One of my favorite parts of writing is creating characters. As a reader nothing makes me fall into a story faster than falling in love with a character. It’s like meeting a new neighbor or making a new friend. Even the antagonists are interesting to meet from the safety of my mind. I love watching them grow in depth and complexity, learning their quirks, hobbies, backstories, and what makes them tick. You can tell the exact same plot line from a million points of view, and each time it will be a different story, because each character will make different decisions.
For many writers a character begins a bit preconceived. You’ll know something distinct about how they look, their gender, age, and maybe one or two characteristics about them. That first glimpse is the same information you’d get saying hello to the cashier at the supermarket or the lady waiting next to you in line. In real life, we know that in that brief encounter we can only make assumptions about who they are from what they’re wearing or how they speak. Yet that is often all we give the reader to go on when we don’t dig deeper into getting to know our characters
So how do you get to know your character better? That’s a hard question to answer. The process is so unique to every author but ask yourself, “How do I like to get to know the people around me?” For me that process is talking. I talk to my characters. I often find asking the right question gets me very insightful answers. For other writers it will be sticking their new characters in situations to see how they react and how they make decisions. For others it will be a bit of both. The important part is identifying when you’ve developed a great character, and you’ll know that when you fall in love.
What makes us attracted to people in real life is also what attracts us to great characters. We like people that we can identify with and people that inspire us to be better people. In author speak…they have to be relatable.
First, they have to have weaknesses, flaws and quirks.
Comic books are making a comeback in the TV market. As I’ve watched all these beloved old characters be brought fresh into the 21st century I’ve noticed what I love about them is their non-superhero side. Yep, it is Clark Kent (Superman) at the newspaper fumbling papers and not so perfectly in control. It’s Barry Allen (the Flash) struggling with the fact his father is wrongly incarcerated. I can relate to feeling clumsy and frustrated by injustice. I want them to succeed, because they also have a unique gift they can use to do good. If we are realistic with ourselves, we all have that inner power to do good, pursue justice, and even attain greatness, but because it isn’t a superpower, we don’t always see it. So watching superheroes do amazing things make us a little braver, too.
As a writer, it is easy to get to know our characters’ strengths, but it is often their weaknesses that the reader identifies with first. The reader needs each character to have flaws and quirks that they can relate to. Often that is in direct opposition to the characters’ giftings. The fact that the Flash could extract his father from prison without getting caught is half the internal conflict. The other half is his desire to do good with his powers versus those who would do evil with theirs.
Second, they have to have a backstory
Unless the character is there in the background for necessity like the maid leaving the hotel room two doors down, one cameo and no speaking lines, your character needs some kind of identity and that requires a bit of backstory. The more you know about every character the more real your world and interactions will be. Not only that but you can get some really awesome chemistry when you add the minor characters like the taxi driver that’s having a bad day or the lady sitting nervously in the waiting room of the doctor’s office, if you take just a moment to let them express themselves.
In my own book there is a nun who is always cooking in the kitchen. She has no lines, but she is identified as Sister Monica. Now my readers never hear her backstory, they never see anything other than a general attitude and a few gestures. But when I see her, I see this woman raised in Spain who came to America as a teen and joined the convent to escape the tenements and a life of working in the textile factories of New York. She never learned English so she doesn’t speak much, but she listens. This comes out in her character’s mannerisms. After one of the character’s mother dies, she teaches him to cook, because she too lost her mother and had to take over household responsibilities and understands how important food is to family. She puts love into her cooking and it shows in how she lets him taste her soups and makes his sandwiches just the way he likes. While the reader may never glean the depths it’s there behind every description of every action.
You may think creating backstory is hard, but really it is saying what makes them who they are?
Third, they have to be real.
When was the last time you met a perfect person? I’m sure you can say some model has a perfect body or hair, but really no one is perfect, and those pretending to be are obnoxious. So why do so many writers let their characters be perfect? They have no physical flaws, always make the right decision, always have the right attitude for the situation. Whenever I’m working with a new character who is still putting on a front, I always think of Ms. Frizzle’s quote, “Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy.” In the best scenes all three happen. What happens when this character is asked to take a risk? How do they respond to failure? When life gets messy, how do they handle (or not handle) it?
This is a great exercise for leading characters, but authors often fail to do the same for secondary and tertiary characters. Often you end up with cookie cutter sidekicks, best friends, or servants. For instance, the ideal butler answers the door, bids the person welcome to wait in the adjoining room while taking their hat and coat. That’s fine, but the reader is going to gloss right over them. If you want a reader to take note, have six-foot tall Frankenstein-ish, Lurch (Addam’s Family) answer with, ‘You rang.’ Immediately, they know something about the butler and the family who lives in the house.
Secondary and tertiary characters can set a tone and evoke an emotion in the reader by simply the way they appear, act, and speak. A mousy old man with a limp in his step and a gentle smile, says that he’s been kept around long past his prime. A broad-shouldered woman with her hair tightly pulled back from her face whose words are snippy, gives the reader an immediate unease and a desire to not pass the threshold.
So look at your character list and find one you don’t love. It could be the boring typical sidekick who adds no depth to the story, a whiney antagonist who doesn’t have a backstory, or the one-dimensional hero who needs more depth. Pick one and spend ten minutes getting to know them better, who knows it might be love at first sight.