Fiction is almost always about discovering something about a character, which means characters are one of the most important elements of writing. Poorly written characters can ruin everything. Creating a strong character is one of the most difficult skills in the craft, and even the most experienced writers still struggle to breathe life into their characters.
You want your readers to connect with your characters, but that doesn’t mean they have to like them (you may even want your readers to hate a character). You want your readers to find something about a character that allows them to picture him, or her, or it, as a real thing.
Where do you begin? The first step is to make sure you know what kind of character you are working on. There are three main types of characters and each one requires a different level of attention:
- Primary Characters – Your protagonists, antagonists, love interests, etc. Present in most pieces of fiction, these characters have a slew of conflicting interests, desires, attachments, and everything. These are usually the most interesting characters, the ones that keep the reader reading as they develop.
- Secondary Characters – They might have a simple arch, they might learn something or gain/lose something by the end of the story, and they might play a pivotal role in aiding or subduing one of the primary characters. Mostly present in novels and a few short stories.
- Flat Characters – Mostly used to move the plot forward, these characters might recur, but they will not change. They are ‘one dimensional’ and do not change. Most flat characters can be described in a single phrase, and they usually only serve one or two purposes in the story (the Cyclops from Homer’s Odyssey only has one goal: to eat Odysseus’ and his men).
There is often a huge overlap between secondary and flat characters, but I find when writing longer works, sometimes secondary characters begin to grow and get a developmental arc of their own. I use the same process for creating primary and secondary characters, but flat characters tend to materialize in my writing when they need to.
Now you need inspiration for a character. I am going to recycle advice from my post on setting, when I say you have to let it come to you. If something has already forced its way into your mind, then YES, USE IT. But if not, here are some jumper cables to get you started:
- Look at antique photos of strangers on the internet
- Steal a character from a movie that really, really bothered you
- Listen to a song, and imagine someone who get angry/sad/afraid when they heard it
I find that taking characters who inhabit their worlds really well, and moving them to a place you would not expect to find them at all ingrains a certain amount of conflict into them.
What do you do once you have a character in mind? You need to fill them out. You might only have a few character features and maybe a general disposition for your character in mind. Now it’s time to learn everything there is to know about your character.
Well the important stuff, at least. Some people recommend writing a list, including a name, nickname, hair color, eye color, current job, family history, health conditions, worst fears, greatest dreams, and everything in between. As it stands, there are really only three main things you need to figure out about your character:
- What do they do?
- What do they want?
- Where have they been?
The important thing is to explore your character, to understand what makes them a person (or a thing, genre permitting), and what makes them move onward. Your character needs to be doing something, always, because nobody cares about someone who won’t try to control their own destiny.
Names and looks also very important, but they will be getting their own posts in the future. For right now, focus on creating a real character. Someone or something with emotions and inner turmoil and fears and dreams that could actually exist if the world was just so.
A character, above all things, must intrigue the reader. Enough needs to be shown about a character to prove to the reader that there is more, hidden underneath. You want your characters to resonate, to sound and resound in your readers’ imaginations while you tell the story. A character should grab the reader’s emotions with both hands, and pull them apart.
Which characters have you felt a connection with? Is there a character you hated so much, you just couldn’t wait to see them fall? Or one you loved so much, you were actually sad to finish their story? Tell me about it!