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Create compelling characters

Posted by inkpop on November 14, 2009

inktip #7: Flex your creative muscles with Tui T. Sutherland’s techniques


Tui T. Sutherland photo by Charles Eshelman

The more you have to do, the more you get done. At least that’s the case for Tui T. Sutherland. At 31, she’s published more than two dozen books, including the Avatars trilogy, two of the best-selling Seekers books, and books for the Pirates of the Caribbean: Legends of the Brethren Court series.

The two-time Jeopardy champ who publishes under four pseudonyms (Erin Hunter, Heather Williams, Rob Kidd, and Tamara Summers) writes from midnight to 5 a.m. daily. The prolific author is oozing with practical writing tips, her favorite of which are about character development.

“Making up characters is the most fun part of being an author, because it lets you be all these other people and put yourself into weird situations—without ever having to get out of your pajamas!” the Boston-area author says.

In her latest book, Never Bite a Boy on the First Date (under the pen name Tamara Summers), Sutherland says the main character, Kira, is a “sassier, tougher, better-dressed version” of herself. “I made her especially different by letting her say all the sarcastic things I sometimes think but rarely say out loud.”  AvatarsCover

Read on for Sutherland’s how-to on creating compelling characters …


Don’t know where to get started with character development? Why not look at the people around you. “You don’t want to base your characters too closely on people you know, but you can learn a lot from what makes them interesting and different,” Sutherland says. 

Tui T. Sutherland’s Character-Development Exercise: Write descriptions of the five most interesting people you know (remember, interesting doesn’t just mean likable!) as if they’re characters you’re meeting for the first time. “You wouldn’t just tell us their hair and eye color, right?” she says. “Dig into what makes them so unusual.” (Try this inkpop Forums Writing Exercise.)

Need some examples to get your wheels turning? “Maybe your best friend is normally calm and friendly to everyone, but she gets passionately defensive and angry when someone criticizes her favorite author or TV show,” Sutherland says. “Maybe the guy you like has this strange artistic impulse to cover his walls with collages of pictures from magazines—what he chooses can say a lot about him, too.”


You’re probably thinking, “Well, yeah, duh—of course you have to name your characters.” Just don’t procrastinate. “I have so much trouble figuring out characters before I have a name attached to them,” Sutherland says. You can always try change the name in the case that it doesn’t fit the personality.


Once you’ve named your characters, think about how the reader meets them and how the very first scene can tell the reader about their personalities. “For instance, Kira meets Milo at the swimming pool, Daniel at the midnight murder scene, and Rowan at the school assembly to mourn the victim,” Sutherland says, of the characters in Never Bite a Boy on the First Date.  Seekers By Erin Hunter


A favorite hangout spot, the neighborhood, the inside of a locker—these are all places to let loose with details. In her Pet Trouble books, Sutherland’s narrators spend at least a paragraph describing their bedrooms: the colors, what’s on the walls and bookshelf, what the most important thing in the room is to them, etc.


1. A believable history. Create the characters’ back stories—what their families are like, who they love and hate, and the events that shaped their lives. “Did her first love betray her and crush her faith in romance? Did his mother tell him he was worthless and would never amount to anything? Think about how you would react to something, and then try having a character do the exact opposite,” Sutherland says.

2. A sense of humor. “I know it wouldn’t be believable for every character to be funny, but in the real world, I think almost everyone thinks they’re funny,” Sutherland says. “I much prefer stories where characters can be funny, whether in a big way or a subtle, cynical way. Some of the darkest shows on television—Mad Men, Dexter, The Wire—manage to have brilliantly funny dialogue or moments of surprising humor.”

3. Proactivity. “Characters who merely react to what’s happening around them are not as much fun as characters who say, ‘I’m doing this my way’ or ‘I’ll figure it out myself’ or ‘I’m going to surprise the bad guy by doing what he least expects,’” Sutherland says. “Even if it’s the wrong choice, at least these characters are making choices and doing something.”


Make like a journalist, and ask your characters personal questions. Figure out who they are and what makes them tick—you never know what kinds of answers they, er, you will come up with.

Sutherland recommends questions like these:  Never Bite a Boy on the First Date

• Do you have siblings?

• What was your happiest moment?

• What’s your favorite movie?

“It’s surprising how much I’ve learned about my characters this way—especially with Avatars, where I was dealing with these five teenagers over three books, so I really needed to know them very well,” Sutherland says. “The answers can give you a lot of that essential back story to help understand the characters, even if you don’t include all that information in the book itself. It also helps to clarify how the characters are different from one another—they can’t all pick Shakespeare in Love as their favorite movie!”

Want more sample questions? Check out the NaNoWriMo Young Novelist Workbooks questionnaire.

Do this inkpop Forums Writing Exercise: Character Q&A: Ask your character five questions, and create compelling answers.

The inkpop blog is written by inkpopAmy

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4 Responses to “Create compelling characters”

  1. Julia said

    Thank you so much! This helps me a whole lot!

  2. […] like we covered in the “Create Compelling Characters” inktips post, getting to know your characters is critical for developing a story and […]

  3. DunkUncek said

    Fantastic, I didn’t know about this topic up to the present. Thanx!

  4. […] why not play a game of Q&A—the same sort of interview process that’s recommended for character development. Ask your setting questions like “How old are you?” “What kind of people come here?” […]

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