by Katharine Grubb, 10 Minute Novelist
Forget about hair color and broad shoulders and kissable lips.
The best stories have characters that are complex, well drawn and have such interesting inner and outer struggles that readers can’t help but be fascinated by them.
There are hundreds of ways to develop character, from figuring out their favorite ice cream flavors to starting with an archetype and building on it. This is just one little list to set you thinking. If you only manage a couple of these, your characters will be more vivid, more interesting and strong enough to carry a reader through your story.
1. Give them a secret that you won’t reveal to the readers until halfway through the book. It can be a huge plot twist, like the fact that they are blind or it can be something small, like they have an addiction to reality television. This could also be a habit that they’re ashamed of, a criminal record or an unconfessed sin. The fear of exposure should be a driving force for them.
2. Give them a chronic disease. Now this will require some research on your part, but having some physical limitation or hindrance will not only make them more interesting, but it will also require them to compensate. Do a little homework though, and pick diseases that aren’t overdone by other authors. And don’t forget to research this well. A reader who spots an inconsistency or laziness will not be happy.
“Which of us has not felt that the character we are reading in the printed page is more real than the person standing beside us?”
― Cornelia Funke
3. Give them an aversion or irrational fear toward something that is common, like cell phones. A fear like this has to have a cause and it also has to change their behavior in some way. Use this fear against them when the plot thickens, when the antagonist finds out about it, or the love interest can’t understand it.
4.Give them a desire that they don’t even know that they have, like security or acceptance or love. At our core, we all have desires for justice, security, love, and even sometimes vengeance. The best characters touch on this universal desires. Any struggle that your characters have with these big issues will make them more interesting to the reader.
5. Give them a significant other/sidekick/sibling/partner in crime who is their exact opposite in every way. Opposites attract, right? Make your sidekick and other supporting characters different from your main character. Pay attention to the opposing stands they take to the issues and events that your main character faces. This can add some juicy conflict and conflict is what story is all about.
“Character, I think, is the single most important thing in fiction. You might read a book once for its interesting plot—but not twice.”
― Diana Gabaldon
6. Give them a significant other/sidekick/sibling/partner in crime who is just like them in every way, only exaggerated. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Think Frasier Crane and his brother Niles. They were alike in so many ways, but Niles was more exaggerated. This similarity made Frasier look reasonable by contrast. Niles provided much needed comic relief. And together, they were pretty funny.
7. Give them a personality disorder. Don’t know which one? Check this out. Personality disorders are very, very common in real life. And if you know how to write a character who is a clinical narcissist or who is histrionic, then not only will you get some great conflict, but you’ll also engage the reader. These types are fun to read and write about. In real life, ahem, not so much.
8. Give them a mental list of things that they will not do, ever. If you had a character who had a few OCD tendencies, say, and they wouldn’t wear the color red, say the word moist, walk on one side of the street, allow their food to touch and make their shoes always point north, then you would have an interesting character. Then, of course, put them situations where they must do them. Hehe. That’s the fun of being an author!
“The best books come from someplace deep inside…. Become emotionally involved. If you don’t care about your characters, your readers won’t either.”
― Judy Blume
9. Give them a chance to order a pizza with friends. Explain every decision they make doing this. I love this tool. I find once I have created my cast of characters, little exercises like this will allow me to see them in new ways. Make sure that you’ve developed all your characters in such a way that making decisions like this will be easy.
10.Give them five favorite books. One from childhood, one fiction, one non-fiction, one that they would never admit to and one that they often give away as a gift. Why? Our bookshelves speak a lot about us. Think also about your character’s reading habits: Hardcover or Kindle version? A fast reader or a slow reader? Book club member? Audiobook lover? Any specific decisions you make about this will fill your character’s personality and preferences out nicely.
Each of these suggestions are here not necessarily to fill out that 90K manuscript.
Instead, they should be used as a way to sculpt the character better in your mind.
When you write description, dialogue, when you put them in their conflicts and when you have them react to the situations around them, you’ll know them. You’ll like them. And hopefully, your reader will too.