I’ve read a lot of books in my lifetime. Mystery, horror, action. Yes, even a love story or two. Luckily, a majority of these books have been good rather than bad, with gripping stories about unusual realities I’d immerse myself in. Though I read these books for an enjoyable story, I mostly read them to go on an exciting journey with the characters.
I notice a trend in the exceptionally good books I read. In these books, the author creates characters that seemed alive and human, not simply one-dimensional beings on a white page. These characters are compelling and stay in my mind long after I finish the last page of the story.
So, what’s the difference between creating a cardboard cut-out and a living, breathing character your readers will remember for years to come?
I wish there was a secret formula or a magic potion I could give you to create this kind of character, but unfortunately there isn’t. If it was as easy as 1, 2, 3, then everybody would be doing it, landing their novels on the best-sellers list. The truth is characterization is a struggle. And it’s one of the most-asked questions in the writing community:
“How do I create compelling and memorable characters?”
You can’t simply will such characters into existence. However, there are certain techniques that can get you started on the path to developing realistic and engaging characters. In the numerous character development courses I’ve taken and books I’ve read, the following techniques are the ones that have helped me the most. I hope they help you in your quest to craft unforgettable characters, too.
Let’s dive in.
Make Your Characters Human
If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re human (unless you are a sentient AI). As most of us have learned from our experiences living amongst other humans, we are complex creatures. Even the most dull and boring person you know has a side to them that is unique and different and maybe, just maybe, you might find them a little interesting if you dig down deep enough.
Just like human beings, your characters also need to carry distinctive and interesting qualities.
Author Lauren Sapala puts it like this:
“Think of your character as a jewel that has about a thousand different facets. If you keep turning them over and exploring new sides, you’ll keep discovering new information about their personality and motivations. And there’s always another way to turn things. There’s always another side to explore.”
There are several ways you can create multi-faceted characters.
1. Give them flaws.
In real life, no one is without flaws. This truth also stands in fiction. One of the first “flawed” characters that comes to my mind is Jack Torrance from Stephen Kings’ thriller, The Shining. Jack is an aspiring writer who struggles with alcoholism and an explosive temper. Throughout the novel, his struggle with these two flaws makes for a very interesting story as he spirals deeper into insanity.
Some examples of character flaws are pride, selfishness, fear, and vengeance. They can even be as simple as a stutter your protagonist has dealt with since childhood. These flaws can not only affect your main characters, but also the ones surrounding them. Jack’s alcoholism and anger directly affected his wife and son.
Sometimes even good things can be considered flaws. If someone is “too nice”, then they’ll likely be pushed around or taken advantage of.
Note: There is such thing as too much of a good thing – or in this case, a bad thing. An overly flawed character can breach the line, crossing from compelling to unlikable. No matter how impatient, unruly, or negative they may be, hint to your reader that there is more under the surface to be discovered.
2. Let them make their own decisions.
I’ve been guilty of controlling each step of my characters’ journey. I’ve told them what to do, what to say and how to say it, and I’ve missed out on giving them the freedom they needed to make their own choices. I’ve treated them as marionettes, and I, the repressing puppeteer.
No one likes to be told what to do, and I’m sure some of our characters would look us in the eye, tell us to back off and let them live their own lives.
It’s a risk, especially for a writer who likes to have everything in their novel planned out. And to a certain degree, there definitely needs to be a great deal of planning and outlining, but characters need to be handled more loosely.
One way I let my characters make their own decisions is by thinking of several ways my characters may react to a certain conflict in the plot. I cross off the most obvious reactions and choose the more surprising options. Then I pass the reins to my characters and watch what they do. Sometimes, I’m completely surprised by their choices, other times I actually get angry with them. But that’s what makes them compelling and believable.
3. Give them secrets.
Whoever coined the phrase, “Secrets, secrets are no fun,” clearly wasn’t a writer. Giving your characters secrets instantly makes them more interesting, especially if the reader doesn’t yet know what that secret is. When something is hinted at, but has yet to be revealed, we sit up straighter in our chairs and lean our ear in a little closer.
But as the writer and developer of your characters, it’s important to know what secrets your characters are keeping. When you understand their secrets, you understand their fears, dreams, values, and insecurities.
Secrets add layers of complexity to your characters.
Talk to your characters. Find out what deep, dark secrets they’re harboring and watch how their secrets influence the choices they make.
4. Create contradictions.
No one likes stereotypes and they definitely don’t belong in developing compelling, memorable characters. Your readers will remember them, all right. But not in a positive way.
When you begin fleshing out your characters, physical description is probably one of the first things you visualize. Start with a unique combination right from the beginning. Let’s say your protagonist is a popular, straight-A student who plays on the varsity basketball team. The mind naturally produces an image of a tall, attractive male who has the ladies swooning over his good looks and style. What if you created something new and different? What if he was actually short, but fast? Was bankrupt in the looks department, but extended kindness to everyone? What if he wasn’t a he at all, but a girl instead?
