REVIEW: Creating Characters

creating characters

I love a good Writer’s Digest book. When I am really struggling to tackle a writing concept or idea, it is so easy to find a Writer’s Digest book on the topic and read tips and strategies from so many different voices and perspectives.

Characters, for me, are always a struggle. You have to get them just right or what’s the point? You could have the best plot and world building but it is the character that will sell the story. If your character is good enough, crafted from a perfect mixture of personality, drive, and perspective, you could tell a story about a Tuesday night trip to Walmart and I’d read a few hundred pages. So, I really wanted Creating Characters to be great.

x factsheet x

Links to Purchase: Print | E-Book
Title: Creating Characters: The Complete Guide to Populating Your Fiction
Author: Editors of the Writer’s Digest, Foreword by Steven James
Contributors (# of essays included): *deep breath* Chuck Wendig, Joseph Bates (3), Nancy Kress (3), Elizabeth Sims (2), Jeff Gerke (3), Alicia Rasley, Jordan E. Rosenfeld (2), Hallie Ephron (2), Gloria Kempton (2), Orson Scott Card (2), Dawn Wilson, Larry Brooks, James Scott Bell (2), Jessica Page Morrell, Donald Maass, Laura DiSilverio, David Corbett, Mary Kole, Rachel Ballon, Cheryl St. John, Victoria Lynn Schmidt
Pub Info: Writer’s Digest Books, 2014, Paperback, $19.99, 342 Pages
ISBN-13: 978-1599638768

x my top three takeaways x

Since this is a book that primarily deals with writing tips and advice, I think it is only fair to list the three lessons that I felt are the most important or useful. Without further ado…

  • There are three types of characters, main, minor, and background characters (okay, duh, but just keep reading). With background characters, don’t do anything crazy with them–make them forgettable and stereotypical (at least for the society you have created in your book) so the focus remains on your primary cast. Minor characters, on the other hand, need to be well-developed. If you fear that they are starting to overshadow your main characters in a scene, just reduce their dialogue and references to them. This will take the reader’s attention away from them while allowing you to keep them present in the scene and able to affect the plot. (Ch. 22, Card)
    • As someone who tends to overwrite minor and background characters, this was really useful for me. As much as I don’t want to write stereotypes, I probably should do it more often to help keep my scenes focused.
  • The dreaded first page. The page that starts it all. The page that can make or break a book when it is picked up by an agent, an editor, or a reader. No pressure. James Scott Bell’s essay “Relate to Readers with a Lead Character” is one of the more analytical and methodical essays, but it really works. Provided is a clear breakdown of a successful first page, including both what to do and what you should avoid. His top three things to avoid? 1. Excessive descriptions 2. Backwards looks 3. No threat. (Ch. 16, Bell)
    • No one wants to follow a writing formula. It feels like cheating. That said, if you are stressing about your first page (they’re scary), look to Bell. Start with one of the formulas, and then add your own twists to it so that it suits your writing and your book. And his points on what to avoid are all, in my opinion, super important. Engage that reader right away, set the character in motion, and leave the info dumps behind.

And my favorite piece of advice…

  • An anti-hero is not just a badass.

One more time for the people in the back.

  • AN. ANTI-HERO. IS. NOT. JUST. A. BADASS. An anti-hero should be multi-dimensional, they should have reasons for doing what they are doing and why, and they should probably have some paradoxes or at least redeeming qualities to give a little balance.
    • This is one of my biggest writing pet peeves. Stop sticking cigs in people’s mouths and having them appear from the shadows to kick a little ass before they return to brooding. If Deadpool can be multi-dimensional, so can your anti-hero.

x review x

There is definitely some compelling information in Creating Characters. I can’t say that I regret reading (all of) it. Where I started to get frustrated with the book was when advice was repeated over, and over, and over again, such as the consistent reminders that villains can have some good in them, or that characters need both internal and external conflict. At some point, I got it. Lesson learned. Now teach me something new.

The strength of Writer’s Digest is that they have so many contributors. They can really hone in on different areas of the subject and try to continually expand the reader’s knowledge using all of those different voices and experiences. But, it requires a guiding hand. Someone who will get the contributors together and say, “Hey, this essay is great, but what is something only you can say on this subject?”

That said, I cannot completely fault Creating Characters. Essays such as “25 Things You Should Know about Your Character” (Windig), “Name Dropping” (Sims),”Relate to Readers with a Lead Character” (Bell), and “Character Objective and Conflict” (Kole) are ones that I know I will return to time and time again because they really spoke to me and my approach to writing. I will even admit that I had a few come to Jesus moments, where I read a statement and had to put my book down because things just suddenly made sense.

All said and done, here is my rating:

3 star

3-stars ain’t nothin’ to snuff at. It’s a valuable read, especially if character creation and development is a challenge, but it is not a “must read.”

Have you read Creating Characters? Are there other books you want me to review? Comment down below! I would love to hear your thoughts on this book and the creative process of creating vivid, compelling characters. Also, comment if there is something else about the book that you want to know or if you have something you want to see in future reviews!


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Sarah is the owner and managing editor of the papery, a blog for readers and writers, as well as a freelancer at Morris Freelancing Services. She graduated Emerson College with a MA in Publishing and Writing in 2018.

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