How To Make/Use Effective Characters

When I started “Masks” I had somewhere around a dozen character ideas brewing in my first drafts. I began the book not by writing a book at all. I wrote a lot of short stories of normal human beings who decided to put on a mask and take to the streets, fighting crime through their own talents and new identity.

The problem I commonly face is that I have a ton of great character concepts floating around, and either there’s no room for them or there’s no clear way of how to use them effectively. The other issue that sometimes ends up happening is that the characters change on me half way through any version of my drafts–as if they have a mind of their own!

I’d like to offer some insight on character creation and development by taking from two characters from my upcoming book Masks: The Unmercenaries. Through this not only will you get a taste of what you’ll see in this book, but you may glean some useful insight in your own character creation.

In this post, I’m featuring two characters: Marionette & Red.

Illustration from Part 2, Illustrated by Lexi Takis Art


Marionette has a role of featuring the ugly face of human trafficking while also embodying a spirit of vanity and dishonesty. She is a literal “Mask” in terms of putting on a façade and fooling others through the superficial appearance she dons.

That being said, this character wasn’t made overnight, and actually wasn’t even in the first draft. Her character stemmed from quite a few concepts, borrowing from a gothic “wraith” and another character that possessed an alias impossible to track down due to their obsession with plastic surgery.

As an aside, in middle school, I found myself both haunted and fascinated with the “gothic” image. It was a bit of a taboo for me in my traditional upbringing, but nonetheless it was a stark image that stood prominently against the rest of the student body. Even gothic and metal rock music had a similar foreign/taboo appeal to me because it was on the fringes of what not just myself but many friends considered “normal”. I mention this not to comment on the “gothic” phenomena, but I think the impact and feeling I had of this morbid fascination provided me some good material as I was constructing a haunting seductress.

Before Marionette, I had tinkered with quite a few “pimp” characters to suit the needs of human trafficking for the criminal syndicate “the Den.” One of those concepts got archived when they just didn’t fit with the tone of the role, and the other limped along as a place holder who just didn’t possess a rich identity or image.

It took a long time for Marionette to enter the scene for the first book because of a reservation, almost a reverence for a few character ideas, as though I was too afraid to use them now that I’d be without them in the next story. What I think we ought to remind ourselves in these situations is that our preference and reservations can’t hold up the creative process. Invariably, the book will tell us who to write and when to write them in. It took some time to listen to my intuition as to the “mismatched” nature of Marionette’s predecessors, but we shall find that when we give into our writer’s gut and use those great ideas first that we will have fewer hang ups in writer’s block, and the story will essentially write itself.

Her character also blossomed when I thought a little more on the “role” that this slot played in the story. Marionette stood well ahead of her predecessors because she broke a mold of casting the “human trafficker” as a male. Employing some gothic elements also happened to match the tile set of the book’s “season” (Halloween), and the “puppeteer” worked nicely with the role she was to play as a manipulator.

If there’s three pieces of advice I can pass on from building up her character, it would be:

  • Draw from memories & impacts of your formation/development. There’s something rich about our emotions and impressions from childhood even up to and past our puberty. Those feelings are buried ore that can be tapped not just for great literature but for better understanding of ourselves.
  • Don’t “save” all your best ideas just because you don’t want to use them up before your next book
  • Strongly consider the “role” each of your characters serves. When a character’s features can echo their narrative purpose, that character will naturally blossom and even become more memorable to your reader


Red also took a bit of time to develop as a character.

The very earliest drafts of Red were far from her current appearance. Back when I had been writing character featurettes or short stories of vigilantes inhabiting this “city of sin,” I had wrote a featurette on a former sex worker who took up the mantle of crime fighting. While the original concept had intrigued me, the image and feel of the character came across as campy and shallow. This is a case where a character concept has been archived for better use in a future book, but the original short story helped me form Red’s backstory.

Without giving too much away, the short story featured a limo ride and a recruitment offer from a wealthy gentleman’s club owner. This piece was borrowed for Red as an inciting incident for her to take on a mask (to fight men like this).

But the ethos of Red’s personality of being sweet yet spunky came from my imaginings of some prominent figures from church history. There’s incredible stories of sharp, strong-willed, and even cheeky saints such as St. Katherine & St. Marina (even Joan of Arc). The icons and images of these saints are always sweet and beautiful, and yet the church describes them in a militant way, highlighting their courage and spunk. Red emerged from these very old stories of saints in her personality, something that for centuries has inspired millions which I believe could use reinvigoration today.

The image of Red’s mask, however, took a bit of time to entirely settle on. Her hoodie and gasmask was first adopted as a kind of simple yet iconic urban image of a scoundrel, kind of like a rioter or graffiti artist. The components of her mask were meant to be not at all flashy or expensive, but simple while also being stark. The gasmask has always been a kind of mask that I see as aggressive, even “predatorial” with its large goggle eyes and snout like nose. Choosing the color “red” for the hoodie felt like a natural choice which I could spend pages on expounding about its symbolism. That being said, the components of all this came nicely together with this ironic and fairy-tale-esque image: Red Riding Hood & the wolf.

If there’s three things I learned from constructing Red’s character, it would be these to pass along:

  • Write “character featurettes” or short stories before you spin your main plot. Not only is this great for world-building, but you’ll have lots of content to use for backstories and future character concepts
  • Allow characters to change cosmetically and deeply in all your drafts. They’ll grow and develop and show you who they were supposed to become
  • Borrow from stories of old. History is full of rich figures, and the ones that we have celebrated in children’s stories and in the lives of saints are worthy of being brought into our modern stories.

Wishing you all the best in your venture of making rich and effective characters!

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