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Character in Literary Fictional Story

by William H. Coles

Characterization in literary fiction has special importance and authors need to develop their own sense of responsibility for full and effective character development.


Character is everything in literary fiction. Not that character replaces plot and setting or theme and meaning, but character intimately relates to all those. Although characters are sometimes categorized as round or flat, every character in fiction must have complexities and uniqueness that may or may not be written on the page. A character that does not need to be fully presented for the story may appear two dimensional, but there should be three dimensions in the creator’s mind. Full character development assures that the author has thought about the story as a unit. Depth of understanding of all characters assures underlying motivations are reasonable, dialogue believable, and logic of action is clear.


The goal of character creation in fiction is complex but creating a unique character — one that is not stereotypical — is the essence of great fictional stories. The character will be adopted by the reader and the characters will drive the momentum of the plot. At the start of character development, there are no restrictions. A character emerges unencumbered. Then that character must be perfected for the plot. The character must be unique but remain believable and within the boundaries set by the suspension of disbelief all fiction requires. The character must not be stereotypical yet must feel comfortable to the reader in a familiar way. As a memorable character develops, the reader becomes attached and admires the character in the same way they would begin to like a new acquaintance as a friend. This reader attachment is often associated with liking the character, but affinity is not absolutely necessary. Respect and/or admiration are also strong attachments for a reader to a character. As the author creates an emerging character, subtle choices and imaginative attributes given to the character must keep within the overall story guidelines set in the contract between author and reader. Subsequently, in revision, scenes, thoughts, actions, conflicts and motivations that do not contribute maximally to the character engaging the reader and driving the plot forward are eliminated, or at least changed.

Maximizing opportunities

To create a character for a reader in a literary story, there are a limited number of things the character can think or do. In a short story, even for the protagonist, there may be only ten to twenty key characterization opportunities. Often, there are fewer. In the novel, with its longer timeline and wider range of development from the direct story line, there are more opportunities for a character to show his or her true colors, but ultimately, even these openings are limited. How do authors take key opportunities and make the most of them?  First, character development must be reasonable for the story and for the sensibilities of the reader. The actions and thoughts of the character must also be unique, with elements of surprise, so that the actions and traits embed in reader memory. In-scene showing of a character’s actions, thoughts and opinions has more lasting impact than narrative telling. And character development leaves more impression on the reader when in-scene story time predominates over backstory or narrator comments on past character action.


Literary fiction demands extraordinary skills for character development but two erroneous attitudes suppress authors achieving the memorable characters required for great stories: 1) that character development is an inherent trait and that author learning and experience provide little improvement; 2) that characters take over the author’s stories when authors are in their best writing trances and the character carries the story to successful completion — a common but surefire limitation on developing the best fictional character. Characters are imagined and created–not discovered and described–for maximum story effectiveness.


Stories, to be great, should be significant and meaningful. A major way for an author to instill these qualities in storytelling is through effective characterization.


A stereotypical (oversimplified standardized image or idea) character is avoided in literary stories. But in fact, stereotypes abound in many stories, and are often essential. Comic superheroes are so rigid that cartoonists must adhere strictly to the visual and story history so familiar to the reader, say for Spiderman. In detective fiction, Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s detective, is consistent crime after crime. He has a role that defines him and that is required for the story telling as she created it. In literary fiction, every character is, by nature of the creative process, born stereotypical, and is then developed to some non-stereotypical threshold. This improves reader interest and augments quality of the story. But in stories with multiple characters, all characters cannot be unique, vibrant and memorable; some stereotypes are unavoidable. This is not bad. Over-development of too many characters may create unbelievable and/or ineffective fiction. As in the writing of all fiction, proper balance must be sought, a balance that is uniquely individual for each writer’s style and sensibilities.

Character in different types of writing

Although many would reflexively disagree, it is true that memoir, creative nonfiction, and biography do not have the options and do not reach the potential of character development available to the fiction writer. Yet, many, if not the vast majority, of pieces published as fiction stories today are simply authors telling something that has happened, often to them or someone they know, with a little freedom from reality, and calling the result fiction. A character and his or her traits are described. This result does not have the imaginative structure of fiction and relies on narrative telling to the reader rather than in-scene engagement. Lyrical writers–the poets of prose–find it easier to experiment with language through nonfiction. This is not all bad and is very enjoyable to some readers but it does not address how to create great fictional stories. In fiction, characters emerge, plot progresses, meaning arises, and structure supports a story that is created in the imagination and then skillfully crafted to provide entertainment for the reader. Fiction demands that the reader knows more than the characters, and often more than the narrator. Fiction is less reliant on the discovery of something already known than on the awareness of how and why something happens based on character and plot. In memoir, biography and autobiography, the character is formed before the writing starts. The author chooses accurate descriptions of happenings. There are few decisions allowing change for the betterment of the story.

