The Page a Day Writers Group

What a Character!

Posted on: November 28, 2009

Have you ever looked at one of your characters and thought, ‘What a tool!’

I frequently struggle with this when creating my villains.  They are my least favorite type of character to write because I can never understand how they can be so dang mean! I know, I know, if I give them a frightening enough back story, it will make sense.  But I and many of my friends have suffered worse things than some villains I know, and we don’t snatch our estranged brother’s body so we can make another go of it with the wife we scorned our whole lives.

Sometimes I even feel like my leads are just standing around like a sad bunch of extras waiting to be herded onto the next set.

But then, there are those magic moments when you sit down to write a well plotted scene.  You go in knowing ultimately what’s gonna go down.  Suddenly, one character, be they big or small, sort of jumps off the page and says, “Follow me!”  Like any great hero, you might hesitate, reluctant to take the call.  But eventually you go and have one heck of an adventure!

I guess it comes down to making a completely 3-D character, which is easy, right?  All you have to know is what they look like and some backstory.  But I bet we all find it a little more difficult than that most days.  Not only is each individual character like a real person with preferences and history, they also, for the purpose of your story, have to meet some kind of archetypal criteria without seeming like, well, A TOOL!

I have collected some very valuable gear to deal with these little heartaches and recently came across an old article from the January 2009 RWR (Romance Writer’s Report, a magazine produced by Romance Writers of America) that added a whole new layer to the other stuff.  The Author, Cynthia Richards, recommends using the ‘16 Personality Factors’ which was developed by Raymond Cattell in 1946.  She offers her own notes on the 16PF using Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake as her example of each type.  Here are some links to Cattell’s terms and the test:

I also use a basic character questionnaire which I snagged from The Writer’s Digest Sourcebook for Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon.  Actually, I shouldn’t use ‘basic’ to describe this questionnaire at all!  Mr. McCutcheon was very thorough e.g. ‘What’s your character’s favorite TV show?’  Granted, some of my characters don’t live in a time of TV, but I still wonder what they would like.  I am convinced that my Regency Era Duke would love The Daily Show, provided that Jon Stewart and his crew could make jokes about Luddites while ribbing the fat, flatulent Prince, tastefully of course.

In addition to that, I use information I gleaned from a seminar which was given at an RWA National Conference I attended in 2005.   There I discovered a writer named Tami Cowden.  She does a variety of workshops, but her workshop on Villains interested me.  She says there are really only 16 heroes/heroines and 16 villains/villainesses (again with the 16!).  She said she knew there were that many because ‘she counted them!’  She has a wealth of information on her website about those archetypes which is a great basic motivational structure any writer can build on.  Check her out at  She has a published book on the heroes and heroines, but I’m still waiting for the one on the villains!

Characters are like an iceberg.  You might only ‘see’ about ten percent of them in action, but as anyone onboard Titanic would have told you, “it ain’t the part you can see you gotta worry about.”

Oh, yeah!



2 Responses to "What a Character!"

I actually love creating villains because they get to do and say things that your protagonist cannot get away with. They make for some of the most amusing or mind bending scenes and that makes them fun. Then again, I don’t go for the over the top, evil-because-I’m-evil villain. Anyone who wants to destroy the world they live on makes no logical sense. My villains tend to simply be people with a clear goal and are willing to do whatever it takes to get from a to z and that puts them in conflict with other people. Then again, my protagonists aren’t all that good either.
Thanks for the advice on character creation and the links. Good luck with your characters.

You’re quite welcome, Cassandra.

That is a good way to look at the villain. I do start to have fun once I know them, it’s just hard not to yell, “You bully!”, then throw something at his or her head and run in the other direction.

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The Page a Day Writers Group is a diverse collection of wonderful writers based in San Diego, CA. We've been meeting monthly since 2004. Our primary function is in-depth writing critique, marketing and brainstorming, but there's usually some wine, chocolate and ribaldry involved too. We write fantasy, humor, literary fiction, nonfiction, romance, thrillers and YA. Join us on our journeys to publication and the wonderland beyond!


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