex individual.

Last month we focused on the the earliest foundation by asking questions about the character’s beginnings. From the circumstances surrounding conception and birth until childhood begins to transition into adulthood, we did a deep dive into those formative childhood years. The next stage of personality development includes the middle and high school grades.

Some stories focus on the young adult season. 
  • Harry Potter is a coming-of-age adventure from childhood until high school graduation.
  • Twilight covers the high school years
  • The Michael Vey series features characters venturing through young adulthood.
  • C.S. Lewis set his young adult characters to explore Narnia.

Here are three methods and questions to help you develop your character’s backstory during those pivotal years after childhood.

1. Much like a psychologist, an author can ask probing questions that create a whole personality. 
  • When did puberty begin? 
  • Sexual awareness? 
  • Who was the character’s first crush? 
  • First romance? 
  • What adults populated your character’s world? 
  • Who were the parental surrogates such as coaches or teachers? 
  • As a teenager, when did your character separate from parents or from the place considered to be home? 
  • What was their first work experience? 
  • First job? 
  • What events contributed to the character’s unique sense of self? 
  • How did unresolved issues from childhood impact the following years? 
  • What moods were typical? 
  • Was the character interested in learning or close-minded?
  • What did education look like when your character was an early adult? 
  • When did a career come into play? 
  • Was there relocation? 
  • Separation from family? 
  • What hopes and dreams did your character harbor? 
  • What was accomplished? 
  • What frustrations or roadblocks prevented longed-for accomplishments? 
  • How did the character respond to culture? 
  • What habits were developed? 
  • Did the character experience sexual relationships, love relationships, or have children? 
  • Who were major influences during this period?
As an adult: 
  • What is your character’s occupation and salary? 
  • Does the character practice faith? 
  • What type of people have become friends?
  • Is family still involved? 
  • What hobbies, interests, and political views occupy their attention? 

Whatever the age of your character in story, consider their inner appearance.
  • What is your character afraid of? 
  • What is the worst thing that can happen? 
  • What have been the character’s hardest emotions? 
  • Happiest? 
  • What triggers anger? 
  • When anger is triggered, how is that powerful emotion expressed? 
  • What does this character detest? 
  • Not understand? 
  • What is embarrassing? 
  • What is an inner-strength?
  • How does the character receive and give love?

Perhaps most importantly: 
  • What does your character want most of all? 
  • What lies does the character believe? 
  • What secret does the character keep? 
  • How does the character see themself?

Another way to know your character is to interview them as you would for someone you are writing a feature article about.
  • What would you ask your character?
  • How does your character answer the interview questions? 
  • What do you observe about your character?
  • What are your character’s actions, habits, behaviors?
  • How does your character interact in their environment?

3) A third way to dive deeply into the person you are creating is to do a personality test for your character. There are a number of personality assessments online from the usual Myers-Briggs to the Enneagram. 

Writing characters is a study on what people do and why they do it.

Once you know your character’s background, rather than an information dump, drip this pertinent information about your character to the reader as needed for this story. Some information is only for the author to know the character well enough to write believably. Other information will be key for the reader to know … eventually.


Tropical island votary and history buff, PeggySue Wells parasails, skydives, snorkels, scuba dives, and has taken (but not passed) pilot training. Writing from the 100-Acre Wood in Indiana, Wells is the bestselling author of thirty books including The Slave Across the Street, Slavery in the Land of the Free, Bonding With Your Child Through Boundaries, Homeless for the Holidays, Chasing Sunrise, and The Ten Best Decisions A Single Mom Can Make. Founder of SingleMomCircle.com, PeggySue is named for the Buddy Holly song with the great drumbeat. At school author visits, she teaches students the secrets to writing and speaks at events and conferences. Connect with her at www.PeggySueWells.com, on Facebook at PeggySue Wells, and LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/peggysuewells


  1. The photo with this article looks like the stairs to the 11th floor in the building I stayed in in Milan.

  2. Wow, what great advice. Thanks, PeggySue! I missed the Taylor U. writers' conference this year, but hope to cross paths with you sometime in the future.

  3. I appreciate your insight. I remember Joyce Ellis encouraging writers at Write-to-Publish to create dossiers for our characters. That advice stuck with me.