Developing Interesting Characters

When it comes to characters, whether they be from a book, movie, Netflix, etc, we like them to be real; they are good points and bad points, represent something that we are lacking or remind us of someone, or they are just very interesting people.  To be real means they are flawed. They are not perfect and they make mistakes. Maybe they make mistakes we would make or maybe they just can’t get out of their own head.  Sometimes they have very few redeeming qualities except they like dogs or children (and not in that creepy, awful way.) We’ve seen the antisocial personality disorder character make headway in recent years in all art mediums

The more real the character is, the more invested we become in them. What they feel, we do; what they do or fail to do, we endure the consequences.  There are some characters I have been so invested (Sergeant Paul Jackson, USMC 1st Force Recon, deployed to Middle East, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare) that when it all went sideways, I couldn’t play the game for two weeks. I wasn’t alone either. There were two graduate students in my class who acted the same way; it was a student- professor bonding moment.

When it comes to constructing my characters, I am very lucky to have an inherent formula. Being a therapist for nearly three decades, I have an extensive reservoir of cases I can pull from but instead I pull from the abnormal psychology textbooks I use to teach course in major mental illness and psychopathology.

Here’s how it works. I will have a character who lives along the autism spectrum where their barriers are reading social cues, misunderstanding the most basic social interaction, limited theory of mind, empathy and spends a lot of time in their inner world than the world around them. How can you make a character like this be someone you care about? Well, first they are interesting in how they navigate the world. Second, what might be barriers in this world, might be strengths in the world of fiction. I had a main character with autism navigate a hostile world and needed to engage extensive isolation and interact with artificial persons – good and evil – and the role and circumstances were believable, fun and engaging (Future Prometheus: The Series).

Take post-traumatic stress disorder: a brain injury and eventual accommodation to survive that occurred from exposure to a life-threatening situation, that makes the person hyper-vigilant, reflexive, cautious, and emotionally removed or plagued by flashbacks and hyper-sensitivity.  Again, these symptoms could be assets to the counter-terrorist, flawed character who uses his powers  to keep innocent people caught in a conspiracy alive(Birds of Flight series).


Depression? The state we all know but can’t define. A state of helplessness and hopelessness, where nothing can make you happy (anhedonia), where you lose interest in all things pleasurable, lose weight and sleep, and are see everything as dark and negative. Now take these flaws and have a character seemingly repeat his life over and over again to the point where the transition unfolds in a natural (Time is for Dragonflies and Angels and Groundhog Day). We can identify with the pessimism and can see why and what it takes to move beyond the depression.

In other words, I guess the adage of “painting yourself in a box and writing your way out” does lead to interesting plots and characters. Where many see mental illness as barriers, I see them as obstacles to overcome, both in my fiction writing and my clinical work. Art imitating life, I guess.