*This post is part of a collaboration with The Ice Colony, and the first in a monthly series on the craft of writing.
In my experience, good characters are the single most important component of a good story. Many if not most people can read and enjoy a book with an underdeveloped plot if they get attached to the people they’re reading about. And even if you have a great plot and beautiful prose, readers will never be fully engrossed in the story if the protagonists are forgettable or unrealistic. Your characters are the reason you’re telling the story. So without further ado, here’s how to make sure your characters are particularly memorable.
Before you even start writing your story (especially if it’s a longer piece like a novel), you should literally feel like you know your character(s).
I feel like I know mine a little too well. I’ve daydreamed about many of them extensively in quarantine, and with all the extra time I’ve had, I’ve gone a little overboard writing about their largely shitty and dysfunctional personalities. But this is actually a good thing, and not totally unhealthy and weird, as far as creating amazing characters (and in extension amazing fiction). Spend time with them even when you’re not writing, and above all just get really, really in-depth when it comes to character creation. In a sense, you’re playing God. Think about how complex a real person is. Good characters should be real people, just pretend.
Think about their background. Origin story and upbringing are extremely important.
Like all real people, good characters have personalities and motivations that are strongly influenced by where (and who) they come from. Other than just listing traits your character possesses (friendly, smart, quirky, etc.), I believe that the most important questions to answer about a character are related to their background, and their family. What relationship do they have with their parents? Did they grow up rich or poor? Do they practice a religion? Things like this affect people on a constant basis, and when you’re the one deciding how a person would react to a certain situation, you should really know what has made them who they are.
Physical description is less important than most authors think.
I cannot tell you how many times, even in good books, I’ve been bored by excessive detail about how a character looks. First of all, it’s just not that important (not to say it’s totally unimportant—it’s just less important than most other aspects of a character). Secondly, people will, and often like to, picture a character on their own, even without an in-depth physical description. Giving the reader a basic idea of what someone looks like doesn’t take a lot—a few well placed mentions of defining features is plenty. And while it is generally good to have these descriptions earlier in the story, they don’t all need to be in the first couple chapters, and probably shouldn’t all be in one place. Spending more than a paragraph describing how a character looks is usually unnecessary.
People watch. Notice quirks, mannerisms, and character traits. Any time you think of or come across an idea for a character, however small, write it down. Even if you don’t have a story yet.
This is honestly just really fun, in addition to helping you create good characters. I do the same thing with setting—just sit and take notes on what I see, so that later on I can use my observations to set the background for a story. Either way, it’s just being observant and taking notes. When it comes to creating realistic characters, getting ideas from actual people is helpful for obvious reasons. Take down anything that strikes you as interesting—everything from mannerisms to physical quirks and flaws. This is a strategy that can help if you’re finding it difficult to build a person from scratch.
Archetypes can be helpful, just make sure the character isn’t just an archetype, unless they are a very minor character.
Archetypes are essentially classic characters seen again and again in works of fiction, like the rebel, the hero, the sage, the innocent. Even if a character is an archetype—most characters are archetypes in one way or another—they can still be incredibly unique and well-developed. I’m probably an archetype. Archetypal characters only become a problem when an archetype is all they are, and the character development stops there. I think it’s actually a good idea to use an archetype as a template for a character, then build from there.
Contradictions are a good thing. Contradictions make realistic characters.
Real people are at odds with themself—this is one of the many annoying little things that makes us human, and something that while counterintuitive, makes great characters. It may feel strange making a character shy and talkative, or arrogant and insecure…there are so many opposite qualities, opposing impulses that can exist inside the same person. Contradictions can make a character more interesting, and possibly even become a sub-plot.
Motivation is key to both character and plot development.
As you plan your story, always ask why a character is doing something, and why they act the way they do in general. What do they want most? What subconscious urges drive their behavior? These are things to consider as you write each interaction the character has, and even before you start writing. Why do they exist, and what are they trying to do?
Find a balance between “likable” and “flawed”.
I absolutely love writing total douchebags, often as protagonists. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but you have to make sure your characters, or at least certain characters, are likable enough that readers will care about them and care about your story. I’ll rephrase that as—protagonists do not have to be likable, but they should ultimately be lovable. Balance bad qualities with good ones. The opposite is just as true; a character with no flaws is unrealistic and possibly annoying.
Two tips in creating endearing, “cute” characters—give them lots of (harmless) idiosyncrasies, and make them a little awkward.
We tend to like people who we do not perceive as threatening. This is an actual fact I learned as a psychology major. Because of this, quirky characters who are both kind and not particularly socially ept tend to be likable. This isn’t always true across the board, but it usually is. Use these traits as a starting point for creating a character people will feel protective over.
As far as where to start with character creation…
(1) Write out a list of the character’s good and bad qualities. (2) Get down some basics of their background such as family specifics and religion (3) Know some of their likes and dislikes (4) Decide what they are most afraid of and what they want most—these two things are most crucial and foundational IMHO. There are many, many other dimensions of character development, but this is a good jumping off point.
Don’t shy away from character flaws that are not considered socially acceptable or attractive.
Certain flaws, particularly when it comes to female characters, are considered more okay than others—for example, you won’t often see a female protagonist who is emotionally closed-off, or aggressively athletic. But don’t be afraid to give your character traits you think best fit the vision you have for them, even if they’re unpopular. Note that there are also qualities that are taboo / not commonly given to a protagonist for a reason. If you make a character sexist or racist it is highly unlikely you can also, or should also, make them out to be likable.
Write a journal from your character’s perspective. If you have the time and energy, write scenes you’ll never include in your story just for the sake of character and relationship development. Also, make playlists for your characters. Have fun with them.
I understand a lot of people who write in addition to having a full-time job may not be able to make time for this kind of dicking around. But if you can, these are all great ways to really engage with your characters and turn them into fully developed humans. Journal entries are especially useful if your story is written in the third person POV—they allow you to really get inside the character’s head.
Come up with a list of questions you might ask someone to get to know them, and ask your character these questions.
(Then obviously make your character answer.) Go with some of the job interview variety, some more appropriate for a first date, and perhaps most importantly, some you might ask on a hundredth date. What would you do if you won the lottery? What was your most embarrassing moment? If you could kill one person with impunity, would you, and who would it be? What do you believe the purpose of life is? Questions like these. Google “the question game” for some ideas.
Write unreliable characters, narrators included. Real people aren’t always self-aware or honest.
This a whole new layer of storytelling—don’t have all your characters say exactly what they mean, or even know exactly what they mean. Real people are confused, and constantly make mistakes and misjudgments. This is easier to portray in fiction when you really, really know your character—then you can get inside their head and decide how they’re lying to the reader and to themself.
SHOW 👏🏻 DON’T 👏🏻 TELL.
I know everybody says this, but it’s usually true, especially with character development; although it isn’t always true. It’s okay to tell the reader some things about your character— just ask yourself first if there’s any non-awkward way you could demonstrate a certain quality rather than directly mentioning it.
If you don’t truly care about your character, your reader won’t either. I can almost guarantee it.
Yeah…basically just this. In general, if you aren’t fully engaged in what you’re writing, it’ll be hard to keep someone else interested.
Short stories can be a good learning experience as far as creating characters. Sort of “character development lite”.
While characters in a short story should still have a very strong sense of self and feel distinct, they do not require the same level of in-depth development as characters in a novel. Even the plot in a short story is more limited and simplistic. In general, short stories are easier to control and less overwhelming. This makes them ideal for practice creating strong characters.
Be careful writing characters in marginalized groups you do not belong to.
Be careful definitely doesn’t mean don’t do it. Diversity in fiction is important. Just make sure you do your research if you’re writing a character from a culture or subset of society you are not a member of. Especially if that group is historically marginalized. Try to get information from people or sources authored by people who are a member of the group in question. Not only to avoid offending anyone, but because there are so many complexities and nuances to any culture (whether it’s black culture, gay culture, or the experience of being disabled), it can be easy to get something wrong and compromise the realism of your story. On that note, while I try to keep my fiction diverse, I personally would probably not write a novel in which the main protagonist or narrator was someone from a culture that is not my own. Given how much of an effect demographic traits have on our lives, it is highly likely my portrayal, however well-intentioned, would feel off. I would love to write a black, Muslim, queer man—I just don’t know if I could do him justice. If you’re not sure, air on the side of caution.
Base characters on people you know, or yourself.
You certainly don’t always have to do this, but it makes your characters much more realistic if they’re based on real people you know, with real flaws, real idiosyncrasies, real fears—all that. I actually think it’s a great idea to base characters off yourself (not all of them obviously…but there’s certainly nothing wrong with a self-insert protagonist). Doing this might feel self-important, but it doesn’t have to be. You know yourself better than anyone else; self-importance aside, character development just became a lot easier. To expand off my previous point about writing other cultures, it can really enrich a story to include your own background and unique cultural experiences. The main character in my novel is a Jewish woman with BPD, who is an alcoholic and lives in New York. While everyone who knows me and has read my book probably thought, “Hard lol, this mess of a person is you,” you don’t have to advertise when you plunk yourself down in one of your stories. Nobody in the publishing industry will know.
Know that your characters may ~do their own thing~ sometimes, and that’s okay.
As much as I’m all about planning every aspect of your story down to the most minute detail, sometimes things take an unexpected turn mid-story and the best thing to do for your writing is follow through with the change. It sounds contrived, but characters can have minds of their own—you may decide after in-depth character development, halfway through the book, that your protagonist would handle a situation differently than originally planned. That’s okay. Sometimes you have to just go with it.
Next month, continuing my collaboration with Lo-Fed Media, I’ll address plot…it’s easier than you think, but it’s also easier than you think to do it badly.