Think about your favorite book, who’s your favorite character? What makes them interesting or relatable? Is it their sense of adventure, their unrequited love? What about your favorite villain? Well loved characters resonate with readers very well because we relate to them – we want to be friends with the protagonist, want to marry the love interest, or be on the bad guy’s team because it’d be fun. So how do you make those awesome characters? Let’s take a look at a few factors.
Characters – Not Just Props For Plot
In the last class, Idea to Novel Draft, we looked at motivating factors as a driving force for the plot and tension. Characters have goals – to get the money, or the girl, kill the bad guy (or all of the above). This is what pushes them through all the horrible things we send their way. It’s what tests their discipline, and strength. Characters do not exist in a glass bubble, or never change. If they didn’t change, then what’s the point of the story? The same thing in the real world. We’re not unaffected by all the people and things we come into contact with.
I sometimes see in stories is when characters don’t have a reaction to an event, or worse, their reaction (and the actions that follow) are unnatural to the situation. This problem can sometimes be chalked up to writer’s not focusing on the emotions that might blind the protagonist and affect your plot. For example, if two characters end up together, and the main character doesn’t seem very happy with another character because they’re too focused on the central conflict of the story. This is something that could be used to your advantage. If a character is blind to their love interest’s bad behaviors because they are in love with them, then that makes for a good subplot, and strong conflict.
Characters aren’t pieces of a chessboard that get moved around from square to square as your plot moves forward. So how do you make dynamic, complex interesting characters?
- Vulnerability. This is a very important factor. Showing a character at their most vulnerable gives a deeper connection for the reader. We can rationally know that someone has a dark secret that guides their moral compass. Until we see them interact (and react) to other characters, it’s impossible to know how that character will show it. Let’s look at Snape in Harry Potter as an example. We all thought he was a villain for the longest time until we got to really see how he was connected to Harry. Once we saw his undying love for Lily, it made us look at his previous behaviors towards Harry in a very different light.
- Having flaws. Goals drive people to do great things, but what about when people take things too seriously? In particular, we see this with villains in a drive to get revenge. Being embarrassed by their peers, or taken advantage of can drive a good person to do something bad. What’s the underlying issues though? Feeling like you are out of options, and this action is the thing that will help you out of this tough spot. This is what guides villains to behave as they do. This also applies to the protagonist. It can drive them to make mistakes, and that’s okay. Humans make mistakes all the time, and readers want to see themselves reflected in characters. I know it hurts us on the writer’s side – we don’t want to see our beloved characters make mistakes. But that’s how we learn, and grow. Same goes for your characters.
These are the two most important things I look for in good, strong characters, but how do you get there? The short answer is learning everything about your characters. Some questions to ask yourself:
- What is their deepest fear?
- How do they define success?
- Do they have any short-term or long-term goals?
- Who or what can they not live without?
- Who do they admire? Why?
These questions should be some good jumping points to get to know your characters on a deeper level. Do you have any tips or tricks to getting to know your characters better?