Character and Plot

In literary fiction, character moves the plot. Consider some brief plot descriptions:

  1. The plane crashed.
  2. The drunk pilot crashed in a stolen plane.
  3. The grief-stricken pilot, rejected by his second wife, fails to listen to a transmission from the tower and is injured after a midair collision.
  4. The plane was shot down by enemy fire.
  5. The nearly bankrupt airline failed to pay maintenance man Joe Hubbard for two months and Joe refused to perform a routine maintenance check, yet Max Fine, the supervisor, allowed the plane to fly. The plane crashed.

These scenarios demonstrate how plot can be circumstantial (1 and 4) or character motivated (2, 3 and 5). (These are not suggested as worthy of development.)


The author who wants to create great stories must characterize well. Time and multiple tries are required, and a healthy dissatisfaction with all early opportunities is essential. In fact, during the creative process, authors must continue to search for improved characterization, never being satisfied with mediocrity.

To read EXAMPLES of stories with emphasis on strong characterization, see: Homunculus, Reddog, Facing Grace with Gloria.

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33 thoughts on “Character in Literary Fictional Story

  • JohnWick

    Hi! I want to use this as a reference for my undergraduate thesis. May I know when was this published online? Thank you. It would help me much.

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  • lynn

    Hi my name is, Lynn. I just had a question. It might be silly sounding. But, here it goes. I am working on completing an assignment and I was asked to:

    This assignment requires that you consider the connections between literary elements and that you apply your analytical skills to developing a coherent argument about a literary work. The paper is an opportunity to further develop and apply your understanding of literary analysis.

    I do not have much understanding. I have picked my two literary elements which are character and plot. ( the story is red riding hood) I guess I just want to know if I am on the right track? Thanks so so much!!

    • admin

      Thanks for your question. You are on the right track. There is a blog post on site that uses Little Red Riding Hood as an example and discusses character and plot in that story in detail with examples of how changing the plot and character affect the meaning. Click here. I hope this helps. WHC

  • Ali Bye

    First off, thank you for your continued input and help on my problem. I really appreciate your support. I’ve been having trouble with this story concept for a long time and that is what kept me from even physically starting it. I could never find someone that understood my troubles with my story, but your wisdom in the literary field has allowed me to finally see it being healed into the high standard I want of it.

    I wish you could help me more, but then you might as well be writing the story (that and I’d have to reveal my actual plot without allegories). I will strive to continue developing my story on both a mental standpoint in mind and physical standpoint on paper. I already have used some suggestions you’ve given me here, so I’m glad to know I’m on the right track there! However, I never thought of the top/bottom material you mentioned. That will be another great addition! Thank you for that too. :)

  • Ali Bye

    Thank you for responding! You’re definitely quite thorough with your advice, and great advice at that! I’ll be sure to look at your responses again and again as I write my story. Thank you for making the one-stop place to prepare my thoughts in writing. :)

    However I must confess that my original problem does not seem to be solved or leading in the right direction. I understand the character-driven narrative and movements which directly affect the plot, but my characters position is special in that it must pass through the thoughts of another character (which is the foreboding character) first for his ratification.

    The best allegory I can give to you is that my main character is in a room and can not open the door to any other room. She is locked inside the room. No matter what she does, no matter what her reaction is, she can not escape or go to another room. She can cry, weep, or get angry and punch the doors or walls, but to no avail.

    To this, the foreboding character is in a command center that has control of the doors and rooms in which to open and close them for my main character to enter and exit. That is if he wants. My foreboding character can simply keep my main character in that same room forever. But he wants something and that something is to see the reaction my main character takes to the rooms. If she acts sad, the foreboding character will open and may force my main character into the new room to the left. If she reacts angrily to the new left room though the foreboding character will eventually open another door and may force her into a new room north of her. In this example, she is literally like a lab rat or slave in the “plot maze” you suggested not to put her in.

