Writing Stronger Characters

The Well Storied website has a post by Kristen Kieffer – ’33 Ways to Write Stronger Characters’ – that I think is quite useful.  She divides her advice into three categories:

  1. Fourteen things to give your character
  2. Six things to make your character, and
  3. Thirteen things to find for your character

Ms Kieffer, according to her blog “is an author of fantasy fiction and creative writing resources. At Well-Storied, she strives to help writers craft sensational novels and build their very best writing lives”.  Her website offers workbooks, podcasts, a newsletter, Scrivener Tutorials and free courses,, as well as copies of her books.

Kristen Kieffer

I have selected below some of her more interesting points:

Give your characters a fear: Fear shapes the human experience, creating doubts and insecurities that plague our actions, mindsets, and relationships. Add a little necessary realism to your story by giving your character a few fears as well.

Give your characters a flaw: To be imperfect is to be human. Write a human story by giving your character personality flaws that play into their relationships, fears, disappointments, and discontent.

Give them a history: Our pasts shape who we become. Give your character a rich history that affects both the person they are when your story begins and how they will handle the journey to come.

Give them a quirk: Everyone has their strange qualities or habits, and often times, being a bit strange is just as exciting or memorable as being passionate. Help your character stand out from the crowd by giving them a quirk or two of their own.

Give them a desire: Desires are powerful motivators. They can push your character to great deeds just as quickly as they can tempt them to take action they’ll regret.

Make your characters complex: Don’t stop at simply creating a well-developed character. Actively work to bring your character’s complexities to life on the page by putting them in as many diverse situations as possible.

Make them unique:It’s easy to fall into stereotypes and worn-out character tropes, but don’t give in. Work instead to create characters unique to your story, ones that readers will instantly recognize as your own.

Make them relatable: To relate is to create connection, to see others as just as human as you are. Making even the most evil of characters relatable in some small way can give your character some much needed humanity.

Make them fail: Failure is a springboard to growth. Allowing your character to fail gives them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and develop as human beings, creating excellent internal conflict for your story.

Make them suffer: Take your character from the highest heights to the lowest depths. By allowing your character to suffer (especially during the Dark Night of the Soul), you prove their mettle, endear readers to their cause, and define their growth as a result of their journey.

Find your characters’ identity: Understanding how your character defines themselves in life can help you better understand how they interact with and present themselves to the world. When defining your character’s identity, consider elements such as their gender identity, race, sexuality, religion, ancestry, and interests.

Find their refuge: When all seems lost, a safe haven can keep hope alive for your character. Allow your character to find this refuge when they most need it, so they can receive the respite they need to recharge for your story’s climax.

Find their redemption: Your character will screw up. They will make decisions that harm themselves or others. They will fail. It’s how they make things right that will define who they are at heart.

Review: Transcription

This is the new novel by Kate Atkinson.  I signed up for it last autumn, six months before it was published, because I very much liked A God in Ruins, her Costa Book Award winner in 2015 – her third time to win the award.

Kate Atkinson was born in York, England in 1951; she studied English Literature at Dundee University, winning her MA in 1974.  She went on to study for a doctorate in American Literature, but she failed at the oral examination stage.  She has written five Jackson Brodie novels, six other novels (three of which won the Costa Award or its predecessor, the Whitbread Award), two plays and a collection of short stories.  She lives in Edinburgh currently.

Kate Atkinson

The central character in Transcription is Juliet Armstrong, who, at age eighteen, becomes the typist in 1940 for the Security Service, MI5.  Her role is to transcribe the conversations a British agent has with German sympathisers: the Fifth Column.  Her boss thinks well enough of her that he gives her the assignment of getting close to Mrs Scaife, a German-sympathising British socialite, the wife of an admiral who has been interred for his pro-Nazi views.  Juliet succeeds rather well in this deception, arranging a meeting between Mr Vanderkamp, an American official opposed to war with Germany and who has access to US secrets, with Mrs Scaif, who intends to pass the information on to the Third Reich.  The pair are arrested as the information is passed between Vanderkamp and Scaife.  Juliet is also involved in the death of a pro-German woman who accidentally discovers that her conversations with the man she thought was a Gestapo are actually being recorded by the British.  Toward the end of the war, Juliet becomes sympathetic to the Russian cause, and an attempt is made to recruit her as a double agent for the British.

As usual, Ms Atkinson does a splendid job researching her subject matter, from the identities of the real-life players, to the settings, to the actual events and messages.  One is transported back to a blacked-out, war time London, where there was much going on in secret, well-lit places.  The principal characters: Juliet, her boss, Perry Gibbons, Godfrey Toby, the fake Gestapo, and Mrs Scaife as well as some of the minor characters are all distinctly drawn and entirely credible.  Ms Atkinson’s writing is confident and authoritative, leading the reader deftly into unexpected turns of events.  This is not a heavy, sinister novel; it has moments of humor and irony.

For me, there are two serious problems with this novel.  First, Juliet’s assignment as transcriber of the conversations is relatively unimportant in the war effort: nothing of significance is learned that will remotely affect the war’s outcome; and second, a large portion of the book is devoted to Juliet’s transcription efforts.  The novel would have been more interesting if it had more to do with Juliet’s spy persona, Iris Carter-Jenkins, and with more of the identity intrigue and double-dealing going on at high levels in MI5.  There were also some details that didn’t seem right to me.  For example, does it make sense for the man who has the power to force Juliet into a double agent’s role to bother sending her anonymous ‘You will pay for what you did’ messages?

This long-anticipated novel is not up to Kate Atkinson’s usual standards.