Writing phenomenal characters is arguably the most crucial part of your novel. Readers want to connect with the protagonist, and you want your main character to be memorable.
Think about some of your favorite books. How often to you cite them as your inspiration for becoming a writer? Do you ever hope that someone will say the same about you and your characters one day? It’s a great dream to have – I think most writers want this.
Sometimes, it’s not even the main character that sticks in your brain. I know one of my favorites from Stephen King is Holly Gibney. Though she only had a role in the second half of The Outsider, she stuck with me. I related to her, because of how eccentric she was. There were little actions she would take that turned me into the “haha, I do that” vine.
She single-handedly made me want to read the Bill Hodges trilogy, because I wanted to see more of her.
You can write great characters that leave a lasting impact on your reader. It’s (thankfully) incredibly easy.
When you come up with a character, you need to think of who they are as a person.
“But Jam, why does this matter?”
Creating real characters is essential for having readers connect and fall in love with your story.
Because the story isn’t just the plot. The best books are character driven.
If your characters seem like real people, your readers begin to relate to them. They become invested in the main characters’ problems, and they care about how the character overcomes their struggles. With more depth to a character, you give your readers something to grasp onto.
So what are some ways to make your character real?
I have a couple tips, all of which I use every time I come up with a new character.
1.) Personality Traits
I know. Duh, right?
You would be surprised how many writers don’t think of this. Sometimes, they commit the cardinal sin of inserting themselves into their story. Except it’s not them, per se. It’s everything they want to be – regardless of how little all those traits make sense.
Think of Twilight.
I know it’s popular to slam dunk on this series, but I have every right (I was a fan, as a tween). Bella is everywhere. She’s anti-social and awkward, but she’s the life of the party and just so loved. Nothing is earned for her. She has no real taste in anything – no favorite movies, no favorite songs, no sense of humor.
Any details about her possible personality are just set up as a board for Edward to bounce off.
Now think of Harry Potter.
He’s a quiet kid, with some incredibly sassy (and rightfully so) thoughts. He – for the most part – can hold his tongue because he knows to pick and choose his battles. We know this stems from living with the Dursleys, and we see how it translates through the rest of his life with teachers and classmates. The same can be said for his modesty.
Both have their positive traits, but there is one glaring difference.
Bella’s negative traits aren’t truly treated as negative. Harry’s ignorance to the wizarding world can be a problem from time to time, and it does hold him back. One of his defining Gryffindor traits is ABSOLUTELY the cause for Sirius not being able to become a free man (fuck being the bigger person, he should have let Sirius kill Peter, and the whole story would’ve changed).
You have to be able to let your characters be hated as much as they are loved. Those complicated feelings are what make them so memorable. Making everything black and white is a huge disservice to your readers – give them something to argue over. To discuss.
Whether good or bad, people have habits that make them stand out from others. Maybe your character whistles when they’re nervous and they get on everyone’s nerves. Maybe they like to stress bake, or stress exercise, or stress eat. Maybe they don’t show that they’re stressed and they’re just annoyingly happy all the time.
Figure out what your character does in response to normal, everyday events. This can translate to reactions to events in your story. Do they get angry over the slightest inconvenience and physically lash out? Or would they shut down completely and bite their nails down to the nubs?
Think of the characters that are comically bad at handling coffee. Think of the ones who hate affection and prefer fighting. Think of the person who smokes a cigarette over only the biggest problems.
Tell your reader (in so many words) how they burn off steam, grieve, or celebrate the small victories. Keep these responses in line with their personality traits, and you’ll notice how the characters begin to peel from the pages and take their shape as real people.
3. Flaws/Damage/Overall History
Uncovering your character’s flaws is important. Delve into their backstory and figure out what makes them work the way they do.
The goal is to make the characters like real people, and that means they are products of their past. If you’re scared of intimacy, it’s time to buckle up, because we need to get very intimate with our character’s backstories.
No, they’re not always tragic, but we still need to know.
Did they participate in their fourth-grade play? Why or why not? Did someone hold them back, or did they get a taste for the spotlight?
Any wounds (whether emotional or physical) will likely shape who your character becomes – it affects their choices, how they see themselves, and what they believe in. The damage could go as far as to interfere with how they handle relationships, or themselves. Sometimes, it even keeps them trapped in false beliefs.
Those could potentially be the source of conflict for your character, as a novel is about the journey from point A to point B. These flaws could be destructive, or stall the growth and happiness of your character. By the end of their journey, readers want to see the protagonist get their happy ending. In this case, you want to figure out how they can get there. What needs to happen to help your character heal and grow?
Now, if your character had a perfectly dandy childhood/life, that’s fine. You’ll just need to find your conflict elsewhere.
By using these three methods, you’ll be able to flesh out a captivating character that makes your book nearly impossible to put down. Readers will be glued to the page, because it feels like they know these people.