Crafting Compelling Characters
I don’t think there’s anyone who would argue against the adage that “character is king.” An irresistible plot is, of course, essential too, but a bad character can destroy even the best plot, for a story is nothing without the people experiencing it. Readers want to know who these people are, why they do what they do, and what makes them tick. That means doing better than slapping in a convenient stereotype or inserting a blank slate with no depth. We need to know these characters inside and out so our readers have someone worth reading about.
The magnitude of this task can be daunting even for experienced writers, so how do you get started crafting such characters? There are hundreds of wonderful references out there designed to help with this, such as Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, and I don’t profess to bear greater wisdom than the master writers of our age. However, I’ve personally found it helpful to use outlining techniques to write up character bios, breaking down the various aspects of my characters into smaller sections so I don’t get overwhelmed. These sections are listed below in no particular order since I start in different places depending on what I’ve already worked out. I’m also always adding to or modifying my notes as my characters naturally evolve, but each section reveals important details, and I encourage you to take the time at some point in your story’s journey to really delve into these elements for each of your characters.
It should go without saying, but you need to know what your characters look like. This does mean hair, eye, and skin color, though I also include their height and build, how old they are, unique physical imperfections, the types of clothes they like to wear and why, and sometimes a brief summary of how I would describe them in three sentences or less. If your character is from an alien or fantasy race, it’s especially important to make sure you’ve planned out every detail of their appearance so you remain consistent throughout your story.
You also need to consider whether your character has any personal items they treasure or always have with them. Do they wear heirloom jewelry? Carry a worn photograph in their wallet? Bear a sorcerer’s staff? Are they a gun-toting, weapon-loaded maniac? Why? Knowing the answers to these simple questions can start to give you a clearer image of the person you’re working to discover.
2. Skills, Talents, and Hobbies
This should cover any kind of ability your characters have, especially if it’s particular to the plot. Are they a master musician? A technical wizard? A ghost-whisperer? An elemental magic-user? But just as we aren’t defined by our singular ability to write a story, neither should our characters be defined by their primary talents. What does your character do for fun? What about when no one else is looking? What are they passionate about that brings them joy? How and where did they learn these things? Why? Many times, I’ve been surprised by the answers, and I feel this is one of the best ways to create a well-rounded character that isn’t bound by the confines of a two-dimensional definition.
A character’s personality should be more than just a one-word description. People are flawed and complex and often a confusing mix of contradictions. They can be timid in some situations and brave in others, brash with family and polite with strangers, curious about the future but bored by the present. This is where you really ask your character, “Who are you?” And then you sit back and let them tell you. It’s also beneficial to consider your characters’ likes and dislikes here to give you a clearer idea of what their day-to-day interactions with the world and others look like, though it’s easy to go overboard in that department. Keep it limited to elements that reveal essential glimpses into their inner self targeted to benefit the story as a whole.
A person’s past influences a lot of what they do, how they do it, and why. If you do nothing else, you at least need to have a basic idea of where your characters come from before you can say you truly have a character, and I include all levels of character in that. Someone who grew up on a rural farm is going to have different mannerisms and perspectives than someone raised in an inner-city apartment, for example.
For your main characters, you’ll need to delve even deeper than just where they grew up. What kind of childhood and family life did they have? What are their relationships with their family? Do they have a career or aspirations for one? What happened in their past that led them to their present? In many cases, I learn more about my characters from recording these things than I do from anything else. We’re shaped by the events of our past, and so are your characters. It’s our job as writers to figure out what those events are.
By quirks, I mean good or bad habits, nervous ticks, idiosyncrasies, specific vocal or physical mannerisms, etc. The things that make your character uniquely themselves whenever they’re “on screen.” This is where you can either win yourself a bull’s eye or epically shoot yourself in the foot. Don’t get me wrong, I love giving my characters quirks, especially my cameo and minor characters. It makes them more memorable and gives them the illusion of being more fleshed out than they really are. However, it’s easy to get heavy handed with these. I had a fiction writing professor who, in reference to short stories, taught that including an action once or twice reveals a habit, but three or more and it’ll come across as an obsession. So be mindful about how often you present quirks and what those are saying about your character.
6. Goals and Motivation
This is, perhaps, my favorite section to fill out. It’s where you get to examine all the different facets of your character to answer the biggest question of all: “What drives you?” You’ll find it much easier to discern that critical aspect of character motivation once you’ve determined what their goals are in life because one fuels the other. This includes all types of characters. Someone bumps into your character on the sidewalk. What made them do it? Are they distracted because their aunt just died? Do they get malicious pleasure out of impeding others? Knowing that will change how you portray that character, even for as brief as a one-sentence interaction. And if it’s that important to know the goals and motivations of your cameo characters, it’s that much more essential for your main characters. The plot and everything your characters do should always be grounded in these central goals and the motivations that spring from them. You’ll find it’s never hard to decipher the right direction for your plot if you remain true to your characters’ motivations.
Character is everything, but it’s not always easy to create a memorable, three-dimensional character. Wringing your brain for all this information and then questioning the “why” of every detail can be annoyingly time consuming when you’re revved to dive right into the heart of your story. As much work as it is, though, I find it to be one of the most fulfilling parts of storytelling. I love feeling like I’m discovering these people and unveiling new things about them while I’m writing.
As the English writer and journalist Graham Greene said back in 1985, “The moment comes when a character does or says something you hadn’t thought about. At that moment, he’s alive and you leave it to him.” When your characters are calling the shots, you’ll find that the story basically tells itself, and then the fun really begins. And once you’ve successfully crafted these compelling characters, your readers will want to return to them again and again, and that’s when you know you’ve truly made it as an author.