How can you develop characters in a story that are so compelling that readers won’t want to put the book down?

I interviewed Zena Dell Lowe to find out. She is an award-winning writer, director, and actress who teaches advanced classes on writing and publishing.

Why is it so important for storytellers to create good characters?

Thomas Umstattd, Jr.: Why is it so important for storytellers to create good characters?

Zena Dell Lowe: At the heart of every story is a personal paradox. We access the story through the character. The character is the tool an author uses to connect and engage the audience. Your audience won’t care about your story or character unless it has something to do with them. If you tell a story about an inanimate object like a rock, no one will care unless you personify that rock and give it a personality and character. Suddenly, your reader can relate to the rock with a personality.

The entrance to every story is always through character. When the audience is truly wrapped up in the character’s adventure, you’ve got a great story. You must make the stakes so high that if your character doesn’t achieve their goal, the consequences are terrible.

Thomas: Readers should genuinely enjoy the time they spend with your characters. That familiar sadness when a book ends as if you’re saying goodbye to friends is a testament to this bond. I’ve experienced this myself. When I finished The Lord of the Rings, I was struck by a sense of loss. There was no more to read, and Tolkien had died, so there would be no new adventures with Aragorn and Frodo. It felt as if I was grieving actual friends, and I had no choice but to reread the story.

Tolkien’s story world was fun, and the plot was great, but his characters got me invested in the story.

How do you create characters that get your readers invested in the story?

Zena: Creating memorable characters is essential. They are the heart of great storytelling. Your characters must be complex, which means they should not appear to be what they truly are at heart. This concept is fundamental in all great narratives: what is does not always align with what seems to be.

This leads us to distinguish between characterization and true character. Characterization refers to the sum of observable traits one could list after simply observing someone—details such as their education, background, regional accent, physical impairments, scars, facial hair, and even fears. However, those are not the elements of true character. True character is revealed through the choices a person makes under pressure. A friend of mine used to say, “People are like grapes: when you squeeze them, what’s inside comes out.” That means a person’s true character is exposed during challenging times.

An old adage advises writers to keep their heroes in trouble because a character’s true nature is revealed when they’re under pressure. The greater the pressure, the more profound the revelation of their true character.

This concept is observable in real life. Imagine a man at an airport speaking politely to the airline staff. When things start to go wrong, he becomes increasingly frustrated until he finally loses his temper and begins to yell and curse. His behavior reveals his true character. In storytelling, our job as writers is to amplify the pressure on our characters as the narrative unfolds to unveil deeper layers of their true character.

Thomas: The author’s job is to strip away the layers so that by the end of the second act when everything is coming down, you finally see who the true person is.

Zena: We can understand our characters and be certain of them in ways we can’t with people in our real lives. Take Rick Blaine in Casablanca, for example; by the end of his transformation, we know who he is. We have a certainty about the kind of man he has become that we could never have about someone in real life because real-life people are still evolving. That’s why real people are unpredictable.

Thomas: But your characters must go through a transformation. The most interesting characters are in flux. They’re changing. For example, the Marvel Cinematic Universe presents characters that change from film to film. The events of Iron Man 1 changed Tony Stark in Iron Man 2. By the end of the third film, he’s a totally different person.

Zena: The essence of great storytelling lies in the craft of revealing true character at every turn. In the film Aliens, Sigourney Weaver’s character faces a harrowing moment when the alien attacks the robot. Despite this, she remains steadfast, holding the robot’s hand as he’s torn apart. Her refusal to run reveals her true nature. Similarly, when the alien notices the little girl she’s saved, Weaver’s character distracts the alien and urges the girl to run. Even in the face of death, she’s prepared to sacrifice herself for the child. Such actions are powerful revelations of character.

Exceptional storytelling not only presents characters but also shows how they change. If they remain static, readers and viewers lose interest.

The only exception is if constancy is the purpose of the story. For example, in The Big Lebowski, the point is that he didn’t change, while the characters around him did. Our task as writers is to make the characters’ changes seem believable.

How do you know how to have your characters change?

Thomas: How do you decide what direction to take them? We don’t want the character to evolve in the wrong way.

Zena: Their need for change is intricately tied to the story. It can’t be arbitrary and separate from the journey.

For example, at the beginning of Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is a farm kid. He’s a restless teenager who lives with his aunt and uncle and dreams of adventure. He’s a good kid, but he’s a little rebellious. By the end of Star Wars, he is a Jedi Knight. That is a pretty big transformation.

But Han Solo has an even bigger transformation. He starts out as a selfish smuggler who doesn’t care about anybody. He’s in it for the money. But by the end, he’s willing to sacrifice himself for his friends. Over the course of the story, his inner nature changes more. Star Wars is about the transformation of both characters, and their change is entwined in the story itself.

