Do you know what makes or breaks a story? The characters. Sure, there are a lot of other things that go into writing, and those are all important, but your story rests on the shoulders of the fictional people you create. And if they’re poorly developed, they will buckle under the weight and the whole story will fall.
A story with a really great plot but bland, boring characters will turn away a reader. On the other hand, if a story has a weak plot, but the characters are well-developed and relatable, a reader is likely to continue reading. Of course, in an ideal world, both the plot and the characters would be amazing, and you should still strive for that goal, but the bottom line is: if you have to choose between one or the other, pick the characters.
Okay, so characters are a big deal. They drive the story, and if the reader is stuck with them for several hundred pages, they’ve gotta be fresh and interesting. But how do you do that? I’ve thought long and hard about it, and here are five things that every one of your characters needs to be.
Other good words for this would be “unique” and “distinguishable”. Essentially, your characters need to be different from each other. No two characters should be exactly alike. Don’t make all your male characters have the same personality, and don’t make all your females act identical. Not every girl should be feisty and strong-willed; not every boy should be the macho hero type. Real people’s personalities vary, and so should your character’s.
In addition to this, make each character’s voice recognizable. Someone should be able to open your story to a random page and, without seeing the narrator’s name, know who it is just by their voice and word choice. This is extremely prevalent in first-person writing, in which a character (or multiple) is telling the story directly to you. However, it is just as important in third-person point of view, where it shows up in the form of thoughts or dialogue. Your character’s personality, background, word choice, age, and other influencing factors will shape how the character speaks – just like how all of those things shape your individual speaking style.
For example, one of my characters was abandoned as a child and has grown up on the street, receiving no formal education. Therefore, when he narrates the story, he’s very loose and informal, utilizing slang words often and sometimes breaking the rules of grammar (nothing serious, small sentence fragments like “Did ya see the look on his face? Didn’t even see that coming. Poor bloke”). Another of my characters is much more formal and reserved in his narrating. Their voices are easy to tell apart.
Oh, the little details. How they are so often overlooked, and how they are so needed. If you want your character to be interesting, they need to be detailed. Vague characters are boring characters. Decide your character’s favorite color, food, animal. Do they like when it rains? Does a certain smell make them happy? What would they do if they had a day to themself? Questions like these, once provided with thought-out answers, fleshes out a character. If the detail itself is used in the story, it shows the reader that your character is a real person who has likes and dislikes. If it is not, the knowledge that you have will still unconsciously give the character a more realistic approach.
You may mistake this for me telling you that all characters need to be strong, independent young men and women (or…old men and women, I guess) that don’t need anyone else. That is not what I am saying. What I mean by all characters needing to be independent is that if they are around simply to be tied to another character, they need to go. Don’t have a love interest that is there solely because the protagonist or someone else needs to date. That love interest’s existence is then tied to your protagonist, and they are there because you needed something convenient. That is not the way to go. Treat each character like they have their own complex backstory, feelings,thoughts, hopes, and dreams – because they do. Let the love interest have an identity outside of dating another character. This also goes for sidekicks, antagonists – anyone really. Bottom line: no character should exist solely for the convenience of another character.
All well-developed characters should be relatable to the reader one way or another. It doesn’t have to be something big. Maybe you’re not a 3-foot-tall hobbit that’s taken on a huge fire-breathing dragon — but maybe you know what it’s like to feel small and insignificant, or you share the same hunger for adventure. You’ve never sold your family out to the White Witch for Turkish Delight, but you’ve made your share of mistakes and have had to be forgiven. You’re not a demigod with a quest to save the world, but you can relate to being made fun of for being different, and you can understand feeling lonely. As the writer, you won’t always know what each person will or won’t relate to, but you can solve that by giving your characters real-people problems and feelings. A reader doesn’t want to read about someone who is perfect all the time or never has a bad hair day. They want a character that they can understand. A reader will not connect emotionally to a character unless there is something they can sympathize with. That’s simply a matter of stripping down the unrealistic factors of your fiction to the raw feelings and situations the people are in. The circumstances may be different, but as long as they’re still dealing with things that people have been dealing with for hundreds of years, the audience will respond in a positive manner.
And lastly, your characters need to be real. Those past four factors of characterization will aid you in making a character realistic, but they need to be real to you before the audience will see them the same way. So, keep on working and spending time with those fantastic fictional friends. It will help your story in the long run.
Is there anything you want to add? What are some characters in popular fiction that you feel embody all (or most) of these traits? How do you strive to make your characters more interesting and developed? I want to hear from you!