Building Believable Characters

by Linore Rose Burkard

[I’m honored to be joining the talented writers of Novel Rocket who really show what it means to have iron sharpen iron. Thank you, Novel Rocket, for having me! This month, I share a portion of a workshop I give for newer writers.] 

Author Joanne Reid has said, “One of the leading causes of rejection by a publisher is poorly developed, one-sided characters.” Just as deadly for an author is to have a reader reject his or her work after publication for  the same reason. Cardboard characters. Like Flat Stanley, they lack depth. In short, a lack of character development means a failure to enchant the reader. 

Don’t let “Flat Stanley”enter your novel!

So the question becomes, how do we avoid being that writer? Is there a key to creating characters that aren’t one-sided?

Publishing experts agree there is. Believable, well-rounded characters share basic building blocks that any writer can use. Some may seem obvious, but even published authors can fail to include one or more of these elementary features of a well-rounded character, so take note.   

1. Individualized Appearance 
Seems intuitive, right? But I read a book that despite being generally
enjoyable, failed to let me know what the
heroine really looked like! I had a great sense of who she was emotionally,
but I wasn’t even sure of her hair color. Don’t make that mistake. 

From hair color and style to fashion statement or lack thereof; posture, facial expression, body language–it all counts and you can use any single feature to distinguish a character simply by highlighting that feature. Anything that sets them apart from the crowd is what you want your reader to notice. It doesn’t even have to be something “different” as much as something peculiar to that person. 

 At the same time, don’t overdo it. Keep description short unless you have a thematic reason for emphasizing it; but be specific. Include the basics such as ethnicity, hair and eye color, stature, etc. Don’t make it a boring catalog or include every attribute, but use context to convey  information in as unobtrusive a manner as possible.  

Example: At six-foot-two, Jared’s height made Sheri feel like a dwarf; she didn’t like it. (In one sentence you learn how tall Jared is–and Sheri isn’t. You also learn Sheri doesn’t like feeling short.) 

2. A Solid Background
Heroes, heroines, and all main characters need a past, a history that is specific. Most of this history will not need to appear in your book, but if you are going to write the character well-rounded you’ll need to know it. Many authors find they rely heavily on the past history of their characters as they write, often creating plot twists that work ONLY because of that history. Nearly all of Jane Austen’s novels use this as a plot-device. She carefully hides details of a character’s past until the seemingly sudden twist rocks the world of the novel–at which point the truth is revealed (discovered), everything makes perfect sense, and the story can end satisfactorily. 

Never forget that the reader desperately wants your story to make sense. It gives a feeling of completeness to the book, a satisfaction that mustn’t be denied them. Your characters don’t have to be likeable or loveable–but they must make sense. Even if they are comprehensible to no one else but themselves (and the reader) they must at least be that. Background is the key to what makes sense for them. 

3. Emotion (or Motive) 
This digs deeper into the idea of a character making sense. Their actions must align with their beliefs, or result in conflict. If actions result in conflict, it has to be crystal clear why they did whatever they did. One of the driving forces in some novels is simply a quest to answer that question: Why? Why did Johnnie kill Susie? Or, why did Susie marry Johnny? In other words, motive and emotions are everything in a novel, just as they are in real life. Real people do things for a reason, and don’t do other things for a reason. Fictional characters have to be similarly engineered.   

When it comes right down to it, most plots hinge on the emotions or motives of characters, because conflict arises where feelings and obstacles meet. When you have a character who is forced to do or say things he or she doesn’t really mean or want to do or say, you have conflict. When you have conflict, you have a story. 

A character can be at odds with himself, his surroundings, his family, even God–any obstacle can work, just as long as the reader understands why it’s a conflict. This means you have to imbue your character with emotions. Figure out what makes your protagonist tick–then put something in the way that makes them reel, and you’ve got a plot that’s moving forward.      

That’s about all I can fit into one post, but if you suspect your characters are flat, try using these building blocks to flesh them out: Individual Appearance, Background and Emotion. Soon, instead of a cardboard dummy like Flat Stanley, you’ll have a genuine person on your hands. 

What about you? Do you have a favorite device or “building block” to flesh out your characters? Share your method with us in the comments.  

Happy Writing,

Linore Rose Burkard is
best known for historical regency novels with Harvest House Publishers,
including Before the Season Ends, the award-winning The House in Grosvenor Square, and, The Country House Courtship. As a writer noted for
meticulous research as well as bringing people to life on the page, Linore’s
books delight fans of historical romance with “Heyeresque” humor and Austen-like
manners.  Linore teaches workshops for writers with Greater Harvest
Workshops in Ohio, is a homeschooling mother of five, and has recently finished
a YA novel. Keep up with Linore by subscribing to her free newsletter at

What If?

A Fork in the Road

By Marcia Lee Laycock
I was at a crossroads in my life. I had graduated from high school over a year before and had worked hard to save enough money for one year of university. But which school and which program should I pick? There was a good journalism program in a school only one day’s drive away (Plan A), but there was a creative writing program at a bigger school on the other side of the country (Plan B). I studied the catalogs of both, my eyes often shifting from the more pragmatic alternative to the one that drew my heart. I weighed the pros and cons and added the figures over and over again. Plan B just wasn’t viable. I couldn’t afford it and the prospect of getting a job at the end of the four years was unlikely.

