One of the most important aspects of a story is achieving characters that the reader cares about. Whether they are the protagonist or the antagonist, if the reader doesn’t care about them, they won’t bother to read your book. But creating intriguing characters is easier said than done. In my personal opinion, many novels, comics, and TV-series these days have trouble grabbing the audience because of a lack of well-written characters. Doesn’t matter how great of a story idea you have, if the characters are boring or off-putting, the story won’t work as you intended.
A key factor is to make your characters a real person. By that I don’t mean to use a person you know or an actress you think would be great for the role, I mean give them characteristics of real people. Now, that sounds simple enough, but one of the biggest pitfalls is to skip this and make your protagonist too perfect. Or as another extreme too imperfect. We all love the seemingly unbeatable hero, but what makes us love them is their weaknesses, their flaws, their humanity. Doesn’t matter if you’re writing a fantasy or sci-fi story. Characters that are completely alien to us can be very intriguing, but even the most alien of character works best when there is something in them that we recognize and can identify with. Characters need flaws because real people have flaws. No one is perfect even if they outwardly appear to be. Everyone makes wrong choices, is mean, has personal trouble and problems. Even people who are generally considered to be bad can commit an act of kindness in the right circumstances. Characters should never be black and white.
So how should you go about creating characters? Think about backstories even if they are never revealed. This is what makes a character. Writing for them can become much easier if you know their history. Just as all people in the real world will act differently when faced with a problem depending on their life up to that point, so should your characters. A character that grew up among great violence may be either prone to it or gainsaid it as a result. This is how you start to create different character traits and voices. And that will also help with writing dialogue. Dialogue needs personality to be believable.
Don’t Forget the VILLAINS
Don’t create an overly evil villain just for evil’s sake. Rarely is someone evil without motivation. Sure, that can be one type of villain. “Some people just want to see the world burn”, as Michael Caine so classically said, but for the most part, especially with modern readers, people want to see a motivation behind that evilness. The villain’s motivation is just as important as the protagonist’s. They may even have the same goal, they just go about it differently. Bad people rarely see themselves as bad. They must believe they are valid for acting the way they do. Or they could be aware of how what they are doing is wrong but they continue anyway, which brings more depth to the story. The antagonist of the story definitely should have the same complexity as the protagonist.
Another trap that many fall into is making their villain much more interesting than the protagonist. This is sometimes much easier than you might think. We all love juicy characters and what’s easier than an over the top villain? You have to be extremely careful with this because while it’s a good thing to have a villain that the reader enjoys, in order for the hero to remain the hero, the villain must remain the villain. You don’t want to suddenly have the reader hating your hero and rooting for the villain. Unless that’s part of your plot in which case, congrats, you did it!
Whatever the villain, they need to be strong enough to actually be a danger to the protagonist. If the reader doesn’t perceive them as a large enough danger the story could flop flat on its face. and the reader could lose interest. So keep the villain with the upper hand until it’s time for the hero to step in and graduate college, find their true love, kill the dragon, save the day.
Describe or not to Describe?
The description of a character doesn’t need to be too descriptive. Basic features are enough. If there is some important feature like a scar, tattoos, hair color, special hairstyle, eye color, etc. then, by all means, mention it, but don’t try and describe your favorite actor so that you 100% make sure that the readers see THAT actor or actress when reading. It’s important to let the reader do some work. It’s also important to remember that your descriptions MUST happen early on. If you suddenly introduce new features to your characters later in the book the reader will have to re-imagine their image of the character and that will take them out of the book. They might even have a hard time continuing with this new image.
Instead of long paragraphs describing the character, try and work the description into some type of action. Tucking long hair behind ears, pulling it up into a bun, height and size by the way they sit heavily, are a head above the rest or looking up to another character when talking.
And don’t repeat yourself. The reader doesn’t need constant reminders of how the characters look. Say it once, carry on.
Many times a writer will either try and go through the character’s arc too fast, creating an unbelievable almost schizophrenic quality to their characters. Sometimes they will just skip it completely, making them very static and risking them falling into the land of boring characters.
A character who has been through an important event, whether it be graduating high school, getting promoted, finding their true love, going through a violent war, battling beings from outer space, they will have inevitably changed. A character arc doesn’t always mean a huge change. It can be something as simple as having your character become more confident or change their opinion on something.
For a majority of characters, they shouldn’t change so much that you don’t recognize them. That’s not to say that can’t happen. That said, it can be very interesting for a character to become the opposite of what they are at the beginning of the book. But if you’re writing a series and your main character is doing this in every book… that will be confusing and frustrating and, well, just poor writing. A character’s arc and growth are still important in every book. You just need to remember to always have a believable reason behind the arc. If the character has a change of opinion, why did it happen? If they have gone from being evil to good or vice versa, why did this happen? Too many TV series fall into the pit of bad writing and have characters changing side at a mind-boggling pace for no apparent reason, just because it’s a cool trope to have characters change sides. It’s okay to go back and forth in the arc of a character, changing sides and alliances, and points of views but just not so drastically that the characters come off as mentally unstable (unless that’s the point). And there must be some believable reason behind it.
The character’s arc can happen in just one book or over entire series. If it’s a series then you need to sit down and map that arc into smaller chunks. Plan out what each change will be per book.
A well-done character arc can be one of the most rewarding things in a book.
Remember, characters are the driving force in pretty much every story. So creating ones that we love and hate are a vital component to writing a successful story.