Great Characters and How to Make Them


The are lots of great books and other resources to teach you how to make good fictional character, but my favorite step-by-step guide is Holly Lisle’s Create a Character Clinic. Here’s an overview of this tool, with an example character description as we go through it.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

All character have compelling needs. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a great source for ideas. If you can’t think of a compelling need for your character, put Maslow’s need-pyramid on the wall and throw a dart at it. Wherever it hits, there’s a need you can explore to make your character come alive. There are 5 levels of need, from most to least fundamental:

  • physiological – the need to breath, to eat, to drink, to dispose of bodily waste, to sleep, to keep warm
  • safety – the need to be secure, to make a living, to be safe from violence, to be healthy
  • love & belonging – the need to be love and belong, and the need to love others, friendships, sexual intimacy, family relationships
  • esteem – the need to be respected and to respect others
  • self-actualization – the need to do what you do best, to grow, to be “me”

Areas of Character Definition

The Create a Character Clinic begins with 7 areas of character definition. Each features a list of questions designed to stimulate creativity regarding your character. Here’s what I wrote for my character.

Need, Pursuit & Avoidance

CHARACTER wants a stable job and life, security for himself and his family. He wants to get up every morning at 6, shave and shower, get on the train, work until 5, come home, eat dinner, and so forth, a predictable routine. He has been doing this, working at the same job, for the past 20 years, since he was 23.

His first job after college was with a start-up. Things looked good for 12 months, then the company floundered. CHARACTER was one of the first to go, angry and bitter. He looked for work for almost a year before he found a job, this time with a large, inner-city firm. Size for him meant stability. And seniority and status meant stability. He worked toward management, showing his value to the company, even undercutting those around him if they got in his way. He promised himself he would never go through unemployment again.

Now, he is married with 3 children. He cares not only for himself but for his family as well. He is a middle manager. His company merges with another, and he fears being laid off, and his fears come to pass.

A friend and colleague, FRIEND, someone he knew from his first job and has kept in touch with, knows what he went through and how he feels.

Work & Play

CHARACTER acquired his current job when FRIEND interviewed at the company and decided the job wasn’t for him. FRIEND recommended CHARACTER, who eventually got the job. From there, he stepped onto the management ladder.

Now he leads a management team. He demands consistent results from those under him and works hard to get those results and to provide consistent results to his manager. He does this because he wants to look good and to show results, in order to further his career. His direct reports appreciate his effort, though he rubs some of them the wrong way. His manager loves it when he delivers, but hates it when his plans fall short, even though he always knows far ahead of the deadline whether his team will be able to make it.

CHARACTER has a natural talent for administration. But he needed to learn how to inspire those under him to get results. He also needed to learn how to communicate these results to his manager. FRIEND coached him in much of this, and CHARACTER’s determination gave him the energy to bear through mistake after mistake.

He also picked up a number of more unsavory skills, the ability to understand and to undercut his competitors when necessary. These he rationalizes as necessary to cut through the red tape. Unfortunately, he has also made some enemies in the organization, which is what ultimately gets him laid off, despite his ability to deliver results.

His interest in government politics grew out of his ambitions to climb the corporate ladder. At first, he read books on politics and warfare, and applied these lessons to his corporate life. But government politics is still a passion for him. He reads a number of newspapers and frequently writes letters to the editor. He also volunteers in local politics, when a candidate runs who especially excites him. The local political party has asked him to run for office, but he has always dismissed it, since he’s had seniority and stability in his job.

Past, Present & Future

In his first job, CHARACTER was laid off when his employer, a new, upstart company, went under. He was out of work for a year and came to loathe small startups as unstable. He also came to think of bigness, full of politics and beaurocracy, as a good thing. He worked toward moving up the ranks in that environment, in order to assure his own personal stability and success. He considered that to be positive. He learned to be an over-achiever, and he received both public recognition and private awards for his accomplishements. He never imagined that his aspirations would end up being his downfall.

Even now, having been dismissed from this position, he does not blame his own ambitions for his downfall. He rather blames those enemies he made within the company, with an obligatory jab at himself for “not seeing it coming.” He could improve his future chances for happiness by realizing that power is not all it’s cracked up to be. This is something that FRIEND knows, but CHARACTER is not yet ready to listen.

