Normally, hearing voices in your head and having conversations with yourself signifies some pretty serious psychological issues. For writers and creative types, however, what looks like a sudden onset of schizophrenia is more than likely just a Tuesday afternoon.
One of the easiest ways to ensure readers hate your book is to stuff it full of poorly constructed one-dimensional characters. While plot and setting are critical to a story, dialog and characters can make or break the final piece. In order for people to enjoy reading your work, you have to convince them to care about your characters. If the characters aren’t interesting to the reader, there’s no reason to care about their fate or the outcome of the story. If we aren’t invested in the protagonist, we are unlikely to care how his story ends. In order to fulfill this need, your characters have to be well-rounded, lifelike people with personalities of their own that your readers can identify with. Like the rest of us mere mortals, they have to possess both strengths and weaknesses, fears and ambitions. I know you’re asking by this point, how do I keep all this straight and create a story or scene full of lifelike characters? Luckily, that’s the fun part.
The simple answer is this: get to know your characters. Think back to some of your favorite fictitious characters in books you’ve read in the past. What did the author do to create the dynamic facets of those characters’ personalities? Can you think of any books you’ve read where the characters were just not incredibly well written or interesting? Did you finish that book?
Every writer I know uses a different technique to flush out and develop their characters. Your approach may be different, and that’s okay! We all have incredibly unique writing processes, and that leads to the incredibly different works we create. Well-developed characters have a way of taking on a life of their own, and in my experience sometimes even write themselves. I was in a grocery store with another writer friend when she stopped and picked up a container of hummus, mumbling something along the lines of hummus sounds like something her protagonist would be likely to eat. To anyone else, a grown woman picking out snacks for her imaginary friend looks a bit strange. To another writer, however, I knew I was watching her character flush himself out.
Getting to know your characters can be useful during any stage of the writing process, though it is particularly helpful in the pre-writing stage. There are several websites filled with character mapping exercises for newcomers, and they can help provide better insight for you as an author on who your characters really are. If you’re feeling lazy and don’t want to pop open a new tab for Google (no judgment here), here are a few questions you could try answering along the way.
- What was your character’s childhood like? Did they have any siblings? Any issues with school or at home?
- What is your character’s personality type? Do they prefer to be alone, or surrounded by company? Are they introverted? Friendly? Playful? Somber?
- What is your character’s lifelong dream or fantasy? Will they ever be able to achieve it? What is in their way?
- Use your five senses to describe your character. What do they look like? Do they have any distinguishing physical features? Do they have a particular scent either naturally or from perfumes or colognes? What does their voice sound like? Are there any identifying accents or pitches? Do they have a taste? Maybe your hero is charming to look at, but the smell of stale cigarettes cling to his clothes. Maybe your heroine appears mousy and unnoticeable until she sings with the voice of an angel. Whatever your angle, sensory details help connect us to the setting and characters.
- What are some quirks or odd behaviors or habits your character has?
What are some of their most notable achievements?
What are their greatest weaknesses? Is our bad boy secretly afraid of spiders? Maybe the strong female protagonist is stubborn to the point of unreasonable. Perhaps the lonely scientist is a bit of a know-it-all, chasing off potential friends.
What is your character afraid of? What thoughts keep them up at night? Where did the fear originate? Will they overcome it?
Does your character have any regrets? Any moments they wish they could live twice?
What is your character passionate about? What do they care about strongly enough to lay down their life for? Will they be presented the opportunity to do it?
While these questions alone are nowhere near enough to fully develop a well-rounded character, they are a great way to think outside the box and get to know your characters a little deeper. Have fun and happy writing, everyone!