How To Write Good Characters: Stephen King’s Advice

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "On Writing" by Stephen King. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to know how to write good characters? What goes into writing characters, and how can you improve your skills at writing them?

Famous writers like Stephen King are known for creating real and authentic characters. Learning how to write characters can ensure that your story is real and interesting.

Keep reading to find out how to write good characters.

How to Write Good Characters

After planting the seed of the situation, King then observes how his characters respond to the situation. He believes good stories center around the characters rather than the events. So it’s important to learn how to write good characters.

At the start of writing, the characters start off as relative blank slates, then develop over time. Some grow only a little; some grow so much they start influencing the shape of the story.

When you create characters, you necessarily draw from real life. One major source is yourself—as a writer, you often ask yourself how you would behave in that situation. Another source is other people—the traits, habits, and behaviors you collect from the menagerie of people around you. This is part of writing good characters.

Bad characters are unidimensional—the “nice guy” or the “jilted lover” or the “evil scientist.” In reality, all of us see ourselves as the hero of our own films. Our actions are justified to ourselves, even if they seem ludicrous to other people. Portray the motivations and complexities  of otherwise wooden characters, and the reader will find something to identify with.

  • For the kidnapper Annie Wilkes in Misery, King showed how her motivations seemed perfectly reasonable to herself, and he helped the reader understand her obsession. This made her even more terrifying—instead of being a cardboard cutout monster, she could plausibly exist in the real world.

As always, show, don’t tell. Your characters should behave in ways that illustrate their traits without your needing to narrate them. This is part of the process of knowing how to write good characters.

  • In King’s The Dead Zone, the antagonist is a smooth-talking Bible salesman who later becomes a politician fated to set off World War III. King’s challenge was to show the evil underlying the public-facing charisma. In his first scene, the character stops by a farm, where he’s greeted by an unfriendly dog. He looks around to make sure no one’s home, then kicks the dog to death.

Writing good characters can be complicated but it’s important that you take your time and get it right.

How To Write Good Characters: Stephen King’s Advice

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Stephen King's "On Writing" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full On Writing summary:

  • Stephen King's personal writing habits that led to superstar books like Misery and It
  • How to make a story and characters feel real
  • Why you should never use adverbs

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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