    In other words, to my main character’s perspective, she is trapped in a prison-like place. Based on her character development, she can react differently and change each time she sees and lives in different rooms with different features. Perhaps she sees a toy in the initial room and acts a bit happy, but in the second room she sees the toy again and is instead now fearful and has learned and/or chosen not to play with it anymore. The doors in the rooms to her seem to randomly open and she sees no pattern to their opening and closing. But in actuality she, through her developing reactions, can actually control which door she can open (through the approval of the foreboding character), she just doesn’t realize it. She just thinks in her mind that it just happens to be the situation she is in and that no matter what she does, she can’t control the plot and direction of her own life.

    Let me set this straight though, the foreboding character is not simply a plot device for opening doors. He is a three-dimensional character too that changes as her life goes on. It’s just that his actions seem random to my main character. He studies her and is very interested in her and his future actions reflect this in his development to the tests he put her through in the past.

    It is through these two character’s driven actions and reactions that they affect the minds and paths of each other. My main character affects the mind of the foreboding character, and he in exchange, allows new paths in life to be opened (if forced at times) to her.

    My trouble and main problem though is that I don’t want my story to seem situation-driven by my main character’s perspective. I want it to feel and show that each situation was purposely caused, but subtly, like a mystery within a shadow.

    Within this allegory, it shows that my story is not like an autobiography, as these actions are within the present and are ever changing for multiple non-predetermined futures, but the “term” autobiography was the best word I could use to describe her story as a whole.

    I’m very sorry if I seem (or am) spewing stupid nonsense at you, but this is the way I feel about my own story and it is the best way I can describe it to you so you can help answer my troubles. Again, I’m sorry.

    • admin

      Very interesting. The premise for story and character change is sound. A couple of thoughts and suggestions I hope might help. First, you might consider thinking about this as two main characters each with emotional complexities that seem opposite and where one is dominating the other. Both characters have emotional arcs that progress through the story. Change occurs in both so that the nondominate one becomes dominate. This is already what you have set up and I don’t think equating the importance of the two would change your allegorical concept too much, but it would give momentum to the emotional changes occurring in the story (i.e. expansion of the reversal). I would try to solidify the emotional arcs with credible and realistic action, and maybe avoid being too ethereal. You want the reader to care, and they might not care if they don’t think the character could actutally exist.

      I haven’t picked up exactly what happens in the plot yet. But consider this. Make your plot more distinct in your thinking, and develop it in addition to the interesting and powerful emotional arcs you have going. I think of this suggestion working as if you might develop a scene where a husband and wife are arguing about divorce while motor boating on a lake and he is driving and the argument gets hotter and the boat’s speed increases and he is distracted and there are sunken logs and rocks in the area they have entered. Now there is a top story–the boat danger and accident–on the top and the conflict and separation of their argument underneath. Both are related and both affect one another. Note how this might increase interest and complexity with synergism. In your situation, there might be a plot where the woman is kidnapped, or abducted (in some metaphorical way even) and she struggles to be free and the dominating presence struggles to keep her where he’s got her. Then, through the expression of emotional conflicts occurring simultaneously, changes occur that reverse their roles, she takes him over through enlightenment about who he is and what makes him tick, and he submits to her with awareness developing that she is not what he thought she was. (I know this is what you’re doing.) During this time, she is physically trying to escape. This thinking needs a lot of work and its only value for you may be for you to be able to continue to seek new ways to use and effect your original idea (which is good and should continue to be the skeleton of the story). (You might look at this essay.)

      Overall, I think you are on the right track and just need to continue your thinking, adding a little flexibility, and maybe releasing a little from the rather tight allegorical concept you expressed to expand and embellish in the actual creation of the story (but not abandoning your concept in any way). My suggestions also point to the search for conflict, action, and resolution (drama) in the story, and in every scene and paragraph.

      It might also help to repeatedly ask, what do I want the reader to experience and discover, and how does it relate (always directly) to the story? This will begin to help you develop the characters and point out the the best use of your craft skills to please the reader. You might also think in the creation and writing that you want to avoid telling the reader about your very interesting story premise, but that you want to let them discover, through dramatic scenes, your characters and your plot–and how the two interact. It may seem obtuse, but this is the way to present your ideas in engaging and entertaining ways that will result in powerful revelations about your idea discovered by the reader. If you pull it off, the reader will love your story, and remember it forever.

