How to Get the Most Out Of Your Characters – Part 1
Your characters don’t just tell a story. They carry the story. Great characters make the story.
When planning a novel, characterisation, along with plot and subplots etc., is one of the most important elements. We want characters that are different from each other, not just in personalities or mannerisms, but in how they do things. That’s often how we judge other people, and so we have to ensure they’re interesting enough for readers to want to get to know more about them.
Firstly, every writer knows that characters need to be relatable. They don’t have to be loved or even be likeable – they can be hated – but they need to be interesting enough to relate to the reader. And to do this we give characters fears, goals, motivation, weaknesses, strengths and lots of conflict. These ingredients draw the reader in because they are all relatable, too. We all have fears, we all have goals, we all have things that motivate us, we all have strengths and weaknesses and we all have all manner of conflicts.
We feel the exact same things as fictional characters do. That’s why we relate to them. But to get the most out of your characters, you have to add more to the mix.
Compelling characters are those who are not perfect – they make terrible mistakes, just as real people do. They are fallible and flawed. They don’t always get things right, but they keep trying anyway. And that endears the reader. It makes them like your characters because real people have strengths and weaknesses, and we admire an underdog.
Create a sense of realism. How many of you make your main female character a beautiful woman with a model figure? Or your main male character becomes a chisel-jawed action man with a six pack? Remember, they shouldn’t be perfect. Main characters are ordinary people put in extraordinary situations. So make them ordinary. Give them a certain look, but keep a sense of realism.
Make your characters do something unexpected. Don’t make them so predictable. Readers love unpredictability. So make your character do something crazy or different, something that changes the course of the story or provides a wild revelation and makes the reader sit up.
Characters that surprise us are characters we remember. That’s why your characters should be so much more than what the reader expects. Keep the reader on their toes.
Another way to get the most out of your characters is to create plenty of emotion. It’s the one thing that drives us and motivates us to do strange things. It can make us and break us with equal measure. Love, anger, hate, betrayal, lust, laughter...the more emotional range your character has, the more fascinating they are to the reader, because these real emotions create an immediacy with the reader, who will also have felt these same emotions.
Where emotion is concerned, writers often create character stereotypes because they don’t allow their characters to feel or show emotions. They often show muscly, handsome protagonists who are full of action, but seem emotionally retarded. We never see them sad or upset or even get emotional. That makes them unappealing and uninteresting. Real men cry. Just as real women can kick-ass.
Ensure your characters need something. Whether that’s a need for answers, a need to find something, or a need for an object or a person, it will motivate your characters. This doesn’t have to be the basis of the main plot, either. It can be a part of a subplot. Everyone wants something. Your characters are no different.
While your characters are part of the action through the novel, writers neglect to give them inner thoughts. If you let the reader know what the characters are really thinking from time to time, it allows the reader to directly share in the character’s emotions and personality. This enhances their character complexity because the reader sees certain things that characters do not, simply because they are privy to the main character’s inner thoughts and emotions.
Interesting characters also have strong opinions, just like people in real life. Strong opinions can divide people and they can cause tensions or conflict, because not everyone will agree with those opinions.
Opinionated characters are ones we remember, because they speak their mind and they are not afraid of other character’s reactions. We might agree with their opinion, and we like them even more, or we might disagree with them and not like them so much – either way, they create that reaction in us. Love them or loathe them, we remember them.
Next week, in part 2, we’ll take a look at more ways to get the most from your characters.