Character contradictions don’t only have to be physical. In fact, they shouldn’t only be physical. Character contradictions must also manifest themselves through personality. A character can be shy and timid, yet rude. Or be vain and insecure, but incredibly headstrong and stubborn.
Whatever you decide for your characters, remember these contradictions must be justified. It isn’t enough for your characters to have these contradictory attributes; there must be a reason, something from their past or present, that makes them act a certain way.
The deviation from what is assumed sets the stage to keep readers enthralled by wondering what’s going to happen next, what new and unexpected personality trait they’ll come across.
On a related note: In the end, make sure they change over the course of their journey.
This might seem obvious, but you wouldn’t believe how many books I’ve read where the main character remains the same from beginning to end, completely unaffected or unchanged by the conflict, or lack thereof, in the plot. When a character doesn’t change, he remains static. There’s a difference between continuity, consistency, and plain boring. Static characters don’t engage a reader’s interest.
Think about how many times the regular human being changes throughout life. It happens too much to keep track of. Every human is susceptible to change and growth unless they live in a confined space with zero interaction with the world around them. Even then, I’m sure they’d change once they became insane from the lack of human contact.
By escalating the conflict of the story, you naturally put your characters in a place where change is inevitable. They’ll adapt to survive or they’ll die trying.
It’s something we talk about a little bit more in the guide on fixing common plot mistakes.
2 Sure-fire Ways to Destroy Good Characterization
While there are several ways to develop engaging characters, there are also many ways to destroy them. With all of the time you’ve spent creating these characters, I feel like I’d be setting you up for failure if I didn’t warn you about the ways you could reverse all of the hard work you’ve put in.
Avoid these two things to save your characters, and ultimately, your story:
1. You rely too much on physical description.
Being able to visualize a character is important. Developing a character’s physical traits is one of my favorite parts in the creating process. But many writers think physical description is the strongest form of characterization, that as long as they can describe every inch of their characters from head-to-toe, they’re doing it right.
It’s true that we judge people based off of appearances, but we also form opinions of them based on what they do. We should judge our characters based on their motives and their actions.
What’s that quote, actions speak louder than appearances, or something along those lines?
The most obvious parts about your character – the way they look – are actually the most boring parts. No need to put your audience to sleep with paragraph after exhaustive paragraph of what your protagonist is wearing.
Author Jordan Dane says, in his reference to characters, “It’s not enough to picture their outward appearance. Give them background and a sphere of influence.”
Relying solely on physical description won’t keep your readers engaged.
Instead, let your focus be on creating dynamic, flawed, multi-dimensional characters.
2. You waste your readers’ time and energy with backstory.
Backstory refers to the characters’ history and events that have occurred prior to the beginning of the book. It is important to writers because it familiarizes us with the world and characters we create on a deeper level. When we understand their unique personality quirks and intricacies, it enable us to create vivid, lifelike characters who are free to make their own decisions.
Readers don’t need to know every last detail of a character’s past to be engaged in a story. But a lot of writers don’t know this. Instead, they open their book with pages upon pages of backstory, just to make sure the reader knows what’s going on.
This shows a lack of trust on the writer’s part. Believe it or not, our readers are quite intelligent and privy to specific queues within our writing. We don’t need to spell it out for them; it’s insulting.
Also, when the writer gives too much information too soon, it eliminates mystery and suspense, halting the forward momentum and sabotaging their story right from the beginning.
Good storytelling is all about what the characters need to say, not what the writer wants to say. (tweet)
When you’re confronted with the issue of backstory, ask yourself:
“Am I trying to reveal information to my readers through my characters or are my characters speaking on their own accord?”
If the answer is you, then it’s unnecessary backstory and you should get rid of it.
Here are a few subtle ways to incorporate your backstory into your writing:
Dialogue. This is how a lot of my own backstory comes out, but only if it is vital information my characters need to know. Make sure you divulge your backstory in a rich and colorful way, so you aren’t simply listing off events through the mouths of your characters.
Pepper it in. Large, obvious blocks of backstory in your narrative is off-putting and removes your reader from the world of the story. No one wants information dumped on them all at once. Sprinkle it lightly and with care throughout your story to avoid telling your readers what’s happening.
Description. Describing a certain place or a character’s physcial characteristics is a clever way to reveal backstory. If homes are in shambles and cities are destroyed, it can hint at war. If a character is decorated in scars and bruises, it may suggest a history of abuse.
Creating memorable characters is an art form that takes many writers years to master. If I can offer you one more piece of advice, it’s this:
Don’t give up.
Like anything, it takes time to learn and perfect a specific skill or talent. As long as you give your characters the time and attention they deserve, you’ll watch them go from one-dimensional to living, breathing people you and your readers will remember years down the road.
Featured image: “Lilac” by Mermelhada