      All the best in your writing. Let me know about your progress if you have time.


  • Mistoffa Henderson

    Well first off i have to say this is quite interesting. People hate to fail but love to achieve and succeed, therefore I am very glad to have read this essay by coles who helped me when I was writing my novel by this essay. I have development and complexity and a very interesting plot about a duck who wants to seek revenge on his best friend the donkey who is in love with carrot girl, the most prettiest girl in the town of farminginamals.

  • Ali Bye

    Hello, amateur here, sorry for the late response, but my question just happens to be especially related to this essay.

    I have just started to write a story I have been wanting to do for a while, but some aspects of it have me worried. One of the main aspects of it is the way the “plot” progresses. Throughout the whole story I focus it through one character, and that character alone. The “plot” basically is the autobiographical experience the character has had with her own life as a whole (baby to death). What troubles me is that I want it to be as you say, a character-driven plot. You would think this would be easy then, as you can’t be much more interwoven with a plot and character if they directly relate with each other as the life of that person. However my character’s life is largely out of her hands and is instead directed by a foreboding character that operates in the shadows (symbolically). This foreboding character makes it hard for my main character to seem in control. In other words, my story seems to be situation-driven (with the life changing situations made by the foreboding character). How should I go about the story in order to remedy this so that my character SEEMS to be in control of her own progression of her life?

    I know it seems like a hard question to answer, but this seems like the best place I can go to to have my question answered. Thank you for your time.

    If you need more specific information so you can properly answer, I’ll be glad to give more.

    • admin

      Thanks for your question and your confidence in the site. I am impressed with your thought process. You are thinking about writing in admirable ways, ways that many even very successful writers never seem to achieve. Here are some suggestions to achieve what you want, a character-drive plot. This is important in literary fiction because your purpose is to provide new awareness or reawakening in the reader about what it means to be human–i.e. meaning. And, of course, as you’ve already discovered, to nurture significance in a story that is character-driven, you must build the character through action and description so the story plot takes its interesting turns from the character’s strengths and weakness. In the great story, the character is changing. Something is happening that will never allow them to be as they were before. (An enlightenment.) To effect this, authors must be careful not to depend on real happenings (autobiographical material which is often presented in description), which are fatalistic because they are events that have already happened (even in the imagined story). Authors must find what drives the character and then present to the reader in action scenes and objective active prose (Tears ran down her cheeks), rather than subjective abstract prose (She was so sad! She cried.) Characters built with the imagination-stimulating action scenes rich with conflict and resolution that illuminates the character and will engage the reader, and entertain and enlighten the reader. And these characters will also now be capable of integrating into the story so the plot results from their actions, rather than their acting in the story like actors on the stage. This is the gift story telling in prose gives to writers and readers. So as you learn to know your character (and respect or even love the character) you can restructure your story, using the plot stimulated by the autobiographical material, so the the plot results from character action scenes. Choice of POV will be important. Single, multiple. !st or 3rd. Each will have advantages and disadvantages. You will need to identify narrator and character purpose (and function) in your story. Try different POVs (and the voices that are associated with story information delivered through these POV’s) to find what best provides the maximum impact for you story (being true to your story) and for your reader (engaging and pleasing). Now, as you create your story, you will restructure in a series of action-conflict scenes and carefully constructed narrative transitions, a story with a vibrant character that affects the plot action that is the skeleton for your story. Note that you are not slotting the character into the plot maze. The plot maze is moving because of what the character is doing in action scenes. You, as author, are thinking of how character desires and traits are making changes that result in plot progressions. (You have not abandoned your original plot idea, however, you have just restructured to make the character the essential force in plot movement.) All this is not easy, but to achieve it puts you on the path to being a writer with a significant chance of pleasing the targeted group of readers you seek to please. Best wishes for every success. WHC

  • Marion Clarke

    Many thanks for your response. It is very timely considering the competition deadline is Monday and I’m at about the fifth stage of rewriting! My problem is that I spend so much time getting the language right on the first few paragraphs that I get bogged down and then the ending is rushed as I’m always working at the eleventh hour. I am new to creative writing (although I have been involved in journalism in the past) so I think I write narrative in ‘over-poetic’ language. I might find this visually stunning in a self-satisfied way but it will bore the pants off the reader so I end up scrapping it. But then, if I just write the facts is that not tedious also? It’s knowing how much to include (or not to include in my case!) that is a major headache. Can you write with imagery and poetic descriptions in fiction or should I try my hand at poetry?

