How to Write Compelling Characters
Written by
She Writes
March 2019
Written by
She Writes
March 2019

This is a guest post by Rachel Howzell Hall author of They All Fall Down.

People do what they want – even the ones you create in your head. But how do you get them to do what makes sense for them? How do you make them… unforgettable. Glad you asked!

In They All Fall Down, I juggled more people in one book than in any other novel I’ve written. In this homage to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, seven sinners travel to Mictlan Island — and each sinner harbors a secret that has ticked off someone they all know.

These characters each represent one of the seven deadly sins: envy, pride, lust, sloth, anger, greed and gluttony. A nice springboard, those sins, but I needed more to create unforgettable characters like Miriam (envy) and Wallace (pride). How? I asked myself a few questions:

What is their fatal flaw?

Are they jealous? Do they always compare themselves to others? Are they prone to road-rage or complaining about their food to the waitress? I focused on the people around me and collected those behaviors that would get my character beat up… or worse. If I have only the purest souls around me, I watch reality television. Sinners abound there.

What is their tic or affectation?

My husband David worked with Conrad, a man he rarely saw. But David knew Conrad was in that day because every morning at 9:04, Conrad opened a can of soda. When I’m anxious, I pick at the skin on my lips. For They All Fall Down, I made those tics and affectations a manifestation of their fatal flaw. For Conrad and his Pepsis in the morning: maybe gluttony. Me and my lip-picking: anger.

How do they speak?

This required me to shut up and listen to other people talking. This required more than throwing ‘hella,’ ‘y’all’ and ‘pop’ in a sentence. My mother was raised in Alabama. She pronounces ‘terrible’ like ‘tuhr-bull’ and ends many of her sentences with, ‘hmm?’ In They All Fall Down, Frank uses ten-dollar words to make himself sound smarter. Desi says, ‘girlie,’ a lot. When I hear something good, I write it down. I go to YouTube and look for videos of people just… talking.


What would my character do in any given situation? If she missed her flight home, what would she do? If her was being followed, what would he do? I put my people in real-life situations and figure out their reactions. I look at real life, for example: a man leaves work at night and walks to his car and drives home. Before leaving work, a woman makes sure she has her keys in hand, has one key stuck out between her knuckles as a weapon, she eyes the garage as she hustles to her car, scans the backseat of her dark car before she climbs in and locks the car as soon as she’s behind the steering wheel. See?

Who would play your people in the movie?

This is a fun one—casting my story helps me make these characters more real. I find those actors and create a digital character board. That way, as I move from chapter to chapter, I see the actors in the movie. For Miriam Macy, I pictured LisaRaye McCoy, best known for The Players Club and Single Ladies. She’s feisty and fun and can cop an attitude in a second. And Wallace Zavarnella? David Strathairn, known for many films but in particular, The Bourne Ultimatum, Lincoln and Dolores Claiborne.

Get your family and friends involved – ask them to text you anytime they see or hear something interesting. My family are my eyes and ears and their contributions can be found in every book I’ve written. Unforgettable characters keep readers turning the pages!

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