Most writers can agree with this: A strong story is reliant on memorable characters. Do you have a method for character building?
Think of your current cast of characters, where did they come from? While we can rely on a strong writing style and exposition, most stories are compelling and unforgettable because of their characters.
This blog will present questions that aim to guide you towards creating strong and impactful characters who will propel your plot forward.
List Out The Basics
It’s always good practice to work from the ground up. Knowing basic details about your character is important. Afterall, these details will aid your readers in visualizing the character on the page.
Race, Nationality, significant heritage
…And much more
These details can help you shape a well-rounded, fleshed-out, and unique character that will be remembered by readers.
Spend Time Deciding On A Name
Characters can be thought of as the children of writers. Just as you would debate names when naming a child or pet, spend some time before deciding on one. Names are important; much like the title of a book, they are what readers will walk away with. Names like “Holden Caufield”, “Chief Bromden”, “Sula Peace”, or “Dorian Gray” stick with us. If you struggle with names, baby name websites are a great tool to explore.
Like real life, names can have have a plethora of different meanings and symbolism. For example, they can have different meanings in different languages. Some names can be hints, or spoilers, like in the Star Wars Universe, when Darth Vader is revealed to be Luke and Leia’s father, “Vader” is a German/Dutch-language homophone of “Vater”, translating to “Father” in English. Names can hold many hidden meanings about your character.
Perhaps an antagonist with the name “Labi” is revealed to be good and is redeemed at the end of your tale. After all, “Labi” in Latvian is “Good” in English. Is it a necessity for your character’s name to be the most unique combination of letters in recorded history? And should every name have a secret meaning behind it? No. Sometimes a story calls for a “John Smith”, and another benefits something wacky like, “Fletricus Attacurius Hogsymth III”.
Trust your gut, if a name suits your character, then it’s the right name.
How Does Your Character Communicate?
The way our characters socialize reveals a lot about them. Is there a difference in how they interact with friends and family? Do they have noticeable vocal tics or crutches? Maybe they have a southern drawl, or use the word “like” a lot. If you struggle with finding your character’s voice, check out this guide on voice, or another on dialogue.
Communication is more than how characters speak. It includes their physicality in an array of situations. What’s their love language? Do they love grand romantic gestures, or are they embarrassed to show affection? Are they looming, or do they shrink away? Are they stoic, or will they fill a room with noise and laughter?
Reactions and body language can be the most revealing. How do they react when faced with problems? What do they do when they’re mad? Happy? Sad? Maybe they can’t help but cry when they see puppies, or scoff at sobbing babies. Is your character a chronic eye-roller whose arms are constantly crossed? Maybe they have a problem with fidgeting when sitting for too long. Distinguish your characters through their actions.
Consider Your Character’s Motivations
What gets your character out of bed in the mornings? Are they chasing a paycheck at a job they hate? Do they have pets or a family who depend on them to maintain the household? Is your character a hero who wakes up and saves the world?
Perhaps your character is trying to repay a debt, or aims to atone for a guilt-ridden mistake from the past. What happens if your character fails on their journey? Will the entire world explode? Or does your character’s story revolve around a smaller tension, like passing an important exam?
Character building, which also includes fleshing out your character’s internal and external motivations, can aid in determining the stakes of the story. Weigh the tension placed on your characters and use it to gauge the overall tension of the story. Remember, if your character has nothing to lose, the plot’s tension might need some work.
Nothing Is 100%
It’s unrealistic to have characters who are all good. What are your characters' guilty pleasures? Do they have bad habits, like smoking or drinking excessively? Maybe a character who preaches eating healthy to their friends sneaks doughnuts when they’re alone. Your character could be a reformed childhood bully, or someone who didn’t give their bus seat up for an elderly man.
Conversely, it’s very unrealistic to have antagonists who are all bad. Inherently, compelling villains are those who leave the audience torn. Here and there, sprinkle tidbits about them that convince your readers to like them. Use the characterization of your villain as an opportunity to make the audience squirm. Maybe your villain likes knitting with their grandmother, or volunteers at a dog shelter on the weekends. Paint your characters and their lives as realistically as you can; it’s a rarity that a character is 100% good or evil.
Remember this when you're character building, your protagonist doesn’t have to be “likable”, rather, they should be memorable and well-rounded. Aim to have your audience think about your characters and their story after they close your book. Let your characters linger.
Pour whatever love and devotion you can into the character building process. In the weeks, months, or years you work with your characters, you will learn and reveal more about them. As you work on your story, continue to actively develop and unveil more about your characters.
Your characters all shoulder the responsibility of driving your story forward in the most compelling way they can. Give them the tools they need to tell the best story possible.