26 July 2012


I often think that writing is a bit like painting a picture except you’re using words.  For instance, a painter engages the viewer with the subject of the painting, the colours, style and the medium in which it’s painted.  And apart from the visual aspects there are the emotional ones too, bringing enjoyment and awakening memories perhaps.  No doubt the painter seeks not only to have the viewer look at the painting but to see what the painter is trying to convey.

Similarly, writers strive to engage their readers, taking them on a journey into the world they create; using their words skilfully like a painter uses brushes.

To create this world you need engaging characters, settings in which your story is told, structure, the building blocks, plot, a sequence of events, theme, the message it sends to the reader, and conflict that creates the action.  But this alone is not enough.  Other ingredients are needed to make this world real.  They include the five senses - smell, taste, sound, touch, sight, as well as showing  rather than telling your story.

Today we’re going to talk about creating engaging characters.

Cardboard characters v Three dimensional characters
If you only describe your characters physical attributes, ie, their looks, idiosyncrasies, likes and dislikes, they’ll appear flat and lifeless to your readers.

To bring your characters to life you have also to reveal their emotional and psychological sides in the course of telling your story.  For example, their thinking processes, why they react as they do in certain situations, etc.

It might be something external to your main character.  For example, in my Fitzjohn mystery series this external force comes in the form of Fitzjohn’s nemesis, Chief Superintendent Grieg.  At the same time, there are internal forces at work concerning Fitzjohn.  The death of his wife, Edith.  And we can’t forget Edith's legacy, a greenhouse full of orchids, and the murder case Fitzjohn is investigating.  All these elements help to create a three dimensional character that readers can relate to and care about.

And this leads us to your characters back stories.  What are their pasts?

All the above helps to create characters that your readers will care about or loathe depending on whether it is your protagonist or your villain.  They will appear as real to your readers as they are to you as the writer.


  1. Backstory is often neglected. I like to bring it out naturally in dialogue at times. Films use this method. That is why some of the dialogue sounds unnatural to the savvy listener.

    This was a succinct post and good advice for writers. Thanks for the post.

    By the way, I am running a Blog Fest Aug. 10-12 called the Dog Days of Summer. I'd love to see you there.


    1. Lovely to hear from you, Jeremy, and think you for your kind words. I agree, backstory is often neglected. I too like to bring it out as the book progresses to avoid large chunks of information dumping.
      And thank you for inviting me to the Blog Fest. I'll check it out.

  2. Great advice Jill! Comparing painting to writing is interesting because both an artist and a writer have to create interesting interwoven colors and characters that evoke emotion if they are going to appeal to viewers and readers.

    Haveing read and enjoyed both of your books, I know that you have the unique ability to do this with your characters.

  3. As an artist I'm glad you can relate to this post, Anna. I think we both strive for the same thing. Creating something for viewers and readers.

  4. Excellent post with some great advice. I love to create the backstory of each of my characters before I write (and I add to it as I work). Some of the information never comes up- but other pieces sneak their way in to the story. Thanks so much for sharing.


  5. Thanks for commenting Jess. Yes, I think creating back story for each of your characters is important indeed. And as you say, it may never be used but it needs to be there regardless. it's also a lot of fun. Some of my characters live in the most magnificent homes along the shores of Sydney Harbour.