I chose Plan A. I lasted two years. I learned some valuable lessons and skills, but decided journalism, at least the kind of journalism I was required to do in the nation’s capitol, was not my cup of tea. Frustrated and disillusioned, it would be many years before I pursued my dream of becoming a writer.

I know God had a plan for my life even back then but I often wonder about that choice. I often wonder, ‘What if…’

Recently I came across a video clip of famous actor Denzel Washington, talking about his faith. One of the last things he said in the interview struck me – “Don’t aspire to make a living, aspire to make a difference.”

And again, I wondered, ‘what if …’ What if I’d had that perspective way back then. What if I had that perspective today?

Jesus said something similar to his disciples one day – “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:25,26).

He also said. “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:20).

It took me many years before I was willing to follow that advice but once I did the world became a brighter place, because I had discovered my place in it, as a writer, and more importantly, as a follower of Jesus Christ.

Mr. Washington also said something else that resonated with me – “Put your slippers way under your bed so when you get up in the morning, you have to get on your knees to find them. And while you’re down there, start your day with prayer. Ask for wisdom. Ask for understanding,” he said.

Start with prayer. A good idea. A good Plan A.

What if? …

Marcia Lee Laycock writes from central Alberta Canada where she is a pastor’s wife and mother of three adult daughters. She was the winner of The Best New Canadian Christian Author Award for her novel, One Smooth Stone. The sequel, A Tumbled Stone was also short listed in The Word Awards. Marcia also has two devotional books in print and has contributed to several anthologies. Her work has been endorsed by Sigmund Brouwer, Janette Oke, Phil Callaway and Mark Buchanan.

Abundant Rain, an ebook devotional for writers can be downloaded here

Her most recent release is the first book in a fantasy series, The Ambassadors

For more information on Marcia’s writing/speaking ministry, visit her website

Interested in learning to write devotionals of distinction? Online course begins March 30th.

Sign up to receive her devotional column, The Spur

Lighting a Fire to Your Writing Career by DiAnn Mills

By – DiAnn Mills

When writers realize the embers of their careers are dying, stomping out the few remaining flames is not the answer. Instead, effective writers look for new ways to promote themselves that explode with ingenuity and creativity. 

Are the flames of your writing dying?

Is your career on the verge of smoldering? Try adding a spark to your marketing and promotion plan with these ideas.

1. Brainstorm with other writers about your brand and marketing and promotion efforts. I could write several blogs on this topic. In short, brainstorming is the best method I know to expand creativity from the writing process to branding and promotion.

2. A new professional photo. Invest in a good photographer who will not only create a great new look for media but will also snap a few candid and fun pics that can be used for social networking.

3. Update your website. Now may be the time to consider an exciting design that uses your brand as the focus. Your website is your calling card. It must reflect you, your writing, and your uniqueness.

4. Author bio. A writer uses his/her flair for words to enhance a bio that draws readers into your world. Make it personal and professional. Also develop a shorter version for those times when media has space for two or three sentences.

5. If you’re social media networking includes only Facebook or Twitter, stretch yourself. Dive into the advantages of Goodreads where a writer can communicate with readers. Take the time to read all the benefits of Goodreads for writers. Pinterest is addictive, and the many uses of images in marketing and promotion are endless. Don’t limit yourself! Are podcasts in your future?

6. Use Buffer or Hootsuite to organize and simplify your social media posts. This relieves the stress of watching the clock and questioning when followers are online. Analytics provide information critical to posting and content. Other methods are available, but these are my favorites.

7. Is blogging a part of your plan? A successful writer understands a blog is only as good as the subject matter and how the material is presented. Use images and make it fun.

8. Commit to reading blogs and books about marketing and promotion for writers in your genre.

9. Are you taking care of yourself physically? A writer who’s not healthy or regularly exercising can’t expect the brain and heart to engage to maximum potential.

10. Are you ensuring each book is written better than the previous one? Are writing challenges met with determination by studying the craft, deepening skills, and evaluating your own work?

11. Prayer. This should be first. Seek God’s guidance for ways to glorify Him as we seek to entertain, inspire, and encourage readers.

Perhaps one of these eleven ideas have motivated you to add fire to your writing career. Determine today to light a match to one of them. Write on!

DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She combines unforgettable characters with unpredictable plots to create action-packed, suspense-filled novels.

Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists; won two Christy Awards; and been finalists for the RITA, Daphne Du Maurier, Inspirational Readers’ Choice, and Carol award contests. Library Journal presented her with a Best Books 2014: Genre Fiction award in the Christian Fiction category for Firewall.

DiAnn is a founding board member of the American Christian Fiction Writers; the 2015 president of the Romance Writers of America’s Faith, Hope, & Love chapter; a member of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, and International Thriller Writers. She speaks to various groups and teaches writing workshops around the country. She and her husband live in sunny Houston, Texas.

DiAnn is very active online and would love to connect with readers on any of the social media platforms listed at