    • admin

      What a perceptive response. You’ve really answered the dilemma of lyrical prose and effective story prose for yourself. You share the frustrations of all writers when you spend time with adjustments in the beginning and wind up cheating the ending, which is so important. The beginning, of course, is to engage the reader. Who. what, when, and where. The middle is the how and why. The end is the resolution of the conflict that must be in the story and under the control of the writer. And imagery, description, lyrical language are all essential in creating your style, just don’t let them become the major focus of your writing so they replace effective elements of story. In description, look to create momentum. There is an example too in “How Literary Stories Go Wrong” that may help. Amen to never boring the reader. It is a paradox that poetic prose is absolutely a great way to grab a reader’s attention, yet the prime reason readers lose interest in reading. Poetics in fiction needs to be concrete and vibrant, not abstract and static. In terms of getting bogged down in twiddling with the prose, think of the story as a unit with a series of dramatized scenes that will carry the reader effortlessly to the ending. Anything you write should support the unity of the story. Nothing should be parenthetical or nonrelated, even in word choice. This is especially true in revision. You can master all this; you can be effective for story and still be visually stunning (and self-satisfied too). You can do this! Don’t default to just poetry! I can tell you have the potential. WHC

  • Kenya Bates

    Hi, question and I will try not to be confusing. How do you write a plot with more than one character. Let’s say I introduce a character that walks into a room and then they started talking to another character. How do I write a plot without going back and forth between characters and making it to confusing. I’m working on a story that has about 4 to 5 characters in it. Thanks.

    • admin

      Thanks for the question. Here are some basics to help you think about how to get your story on the page. Plot is everything that happens in a story. Characters act out happenings in a story in a series in interrelated scenes. Each scene is dramatized by using conflict that causes action that leads to resolution. Narrators tell story, so decide who is going to narrate, someone outside story–a narrator–or a character. (It is useful to think of the writer as story creator telling story through a narrator. Mother telling <em>Little Red Ridinghood</em> to her child at bedtime is as narrator, the author is not present (dead actually). That’s a good rule to follow, visualize telling your story through a narrator.) In terms of characters going back and forth, that’s an essential way to deliver action and conflict in the story–interaction among the characters. So don’t worry about confusion; instead, concentrate on using the interaction to further your story. To get this in some form, think about your story step by step. Get who says what in your mind. . . what happens, where it happens. Keep thinking about why characters are doing things, and is what they’re doing reasonable and logical for the story? Then tell your story from memory to yourself in the mirror as if you were another person. Then tell your story to someone . . . see if you can hold his or her attention and if he or she understands your story. Make adjustments. (This is getting your plot down–create it, don’t write it. Your story should be based on happenings that will then make up the essence of the plot.) Then look to how to best translate your story into the medium of fictional prose. Look to the elements of writing–narration, description, dialogue, setting. Make things happen. Keep the story moving. Outline the events of your story on a timeline. Is the pacing right? Is everything important? Is the storytelling time too long or too short; it is almost never is just right until your finished. Learn to show your story through actions, and avoid narrative telling. ( Examples. I went to the store . . you know it was cold as hell and my neighbor, she said, “Morning Elsie, bit of chill in the air today, ain’t there?” I told her I got to be going to see Sadie. She’s sick as a pregnant hound dog. [That’s telling. Look at showing. ] The snow made crisp crunchy sounds under my brogans and my breath came out steamy and disappeared over my shoulders as I walked as fast as I could. I saw Sadie’s shack up ahead. There was no smoke from the chimney. The windows were dark, and the door was ajar . . . the blackness in the opening frightened me for fear that the cold had rushed in to team up with Sadie’s sickness. God, I hoped she was all right. [That’s more showing than telling.]) It takes a while to learn, but start now with this story showing your story through action. This will take away your concerns about confusion among characters. Everything you write will have a purpose, and characters speaking will seem natural for your story. There’s lots about this on the site. The study guide helps. It takes many different perspectives to get it all straight in our minds as writers. But the effort is necessary and worthwhile. WHC

  • Marion Clarke

    I am entering a short story competition where the subject has to be about animals or from an animal’s point of view. If characterisation is one of the most important parts of a story can you treat animals as humans and give them similar character traits or will this sound silly?!