Thomas: One aspect I find useful in determining whether a story will be successful is the clarity of the protagonist’s desires. For example, what does Luke Skywalker initially want? He wants to visit Toshi Station to pick up some power converters and spend time with his friends. It’s a simple, concrete goal. However, in storytelling, characters rarely achieve their goals immediately. If they do, their desire must inevitably evolve. Luke is abruptly called to adventure, and his focus shifts when he encounters the princess and commits to her rescue.

Captivating characters have a clear goal. Authors must ask, “What does this character want?”

Zena: Many of the works I review feature passive characters who observe their world without actively pursuing a goal. A compelling story hinges on a character identifying a goal and relentlessly pursuing it. For instance, in the movie Witness with Harrison Ford, the inciting incident introduces the dramatic question: Will the character achieve what he desires?

In Witness, the protagonist wants to catch the murderers and bring them to justice. Along the way, he encounters obstacles and sets micro goals, but his overarching pursuit remains unchanged. The film ends when he either achieves or fails to achieve this main goal. However, what enriches film, or any story, is that characters have both wants and needs, which are not necessarily the same. It’s possible for a character to fail to achieve their goal but still get what they truly need, effectively winning despite their loss. Conversely, in a tragedy, they might fail to achieve their wants and needs.

Consider a romantic comedy where the protagonist believes he must become the prom king to win over the girl of his dreams. His goal is to gain enough popularity to achieve this status because he thinks that will secure her affection. However, what he truly needs is to learn self-acceptance and self-love. While he may not be the prom king, the journey itself teaches him self-worth. By the end, he realizes that he deserves love and finally gets what he truly needs: the understanding that he is worthy of love already.

Thomas: Aladdin is a delightful movie that explores this theme. Aladdin literally receives what he wishes for, thanks to a genie who can magically grant his desires. This narrative plays on the notion that what you want may be misguided. Aladdin believes that becoming a prince will impress the princess, but in reality, being true to himself was the key all along. It’s a classic Disney trope—timeless, powerful, and deeply emotional.

How do you make characters relatable?

Thomas: How does one make a character relatable, even when they are in a vastly different situation? For example, Luke Skywalker, despite being a Jedi Knight and piloting spacecraft in a galaxy far, far away, remains relatable. As a viewer, I can empathize with him. How is that possible?

Zena: Our storytelling terminology has evolved. In the past, we aimed for ‘relatable’ characters, but in my classes, I now emphasize that characters should be sympathetic or intriguing rather than merely relatable. What I mean is that we must be drawn to them, even if our fascination stems from disliking them.

For example, Alan Rickman’s portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves wasn’t necessarily easy for us to relate to. He was a terrible, greedy individual who consorted with witches and plotted evil deeds. Yet, he captivated us because he was so delightfully wicked, amusing, and compelling. Perhaps, on some level, we recognize the duplicity of human nature in him. However, it’s not solely this relatability that makes us enjoy his character; it’s a combination of other qualities that make him intriguing.

Protagonists like the one in About Schmidt must elicit sympathy from the audience. This film is a particular favorite of mine and currently ranks in my top ten. It chronicles the journey of a man seeking significance in his life. Who among us doesn’t yearn for our existence to have meaning? He embarks on a mission to make his life count. The challenge, however, is that he’s not a good person. He is selfish, ungrateful, self-righteous, egotistical, and insecure, though he would never admit to the latter. He’s insincere, having neglected his daughter and his wife. He’s a terrible person. Throughout the story, he realizes just how awful he is and that his life, as it is, doesn’t matter. Then, he makes a sacrificial choice—not for any reward but because he understands it’s the right thing for others, and he’s genuinely willing to do it rather than seeking to feel good about himself.

Consequently, at the film’s conclusion, he receives a reward that gives his life meaning. The character’s journey is a slow burn; it advances in small increments, gradually progressing as he evolves and transforms. Ultimately, he attains what he needs and what he desires, but in an unexpected manner. It’s not his own importance that’s rewarding, but the impact he has on another life, and this realization is what truly gives his life meaning.

Thomas: Creating likable villains is a nuanced art because we inherently tend to dislike villains. We naturally cheer for the hero and jeer at the antagonist. Crafting a likable villain doesn’t mean you’re rooting for them; it just means you enjoy their presence on the page. You don’t want readers to think, “I despise this villain so much that I want to close the book whenever they appear.” That would be a storytelling mistake.

Competence is one trait that can make a villain—or any character—likable. A villain who excels in their evil pursuits can be engaging. Take Darth Vader, for example. His competence is palpable. He commands fear and respect from his superiors, subordinates, and adversaries alike because of his presence and skills.

By contrast, consider Indigo from The Princess Bride. Despite his continual failures throughout the movie, he’s established as a master swordsman. He may lose every fight, but his eloquent swordplay vocabulary convinces us of his mastery. His competence is endearing.

What are some other ways to create likable characters without necessarily making them morally good?

Zena: Competence is crucial for your protagonist. Readers generally do not like a character who lacks skill. Your character should be better than anyone else in at least one area because that’s how they win. 

