I’ve been sitting on this post for a while, trying to figure out how to say everything that’s in my head. (Typical writer problems, right?) I’m still not sure I can get it all into one post without it being ridiculously long, but I figured I would try.
Writing is about characters. People, animals, places, aliens, whatever, they can all be considered characters in their own way. Yes, even places. Even inanimate objects. Some could argue that the One Ring of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books could be considered a character all on its own, just as Middle Earth could be considered the same by others.
But what makes a character? Can you just throw a quick description of what someone looks like into the first chapter of your novel and call them a character? You could, but it would mean almost nothing in the long run. Writing about a person using nothing but their description will only get you so far, and that’s generally only about a paragraph or so before you have no choice but to include more details. These details could be anything, really, but in order for your reader to really know the person or thing they are reading about, they need more than the superficial appearance of it.
Let me start with the most obvious thing your character needs. (For the sake of simplicity in writing this, I’m going to assume you’re writing about a person of some sort.)
1. What’s in a name? Well, a lot, actually. The right name can do a lot for your story, and the wrong name can confuse your readers. If you are writing historical fiction, you want a name that makes sense for that era. The same goes for sci-fi and fantasy and every other genre and time period. The wrong name can be a deal breaker. Do your research and test some names out by writing paragraphs of what you see when you hear that particular name.
2. They need their own look, style, and appearance. Yes, I did say that it’s not what makes the character, but it is still important. Maybe there is something different about them that you wish to portray somehow – strange eyes, missing a finger, hair down to their ankles. You don’t have to make them anything special if you don’t want to, or you can make them something totally unique, but the reader will need to know what that person looks like. I say this because, as a reader, I find it frustrating when I don’t know what someone looks like, even if it’s the simplest description of the person. It’s harder to imagine the scene in your head if you don’t know what anyone looks like, even to the smallest degree.
3. Next they will need some actual personality traits. Again, it doesn’t have to be anything completely outlandish, but you have to give the reader enough at the beginning to understand what kind of person they are reading about. I’m not saying you have to go into detail for several thousand words about what they like to eat and how that one time they cried over something stupid when they were 15. I’m just saying that the reader will need something that they can relate to or understand so that they can get to know who they are reading about. If they have some weird quirk that you might want to share, do so early in the story unless it’s something that you need to hold back from readers until later on for the sake of the plot.
4. A character is nothing without motivation. I don’t mean the motivation to get out of bed in the morning. I mean something deeper than that. I mean (I’m about to use Tolkien as an example again) getting the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom, or finding their long lost parents, or finding the perfect date. They need something to keep them going and to move the story along. Giving them motivation helps set up goals for them, and in doing so, moves the story along based on how they succeed or fail in reaching their goals.
5. Give them history. I don’t mean you need to write a whole book to explain their backstory, but know what their history is so that you can justify having them react in certain ways to things that happen in your story. Adding too much back story to your book can be a bad thing, though, so make sure you don’t overdo it. It doesn’t really matter whether you include hints and little pieces of history throughout your story, or if you just decide to keep it to yourself to keep your readers guessing. Just make sure your character doesn’t merely exist in the time of your story without anything beforehand. If someone asks you about the person’s past, or something that relates to it, you don’t want to be scratching your head looking for an answer. Your past shapes who you are, and the same goes for your characters.
6. Make them afraid. Sounds a bit odd, right? But what I mean by this is give them fears. If they aren’t afraid of anything, they will charge blindly into any situation and feel almost nothing about it but arrogance. Maybe that’s what you want, but to make them realistic, they need to have fears,even if little ones or very typical ones. This can include a fear of death, being alone, spiders, planes, whatever works for the character and will help add more dimension to the story. Once they have a fear, you can use it against them to help move the story along. Make them face that fear in some way, or have it as a major factor in the story itself.
7. Make them unsure. This adds to the point above. Fear makes people question things. It shows an internal conflict that may otherwise be absent. That conflict will be important, as it will add to the struggle your character faces throughout your story. If every decision is as easy as a yes or no for your character, your story loses a lot of the dimension that you need to make it believable.
8. Friends. Okay, so this one is a bit touchy. A lot of writers like having the lone wolf character, as it “makes things easier”. But in reality, it doesn’t make anything easier. It actually makes things quite boring most of the time. I don’t mean they need a best friend who acts as their sidekick through the whole book, but they need other characters they can confide in even a little, be it a parent, friend, sibling, teacher, whatever. A person always acts differently when by themselves as opposed to when they are with someone else, and it’s a good way to show more personality for your character and to explore other types of personalities that may or may not be useful in the future.
9. Make sure they have strengths. I’m not saying they have to be bodybuilders or karate masters or tech geniuses, but they need at least one dominant strength that will help achieve the goal they are working toward from point 3. Make them a natural at something that will give them the upper hand in certain situations. Give them years of schooling in something useful, give them super powers, give them wings. Give them something useful to their story.
10. But don’t forget to give them flaws as well. Everyone has them, and so should your character. If they can get through anything without showing flaws, you will bore your readers. Maybe they have a temper, or maybe they are illiterate or were spoiled as a child and expect everything on a silver platter. I don’t know what will work for your story, but find something that makes sense to not only the story but the character.
11. Make them slightly unpredictable. By this I mean you shouldn’t let your readers fall into a sense of comfort in knowing how the character will react in every situation. Maybe they will lash out without warning if they are a generally quiet person, or maybe they do something not even they can explain. If your reader can guess every move the character will make, the story becomes predictable, and therefore boring. This goes for both actions and emotions. If your character is normal hard-hearted and cold, have them react to something in a way that surprises your reader.
12. They need a story! There is no point in perfecting your character if there is no story to tell. The story is just as important as the character, so go make it perfect!