    • admin

      Interesting dilemma. Animals are personified in many stories. Whether it sounds silly depends on the expectations of the reader (some–usually adult–readers will never buy into animals acting and thinking as humans), and on the skill of the author. As a writer, as you try to create the character, you’ll have to try to imagine the reader shifting to embrace the character through suspension of disbelief. You will need to reach a level of credibility for the character–and reader–by carefully constructed prose that does not raise questions about whether this could be true or not . . . and that will allow the reader you’re targeting to accept the personified animal as okay for the story. So the setting and the prose have to be right. For personified animals, it is easier for a reader to suspend disbelief if the setting is a barnyard rather than a Wall Street boardroom. Also consider an effective POV. Do you want to be in the animal’s thoughts exclusively? If not, if you also use human thoughts as well, you may lose credibility when switching around. In general, keep thinking, what purpose does it serve my story to be in the animal’s point of view. What advantage does it give the reader, and the story? Be sure, as you write, to maintain a purpose . . . it could be the innocence of an animal POV, or could be seeing the world from eighteen inches off the ground . . . or it might be that it serves the story conflict, say between a pig and a chicken, or a sheep and the shepherd. If there is a solid purpose for your POV choice that is related understanding, humor, or meaning, suspension of disbelief will be easier for the reader, and acceptance of the POV more assured. All this will take repeated tries, I believe. Good luck. Thanks for the question. I hope this helps. WHC

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  • Maria Booth

    I’m writing a mystery and have two conflicted main characters and a few secondary characters in my story but I’m having a problem trying to bring it all together without solving the crime too soon. Any suggestions would be much appreciated.


    • admin


      Thanks for your question. I am not experienced as a writer in traditional mysteries. However, as a storyteller, I was interested in you dilemma, and your expression of it. Although this may go against your prime objective for story, you might consider focusing on the two main characters and their conflicts. In reading your description, that is what stimulated my wanting to read–the resolution of those human conflicts and desires. In addition to solving the crime, these might be the real golden core for your story. The solving of the crime would then be secondary, and in essence, the solution of the the crime could come at any time. If you did this, as a story, the tension in the story comes from the solution of the human conflict rather than the tension achieved from withholding information. From your description. this seems possible since you’ve got the conflict between characters already established. In classics, two stories come to mind–<em>Crime and Punishment</em> (Dostoevsky) and <em>The Beast Within</em> (Zola). These are not contemporary in flavor, but contain story-creation principles where crimes are solved early and the aftermath (primarily psychological with 19th century sensibilities) creates the momentum for most of the storytelling.

      This approach may also involve the reader seeking involvement with the characters and the plot, but it also might diminish the attractiveness to those of us who of enjoy a traditional crime/mystery read. It would depend on your goals as a writer; do you want to write stories based on withheld information or are you interested in delivering in your stories some enlightenment about what it means to be human? Both are reasonable and generate satisfaction for a writer; the effective writer will clarify the the goals (as you seem to have already done) so the techniques of storytelling and fiction writing are best learned and utilized. I would add, when you have the questions about your story they may be symptoms of a need to make structural changes for maximum results. You have the right approach so seek ways to change to create what you want. In your search, looking to restructuring plot and characters may help you to perfection.

      I hope this is helpful; I wanted to offer my thoughts for consideration.

      Best regards,


  • Lenora Finch

    I have two stories in my head that will not go away so I’m trying to write one. Do i start with the characters in an outline,or just strat wrting a story a fill them in later>

    • admin

      Thanks for comment. Really, there is not right way to approach this. But you might try this. Is the story about a character who has a conflict and who resolves that conflict? Is that character is the most important reason you want to write the story? If so, I’d begin to explore everything about that character including the core desire (like fear of loneliness) that drives the character and the motives that express that desire. Then I’d outline in my head, or on paper, where the story is going to go and how to get there. Then you’ll be developing the story with strong characterization. If your story is about a happening, an event, then outline the movement of the characters in the event–beginning, middle, and end. Find the conflict (all stories need some conflict that is resolved). Then see how the characters begin to fit into that conflict. This is a little different in that you’ll be changing the characters thoughts, feelings, and actions, for the best telling of the happening your creating (rather than creating a strong character first). Be sure to keep things moving and stay inside your characters heads and feelings so what you write on the page makes logical sense to the reader.