Imagine that your character is destined to become a super spy. Perhaps initially, he has an uncanny ability to enter a room without being noticed, or perhaps that’s a skill he has to learn. Maybe he’s clumsy and always making an entrance that can’t be ignored. In response, he dedicates himself to ninja training, becoming as light as a feather through mastering some form of ninja magic. The point is that characters need to be smart and proficient at something. 

Passion also makes characters likable. Characters who are indifferent, with nothing at stake, aren’t engaging. I often encounter passive characters who are mere observers in their stories. The stakes must always feel like life and death to the character. Whether it’s an action-packed scene where the world could end in an explosive catastrophe or a more personal dilemma, like the prospect of lifelong solitude if they fail to win someone’s heart, the essence of their being must be on the line. Characters must care deeply about the stakes at hand.

Thomas: Remember your high school days when every event seemed critical as if the trajectory of your entire life hinged on a single test? “If I fail this test, I won’t get into college, and my life will be over.” Fictional characters must embody this sense of urgency. It’s not about melodrama but rather about genuine significance. If the characters are indifferent, readers will be too. Your characters must convincingly convey the importance of their challenges to engage the reader.

Zena: They have to be legitimate stakes that aren’t manufactured in a melodramatic way. In the movie As Good as It Gets, the main character’s soul is at stake. This particular journey he’s on is his last chance to connect to other human beings, and that is why it’s so important.

Thomas: The squirrel film Ice Age isn’t a great character from a storytelling perspective because he’s one-dimensional. But audiences love him because he wants something so concretely that they want the acorn as badly as he does.

Zena: And he pursues it relentlessly.

Thomas: His desire for the acorn is so infectious that you’re rooting for him to get it. At the end of the trailers, they cleverly featured the squirrel chasing the acorn. He wasn’t a central character in the story, but you find yourself thinking, “I want to see this squirrel get the acorn.” It added a relatable and fun element to the film.

Zena: That’s an excellent example of how you engage your readers’ hearts. If that squirrel cares so much that we can’t help but care with him, then the fact that he can’t get it breaks our hearts. That’s how it should be for our characters.

What are some other keys to creating good characters?

Zena: Revealing character can be challenging, and one of the most effective methods I’ve discovered for showing, rather than telling, is through contrast. 

One of my favorite examples comes from the movie Lethal Weapon. Mel Gibson’s character is an exceptional sharpshooter, and Danny Glover’s character is a highly competent cop. As the scene unfolds, Gibson’s younger character remarks on Glover’s choice of gun, saying it’s the kind an old-timer would carry. Glover’s character, eager to refute the ‘old timer’ label, challenges this notion. They end up at a shooting range, where Glover sets the target at mid-range, fires, and hits the bullseye. Impressed yet undeterred, Gibson sends the target much further back, to the point where Glover can barely see it. Without hesitation, Gibson fires seven shots. As the target returns, they discover Gibson’s shots have formed two eyes and a smile around Glover’s bullseye shot. This sequence brilliantly conveys to the audience that both are good cops, each skilled and competent. However, through their sharpshooting contest, we see just how extraordinary Gibson’s character is without any boasting from him. The contrast and comparison of the distance, speed, and precision illustrate his superiority by showing us rather than telling us. This is how effective comparison can be used in storytelling.

Thomas: An example I’ve enjoyed comes from Marvel’s characters, Captain America and Iron Man. They’re both heroes, but their approach and worldviews are different. They use totally different approaches to solving problems. Captain America will throw himself on the grenade to save everyone, and Iron Man will try to think of a way to prevent the grenade from exploding because he wants to live.

Yet, both characters change over the course of the films.

Contrast is a powerful tool, which is why your story needs an antagonist. It can’t just be about the main character. The protagonist is the character who drives the story forward through their choices, but the protagonist could be an evil person who drives the story forward by doing bad things. A protagonist isn’t necessarily the hero.

How do other characters interact with the main character to bring out that contrast?

Zena: Many writers use the hero’s journey to try to identify a mentor character, but I don’t usually use that because those are archetypes. When I start looking at the archetypes, my characters lose depth. Instead, I focus on character relationship and revealing character relationship through interactions. I put them together in a scenario so the reader can see how they feel. My entrance to all stories always happens through character. The writer’s job is to show the audience a character’s behavior and then let the audience interpret it. The minute we start telling through dialogue or other characters’ gossip, we lose.  

Show us how they behave in these situations and let the audience figure out how the character feels. If your character wouldn’t take a drink out of the martini glass when she offered it, what does that mean? Is that a snub, or does it mean something else? The audience has fun interpreting how the characters feel. That approach adds far more depth than trying to write an archetype. Explore how you can construct the scene so that you’re revealing how they feel about each other and what’s going on in the world all at the same time.

Thomas: If your characters are broken, everything else is also broken because there’s no making up for bad characters.

Learn more about characters, dialogue, and screenwriting with Zena Dell Lowe: