Think of the most memorable character you can remember. He or she can be from a book, play or film. What makes this character so special? What makes him or her stand out from the millions of characters that are conceived in that most romantic of liaisons between pen and paper? Is it that he/she is funny/grumpy/courageous/cowardly/beautiful/soulful/intelligent/a rebel? Any one of these traits would make a fantastic character, so what makes yours stand out? Is it that you can relate/sympathise/empathise/love/hate this character? Again, all of these are important. However, when I think of the most amazing characters that I have encountered in my obsession with books, the ones that truly stand out for me are the ones who seem to have been snatched from real life. They jump off the page and inhabit my world. They are not characters at all; they are people and I am with them every step of the way.
In creating memorable characters, this is what we are striving for. We want the reader to believe that the story we have created is really happening to a person who is as real to them as their own mother or father. Although characterisation skills grow with experience, listed below are a few tips to help.
Know your Characters well
This may sound ridiculously obvious but, especially when a piece is plot-driven, writers often neglect this element and the result is a cast of 2D characters. There are a number of ways to get to know your characters. Writing an extensive CV is one recommendation. However, to bring the character to life, you could try writing an interview with your characters where they are answering questions about their life. The interview will include their reactions to the questions, physical nuances and characteristics that are difficult to get across in a CV.
The Characters have the Control
There is nothing wrong with a well-developed plot, but you have to remember that the characters determine the story. If your plot requires your character to do something that they simply wouldn’t do or act in a way that is contrary to the personality that you have developed, you will lose your reader.
A Character Must Develop
If the book or play ends and your main character is unchanged, the reader or audience may be left wondering why they bothered to invest their money and precious time. Character development comes in many forms, from personal growth to the absolute reverse. The only essential instruction is that it must happen.
Real people are not clichés. Scientists are not always eccentric geniuses. Prostitutes don’t always have a heart of gold. Students are not always drunken layabouts. Soldiers are not always courageous. Real people don’t easily fall into categories; there is more going on for them than their participation in the plot. Real people have hobbies and interests, eccentricities and quirks, friends and enemies which have absolutely nothing to do with the plot and these need to be represented to make him or her 3D.
Real life Characters come from Real Life
Without doubt, real life is the richest source of characters we have. It may not be appropriate to kidnap a whole personality for your novel or play, but observing people at a deeper level will inform the choices you make.
Put your Character through the Mill
Conflict and tests will show the many dimensions of your character. Take them outside of their comfort zones and challenge them every step of the way. If this is done honestly and the responses are driven by the personality that you have created, the reader will be able to empathise with your character and stand with them every step of the way.
Know what your Character Wants
Even if you have no idea what your story is going to be about and your starting point is developing a character, you need to know what is driving him or her. Not all stories have a quest as obvious as the Holy Grail, but your character needs a desire (for love/truth/happiness/justice/success) that will be the driving force in their decision making. We all have this quest and the various plots in our lives come and go adding or detracting from it. The importance here is that the personal quest is clear.
There is No Right or Wrong Way
This is the beauty of creating characters, which is why I haven’t included more structured methods. However, there is a wealth of ‘write by numbers’ guides online which are useful for many writers (e.g. four prominent traits). My personal feeling is that following a specific plan can be hit and miss, but for more information see what Google has to offer.
Download your free copy of Ditch the Publisher: 40 Indie Authors on Their Unique Self-Publishing Journeys, an invaluable companion for writers considering the self-publishing route.
Also available – Blood, Sweat and Ink: The Pleasure and Pain of Writing a Novel
Making Books Behave… Advice and support for writers.