      It’s not easy. It takes lots of thinking and time, so don’t get discouraged, and always keep looking for ways to improve story and characters on every draft. It’s a never ending process for a good story.

      Best wishes,


  • Shruti Chandra Gupta

    I think the treatment of characters and plot is what distinguishes literary fiction from genre writing.

    Stereotypical, I don’t know, but every long fictional work has flat characters along with round ones. The tag of ugliness stuck to flat characters is totally unjustified.

    • admin

      Hi Sarah-Ann,
      Begin by imagining your character’s likes and dislikes, emotions, opinions, appearance, habits, etc. Find the core desire in life for the character. What does that character want most in life? Many writers mentally carry the character in their day to day lives and imagine how the character would react to situations. Then you can look on this website for the study guide (button on home page or in the sidebar) that will direct you to essays and interviews that relate to characterization.

  • William Coles Post author

    Dear Mr. Madison Grape

    An interesting question about your characters. And very positive that you have more characters than you think you should have, and that, as a writer, you are concerned about how many will be effective. Of course, number of effective characters can be dictated by how your story is developing, a short or long work. And you should also not be equating characters: there are both primary and secondary characters, each of which will require different development, and different assessment of value.
    Although it may seem complicated, here are some thoughts for you to evaluate your story and your characters.
    1. Are you describing your characters to your reader, or are you presenting the characters in scenes where they act and reveal traits the reader can enjoy and latch onto? For example, you might have gone to a new church where you were fascinated by the characters in the congregation. You sit down to meticulously describe selected characters that you remember. This structure for a (literary) story will rapidly fail to interest the reader no matter how well described, and/or how bizarre or ordinary, the characters are. Instead the reader wants something to happen, and the reader wants change in the characters that will change them, the readers. So you, as a writer, look for sources of action.
    Find an interesting character (s) and determine a core desire. What drives this person’s thoughts and actions. To fulfill an intense sexual need is one, or for the power wealth can bring, or for adoration of as many people as possible, are the sort of things you’re looking for. As you study your characters, interesting core desires will be imagined, changed, intensified, as needed. This desire will relate to the motivations of the character’s actions. For example, the choir director needs passionate love, this motivates him to fall in love with the minister’s wife who sings soprano. She rejects his advances, an obstacle to his success. He then tries to woo her by making her the soloist at church. She is not good and is humiliated. I’ll stop here, but you can see desire and motivation now driving the action of your story. Every character in the congregation is now secondary or less interesting than the primary characters. As a concerned writer, you will develop this character fully, and a few others—the preacher’s wife possibly—to maintain the momentum of your story. And characters you add to your story should relate to this story line and the meaning of the story, which in this case might be some enlightenment about morality.
    No character is needed if that character does not support the story action, the drama/conflict of the story, or the character development of the characters you have chosen to be primary.
    2. Does every character you’ve introduced have a story purpose? As authors, we tend to a false pride when we describe that perfect character with vivid imagery and satisfying uniqueness. But when you evaluate a character and you cannot not find the purpose for that character to advance your story, no matter how perfect the description, that character needs to be removed as a distraction to your purpose (to be used elsewhere, or become primary in another story, etc.). Remember, as storytellers, we are trying to engage and please the reader. We do this by having something to say—a good story to tell—and then present it dramatically. Drama requires conflict and resolution. And characters must not just exist on the page, they must contribute to the story action.
    3. Success as a literary fiction writer comes from the gift of building characters through dramatic action that a reader will never forget. For me, Heathcliff and Catherine in Wuthering Heights are examples. Unforgettable. Every successful story has this (these) quality character (s). In the literary story, the plot action itself is secondary. In literature we are learning something new and interesting about the character as a human being, not discovering delayed information in the plot–who is the murderer, will the airplane crash, etc. So if you develop your character (s) to your maximum potential, you will begin to weed out unnecessary characters as part of the process. Too many characters will weaken your character development, and too many characters will confuse and dilute the readers enjoyment.
    I hope this helps. And best wishes for success in your story. From the nature of your question, I know you are on the right track for successful writing.

    William Coles

  • Madison Grape

    I am having rouble writing I love to think of characters but recently I have had the feeling that I have added to many characters. When should I stop adding characters to my story.