Well-developed characters are fundamental to a story, whether yours is plot- or character-driven. Without characters your readers can understand and empathize with, it is likely your story will fall flat. Here are three essential tips for you to keep in mind when creating your next gang of misfits (or honorable aristocracy, whatever floats your boat!).
1. Build a Factual Background for Your Characters
Developing strong characters begins with knowing who they are and what their life story has been up until the point your story begins. Here is a list of a few things to consider:
- Physical attributes (age, height, eye/hair color, tattoos)
- Behavioral traits (mannerisms, introvert/extrovert, shy/bold, optimistic/pessimistic, upfront/avoid conflict, strengths/weaknesses)
- Locale (birth place, current location, social class)
- Family (siblings, parents, extended family)
- Personal life (childhood, schooling, occupation, hobbies, lifestyle)
- Relationships (friends, family, enemies, dating history)
- Key Events (defining their childhood, behavior, and lifestyle)
For fantasy and sci-fi stories, note applicable attributes and history. For example: How does their power/traits manifest? When did they become a werewolf / vampire / shape shifter / cyborg? How and when did they discover their abilities? What training (if any) have they undergone? Does society accept them?
Now consider how each of these background characteristics shaped who your character is and how they behave today.
If your MC grew up in the London slums, they wont know how to talk with a posh accent or easily mingle with such society (without extensive practice). If your MC comes from a large family, maybe they always crave silence and solitude. If they have been upfront about conflict, perhaps they’ve consequently had their nose broken four times before they realized the importance of tact.
You will discover the effects of your characters’ history in even greater detail during the writing process (see #3), but it is beneficial to spend some time understanding how these facts affect who they are as a person, as these will affect their motivations a la #2.
2. Understand Their Motivations
To create truly empathetic and believable characters, we have to dig down to the essence of what makes them “them” — what are their motivations?
What do they want? What will they do to get it?
Character motivations will heavily influence the plot of your book.
What they want will drive the plot — e.g. rule the world; solve this gruesome murder; maintain the status quo. (This last motivation is a surprisingly effective and oft appearing one, i.e. The Hobbit and The Princess Diaries.)
What stands in the way of their desire is conflict — e.g. your perfectly devious usurper; confronting their fear of blood; being crowned the Princess and heir of Genovia.
Then consider the questions as they relate to your character’s motivations:
- What obstacles will they overcome?
- What are the stakes if they fail?
- How will they grow over the course of your story?
Often times these motivations are driven by characteristics you figured out in #1. Perhaps your MC watched their little sibling starve over the winter when their rich landholder withheld pay from his workers while getting fat off lamb. Now your MC has motivations akin to Robin Hood.
Consider how your characters will behave and react to various situations. A character’s motivations should drive everything they do, not just because you need them to go here or do this for the sake of the storyline.
Develop these motivations for both primary and secondary characters. The latter are often forgotten about, used as a plot device and then disposed of; make sure both your MC and supporting people have driving motivations behind their actions.
When a reader can understand a character’s motivations, they can empathize and connect with them and the storyline, suspending reality to enter your world.
3. Recognize the Research Paradox (Learn While You Write)
By all means, do your research. Spend time immersing yourself in information and the motivations essential to your characters. But stress the word “essential” here. It is very easy to fall into the research paradox, obsessively ironing out every detail of your characters, and never make it to the writing stage.
And more often then not, your characters may end up surprising you as they storm off in an unexpected direction (driven by their motivations) once the actual story writing begins.
Note the essentials and then start writing! Not knowing all the answers when you start is okay. You can always go back and edit details.
In fact, you can learn a great deal about your characters (and story) as you write. Susan Dennard’s recent newsletter discussed her difficulty writing various events in her latest Witchlands novel. Eventually, she restarted entirely and drilled down on how her characters’ motivations would drive the plot.
Learn who your characters are on a deeper level as you place them in various situations. Key in on how they would behave or react as individual people with distinct motivations.
And there you have it! Three fundamental concepts on how to build well-rounded characters that leap off the page. Strong characters are essential to successful stories, and their motivations are the key to a creating empathetic people readers obsess and rave about.
What issues have you had with character development? Do you want me to elaborate on any of the above? Let me know in the comments below!