He is, however, ready to listen to his friends in government politics. If he has to start over again, it might as well be in the biggest, most stable organization of all. He is ready to take advantage of the opportunity. He believes he can win a local seat, moving from there in a few years to the state or national legislature. He sees himself becoming rich and famous, as well as successful. His associates in politics support him, of course, but his wife and FRIEND would like him to do something for himself for a change, instead of working for the great machine.

He’s worked and saved for many years, and his personal financial situation is solvent, so he could afford to take a few risks. But all he sees is the future.

His perceived failure, leading to his unemployment, still haunts him, though. Additionally, his lifestyle has taken its toll on his family life. He hasn’t spent as much time with his children as he should have. He’s worked very hard to provide stability for them, and a few nice things too, but they’d rather spend more time with him and see him happy, which he does not appear to them to be. They’d also like him to take a little time off to spend at home. He doesn’t even realize that this might be an important component of his life.

He will run for office. He will come close, but fail. Devastated and exhausted, he will question his own assumptions about what is important. FRIEND and CHARACTER’s wife will be a significant part of this.

Friends, Enemies & Lovers

CHARACTER hates the person running against him, more because this person threatens his future chances than anything else. The opponent just sees the race as a political race, not anything personal. CHARACTER’s hatred does come out in his political positions, but mostly he keeps his feelings under control, displaying them as passion for politics, not as a personal antagonism, knowing that this latter would mean political suicide.

He likes FRIEND, who was laid off from his first job, same as CHARACTER. They gained cameraderie while working together at this job, and remained close ever since. They have lunch or dinner occasionally, attend seminars together, and even visit each other’s households. Their personal and professional goals have diverged, but they know how not to step on each other’s toes, how to be constructive with their comments, and they cherish each other’s friendship.

CHARACTER loves his wife. He had always wanted a family, and she did, too. But she’s interested in spending quality time with her kids, even if it means they can’t have so many nice things. Ironically, this is the source of more than a few fights, but it also holds together the family. She dreams of making him happy, which irritates him, as he thinks he knows what he needs to be happy, to provide for her and the kids. He dreams of power (through which he will provide for his family), which irritates her, but she does not undermine him, at least not initially.

Life & Death

CHARACTER more than anything else is afraid of dieing in poverty. He also wants to be remembered, however, after he’s gone, and this was a factor in his wanting a family. He does not risk his life, but neither does he fear death, as long as he can continue to make a good living. But he unintentionally trivializes the limited time he has on Earth, which he could be enjoying and establishing deeper relationships.

Culture, Religion & Education

CHARACTER’s father was much like CHARACTER, valuing a stable work ethic, and seeing power and influence as success. These ingrained beliefs affect his friends and family as much as they do him. But CHARACTER’s father also knew how to work in moderation, to balance work with family, something the CHARACTER has forgotten.

After he graduated from high school, he went to college to learn business. His first job was in marketing. His parents were both proud of him, and they helped him stay on his feet while he was unemployed. But the long job search and odd jobs he picked up in the meantime wore on him. His education and disposition favored working a steady job in a larger organization. None of the things he learned in college prepared him for having a family or even for politics or leadership.

He is non-religious. He’s not an atheist. He doesn’t have time for religious arguments. (Maybe this is why he fails as a politician.) He does not discuss religion with FRIEND or his family, because they all have a spiritual life, and this would be a point of contention between them.

Do you want to write exciting characters?

Stimulate your creativity with novelist Holly Lisle’s Create A Character Clinic.

Get to know your characters, and bring them to life.

Avoid storytelling sins, except when they make your story come alive. Learn when to describe instead of show, how to use characterization cliches without becoming one, and lots more.

Jam-packed, step-by-step guide, with examples and exercises.

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Format: ZIPped PDF (no DRM)


Moral Stance

CHARACTER will do anything he thinks will get him further ahead. Usually, this means pleasing others, so he limits his behavior to that which is socially acceptable. Occasionally, this means stabbing his opponents in the back.

At the same time, CHARACTER loves his wife and family, though he doesn’t show it as practically as he ought. He is proud of the fact that he has a family, and he still feels for his wife. If it came down to it, he’d sacrifice himself for his family.

He values a strong work ethic, but he would be willing publically to say otherwise if it would help him get ahead.

Only Half-way Through the Clinic

That’s part 1 of Holly Lisle’s Create a Character Clinic. Now that we have a character description, part 2 covers ways to ask our fictional character about himself and his life. He can tell us with his own words and actions what it’s like. We can bring the character to life.

Part 3 is about characterization sins and how to do them right.


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