You’re Such A Character!

Originally Published: November 2012

by Kristi Olson

Penguin Executive Editor, teacher and author Jill Santopolo opened the Tuesday Night Professional Lecture Series on September 11 with a talk about creating engaging, relatable characters.

“A character’s job is to hook the reader into the story,” Santopolo said. Writers can make their characters become more alive and real to readers by doing four things in the first few pages of their book:

Make the character interesting (in a specific way)

  • Make the character imperfect
  • Put the character in a challenging situation
  • Make the character kind

Santopolo analyzed the first few pages of several novels to demonstrate how these goals were achieved. She pulled examples from three books she recently edited: A Tangle of Knots by Lisa Graff, Charlie Collier, Snoop for Hire by John Madormo, and Venomby Fiona Paul. She also asked audience members to reflect on whether their own first pages achieve these four goals.

Characters are deeply tied to the larger questions of the story. Santopolo noted that other major questions writers need to address include:

  • What is your character’s plot goal?
  • What is the character’s heartline?
  • How does your character change?
  • What is your character’s controlling belief?
  • What is your character’s motivation in each action?

“A character’s heartline is the emotional core of the story that balances out the plotline,” Santopolo explained. To make a satisfying story, the heartline and plotline need to be intertwined. The heartline shows how a character changes and grows internally.

“A character’s controlling belief is an emotional belief that propels the character through the story,” she said. Essentially, a controlling belief answers the question why a character does what he/she does.

Main characters are also impacted by other players in the story, including the antagonist and supporting characters. The antagonist should always have some likeable quality, Santopolo said. Readers should be able to understand secondary characters through specific details that make them easy to grasp. They do not always need to be three-dimensional, fully rounded characters.

Santopolo also treated audience members to Character Questionnaires, which included a list of useful questions for writers to consider as they develop their characters.  Among these: If you were an ice cream flavor, what would you be and why? If you were an animal, what would you be and why?

In addition to being an executive editor, Santopolo is the author ofAlec Flint, Super Sleuth: The Nina, the Pinta and the Vanishing Treasure; The Ransom Note Blues: An Alec Flint Mystery and a forthcoming four-book series from Simon and Schuster, the first of which will be released next fall. She also is a thesis advisor with The New School University’s MFA program in Creative Writing for Children and teaches an online children’s writing class at McDaniel College.


Kristi Olson holds an MFA in Creative Writing for Children from The New School University. She is currently working on a young adult novel.


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