The characters are the lifeblood of every story. You can have a great story idea and beautiful prose, but if readers don’t care for your main characters, they’ll put your book aside and never pick it up again. Readers and editors look for stories with believable, interesting characters.
Here are some of the common problems we encounter when it comes to characters:
- Unlikable characters: The reader doesn’t care about the characters or about what happens to them, so they stop reading.
- Static characters: The characters don’t grow or learn anything in the course of the story.
- On the other hand, there are also characters who change too fast. They undergo a transformation that is unrealistic because it happens in a very short span of time.
- Passive characters: Characters react to the events in the story, but they don’t act. Most often, the characters lack a goal.
- Characters whose motivation is unclear. The reader doesn’t understand what motivates the characters to act the way they do.
- Stereotypical characters: We’ve all seen those characters a thousand times. The blond cheerleader who’s always cheerful and everybody’s darling. The tough detective who dresses in a raincoat and a fedora. Of course you can also use these stereotypes as a stylistic device, but it takes a lot of skill to pull that off.
- Unrealistic characters who are just too perfect in every way.
- Inconsistent characters whose actions don’t fit their personality.
- Characters who resemble each other too much. They all speak and act alike.
So how do you create believable characters?
- Each character should be a unique individual, distinct from the other characters. Give each of your characters his or her own traits, habits, likes, dislikes, body language, and speech characteristics. Emotional reactions, thoughts, beliefs and values should be different from those of the other characters too.
- We blogged about show, don’t tell before, and it’s a very important rule for character creation too. Make sure to reveal the characters’ traits through actions (“showing”), not by telling readers about the characters’ traits. Readers want to witness your main character giving back a one-hundred-dollar bill that she found. It’s much more effective than you telling readers that “Shirley was an honest person.”
- Try to write non-stereotypical characters. Put a spin on your characters. Give them contradictory, surprising traits, likes, and habits.
- The story’s main character should be active, not passive. The character needs a goal, something he or she wants. You get a suspenseful plot by creating obstacles that keep your character from reaching his or her goal. The way the main character handles the obstacles reveals her personality. We’ve blogged about the importance of goals and conflicts in fiction before. You can read more about it here.
- Your main character needs not just a goal, but also a motivation that readers can understand. Why does your main character want to reach his or her goal? The reader needs to be able to understand why the main character acts the way he or she acts. The character’s actions can’t be random. They grow out of the character’s needs and traits.
- Believable characters are consistent. They don’t act “out of character.” Their actions are consistent with the traits and the backstory/motivation you have given them.
- Your main characters should be likable people with whom readers can identify. They need to have at least a few positive traits that readers can admire.
- On the other hand, your main character shouldn’t be perfect. Perfect characters are unrealistic. People always have good and bad sides, so make sure to give your characters strengths and flaws too. Even your antagonist shouldn’t be evil through and through. Give him or her a few likable traits too. Ideally, your main character’s biggest flaw should impact the plot and have serious consequences for the character. Example: The biggest flaw of Rika, the main character in Hidden Truths by Jae (to be published by Ylva Publishing in 2014) is her lack of trust in the selfless goodness of people. She believes that no one will just like her just because of who she is but that she’ll have to earn respect and friendship by proving herself helpful. Because of that belief, she helps feeding the ranch’s horses—and almost ends up killing them when she accidentally gives them too much oats. Here’s a link to a blog post about strengths and flaws.
- To make your characters three-dimensional, you need to give them backstories that shape who they are today. Make up a biography for your main characters. What were their families like? What important relationships did they have in the past? What were their biggest successes and their worst failures? What events in your characters’ lives made them the way they are? Of course, you don’t have to describe every detail of their lives in the story, but it’s important that you as the author know the characters’ backstory and understand how it’s influencing their behavior in the present. Show readers just enough backstory to help them understand the characters and their actions.
- The main characters should be dynamic characters. Unlike a static character, who stays the same, a dynamic character changes and grows in the course of the story. They overcome their fears and flaws, gain wisdom and maturity, learn how to love themselves, etc. That development is called the character arc—the inner journey the character takes because he or she is confronted with the events of the plot.
Can you think of anything else that might be important when you’re creating memorable, three-dimensional characters? Please let us know in the comments.