Aside from world building, having a strong cast of characters in your story is beyond important. Good characters can make a not so interesting plotline interesting. Not that your aim should be to coast on good characters; I am merely saying they make a world of difference. A good plot is boring with uninteresting characters. Your characters are an investment for the audience. They are the one thing you HAVE to get right.
In this article I am going to give you tips on how to write good characters, how to make them resonate with your audience, and how to keep those readers coming back for more. Emotional attachment is a tricky beast to tame, but if you master it your characters will transcend the pages and be all too real for your readers. Which is exactly what you want.
There are no definitive rules to writing characters; every author has their own twist to it. What I am going to present today are a series of guidelines that personally work for me. Once you master them you may and should put your own spin on things. Each author should have their own flavor.
What not to do when writing characters:
- Avoid stereotypes, but archetypes are just fine. Stereotypes are just plain offensive, in reality there are no such things. Every human being on this planet has a unique set of traits and preferences. That being said, feel free to fall back on archetypes, these provide a wonderful framework for forming characters. We’ve all met helicopter parents, strict teachers, loving grandmothers. Just be sure to give them your own twist. Perhaps grandma wears combat boots, perhaps the helicopter parent is being so insistent about the child’s education because it was a promise she made to a dying relative long ago (okay perhaps not so melodramatic, but you get my point). Again, be sure not to be gimmicky.
- Don’t make your character perfect. The best characters are the ones the audience can relate to the most. The more faulted they are the better. The trick is to make them believable. For instance, what if there was a bitter old man who had no social skills, no friends, couldn’t spell to save his life, was on hard times and had absolutely no money. What if his only skill was baking? The character is instantly identifiable, and has a personality. Go crazy with this one.
- Don’t let repeated habits define your character. This is NOT a substitute for character development. Just because Mary Jane twirls her hair whenever she talks doesn’t make her a good character. It just means she has a singular habit you’re pulling a lot of attention to, and it will get very old very fast. This will not get your reader invested.
- Don’t turn your character into a set of bullet points. Mary Jane doesn’t need to go to point B from point A, and have blond hair and blue eyes and fair skin and have freckles and have the fear of spiders and dreams of being an orthodontist when she grows up and, and, and, and… Your character is NOT merely a list. I use the term ‘bite sized’ a lot, but it holds true here as well, provide your readers with bite sized amounts of information and let your character develop organically throughout the story. It’s all about letting those ideas simmer, and come to a boil over time.
- Your character doesn’t ALWAYS have to act in character. Don’t get me wrong, consistency is vital. It provides authenticity to your character. It makes your character grounded and more real, but sometimes even humans have moments of inconsistency. We do have the tendency to act out of character; the human condition is a complex one. Perhaps a deranged villain who usually murders everyone in his path lets a kid survive just once, because he pitied him. This moment can be a defining one in the narrative. Sometimes these moments provide the most growth for your characters. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
What you should do when writing characters:
- Give your characters a backstory. With a backstory your character will have a wealth of past events and information to draw upon, this in turn will give them clear motivation for what they are currently doing.
- Ground your characters in reality. Make them interact with the world they live in. Make them breath in the air, taste the breeze. Ground them in your expansive world, and have them react to it in a fluid and natural way. How they react to sensory details can be very telling.
- Make your characters suffer a little bit. A character that glides through the story with no problems is boring. Give them adversity; make them struggle through harsh trials that test them on all of their faults. Make them grow organically with the narrative. Perhaps the baker from one of the examples above is forced to adopt a deceased relative’s child, and due to this is forced to learn social skills. Again cheesy, but it makes for a good example.
- Give your character fears. We all fear something, be it spiders, heights, the ocean. We all have something that just gives us the shivers. A large warrior could be afraid of rodents. There is a certain irony to that. Just be sure not to be gimmicky with this. It’s all about providing fuel for a believable character. You have to sell us on it.
- Have your character experience conflicts. Conflicts are a bit trickier to tackle. There are two kinds of conflict. Internal and external. An example of external conflict would be our protagonist fighting a bear. An example of internal conflict would be our protagonist coping after a harsh breakup with his girlfriend, and questioning aspects of his identity. We go through several of these kinds of conflicts on a daily basis as human beings. No less should be expected from the characters in your story.
These are only some of the qualities that make for good characters; you can find more by simply looking at real people around you. The best writers are ones who can really look at the world. The key concept here is making your characters believably human.
It’s tough, but not impossible.
C. A. Guillory