It seems like a simple enough task. You’ve got a brilliant premise, a poignant setting, and enough intriguing ideas to start a discussion group. All you need are some engaging characters to bring your world to life. But, therein, lies the problem. In the same way that poor casting can ruin what could have otherwise been an epic film (Oz the Great and Powerful comes to mind), bland, generic, or unbelievable characters can seriously undermine even the best of stories.
You’ve likely read one before. The cover art catches your eye amidst the sea of novels on the shelf. You read an enticing synopsis on the inside cover and decide to give it a shot. To your dismay, the summary turns out to be nothing more than a cleverly worded ploy to swindle you of your hard earned cash. You trudge through line upon line of vanilla dialogue, hoping the premise that piqued your interest will resurface in a significant enough way to compensate for the characters you’ve become callous and indifferent towards, but in the end, all you’re left with is a profound wish that you could go back in time and take back the hours you’ve wasted.
This is the last impression any writer wants to leave with his/her readers, so how does one avoid it? While there is a certain amount of innate ability involved, there are also a few tips that can help you avoid running your story aground on the shores of mediocrity. I like to remember these tips with 3 “D’s”:
Definition simply means planning out the the identity of your characters. What do they look an sound like. Are they soft-spoken, outgoing, obnoxious, gruff? What are their strengths and weaknesses? How about personality quirks? And, probably most important, what is their motivation or stake in the plot? Take Katniss Everdeen from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, for example. Here is a character who, while rising from obscurity to become a true heroine, maintains a real sense of humanity. Through the course of the trilogy, she hurts, she cries, she uses people, and she displays serious trust issues – all things you would expect from someone who goes through everything she does – but she remains true to her core motivation throughout.
Try making a grid that lists these traits for all the significant characters in your story. Once you have it, you can also note how your characters respond to one another. From there, you have a quick reference guide against which to compare the things your characters do to make sure they, well, stay in character. Creating characters that feel real and believable is sure to help you connect with your readers and leave them with a lasting impression they’ll want to share.
Second is distance. The meaning of this is twofold: it means creating uniqueness between all your characters, but it also means differentiating your characters from yourself.
The first half is relatively simple if you, like most people , have been around a variety of personalities in your life. Visualize a color spectrum and try placing your characters along it based on the core emotions they act upon or elicit from others. Do you notice any clumps? It’s important to do this objectively and maybe even have someone help you. Just like a painting done with only primary colors, a story without enough variety in its characters can feel simplistic, predictable, and boring.
A really wonderful example of a story with a full spectrum of characters is, of course, the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. If you haven’t read this yet, come out from under your rock and give it a whirl. Seriously, though, whether you like YA Fantasy or not, you can’t deny Rowling’s skill for creating memorable characters. Love them or hate them, you’ll be hard pressed to forget Sybill Trelawney, Mad Eye Moody, and Dolores Umbridge.
The second half of distance is distance from yourself. As the author, you naturally tend to write some of yourself into your characters, but the real trick is learning how to “turn yourself off” when needed. I tend to have a very lawful good (any D & D nerds out there?) view of life, but what about when I have to write for a villain? Writing any of my persona into that character will likely render it ineffective for its intended purpose – villainy. Why? Because I’m not a villain.
When writing for characters dissimilar to ourselves, it’s often best to silence your inner moral compass and, instead, draw from others you’ve known. Have a character who’s supposed to be annoying? Use an obnoxious colleague as inspiration and build from there. Writing too much of yourself into your characters is a surefire way to make them seem like you mass-produced them out on an assembly line, so remember to seek that neutral place within and keep arms-length from your characters.
The final “D” is dialogue. Now, you may be thinking “Nick, this is just a natural extension of the other two D’s. You’re just trying to make it an even three by adding fluff.” While you are partly correct, I’m calling out dialogue separately because it’s so important maintaining consistency and believability in your characters.
To write effective dialogue, you really need to have a solid understanding of not only who the speaker is but who he/she is speaking to and how they feel about one another. If your protagonist is driven by a need to find his lost sister, for example, he probably isn’t going to invite someone he expects to be involved to tea. This is an obvious example, but how might his drive effect the way he interacts with everyone else? If someone you care for is missing, you believe foul play is at hand, but every lead you follow leaves you with more questions, you’re likely to become very suspicious and maybe even paranoid of others. Depending how far you want to take things, this character might even begin to experience a degree of psychosis – hallucinations and such – as he becomes more consumed by his quest. Compare everything your characters say – and think – to the core personality traits and motivations you define for them, and ask “Is this really something this person would say?” It also really helps to read your dialog aloud to make sure it sounds like something that anyone would say. 🙂
While the three “D’s” – definition, distance, and dialogue – I’ve laid out above don’t capture everything you might want to consider while writing for your characters, they do provide a good foundation to get you thinking in the right direction. Follow these tips and your characters will be springing to life from your pages before you know it. Happy writing, my friends!