You can’t have a fictional world without characters. Well, you could, but it would be an awfully empty one. Characters are the centers of our imaginary universes; they drive our plots, connect to our readers, and add fun, fear, intrigue or perhaps all of the above.
Sounds great, right? Sign me up. I like characters. But how do you make characters in a two-dimensional medium feel completely real? Here are 5 quick tips to keep in mind while populating your stories.
1. What do they say? How do you get to know someone when you meet him or her in real life? Through conversation, right? Unless you’re a creepy stalker, in which case characters aren’t your biggest issue. You find out about people through what they say, and, sometimes more importantly, what they don’t say. If someone doesn’t mention a significant other in a first meeting, there could be a wealth of reasons. They don’t have one. They just lost one. They’re in pursuit of one. They’re trying to get rid of one. They’re interested in the other person. Each possibility creates a different dimension for the character, and says something about the person talking or withholding information.
2. How do they say it? Does your main character only look at his shoes when he talks to other people? Does she dart around from task to task, the conversation having to follow her? How do other people react to what they say? Do they listen? Do they ignore it? Do they feel slighted they’re not getting full attention? What is happening while people are talking can make a big difference in terms of the feel of the characters and their world.
3. What is their motivation? This one should be first, really, on any list. It’s vital not only to character, but to driving the plot as well. What do the characters want, and why do they want it? Every single fictional person in your story must have a motivation to do whatever they do, or they won’t ring true. That doesn’t mean that you spell it out, as in “The janitor was anxious to finish his work to get home to watch the game so he pushed the broom quickly.” Rather, describing the janitor as he hurries through his tasks, perhaps missing something vital in the process, can push the story without condescending to the reader. The reader doesn’t have to know why the janitor hurried, but the fact that the janitor was in a rush gives him an added dimension, (mediocre attention to detail), the story an added tension (missed task) and plot point (consequences for the missed task).
4. What are their limits? People are often defined by what they might be willing to do to reach their goals, but what about what they are not willing to do? Where do they draw the line? If there is no line, then that says a lot about the character. If they would lie but not steal, that says something. If they would cheat but not divorce, that says something as well. What does your character think is OK? What does she or he think is justifiable though maybe questionable? What will he rationalize? What won’t she?
5. Who or what do they care about? If your character doesn’t care about anyone, she or he might be a misanthrope. Or a psychopath. If your character doesn’t care about anyone or anything, he might be depressed. If your character cares about everything and everyone too much, that shows a whole other side of personality. Does she like animals or hate animals? Does he get along with his brother or detest him? Is she going to get on student council at any cost?
You don’t create convincing characters by describing them to your readers. Not only is that the worst of telling rather than showing, it’s not that interesting to read. Instead, let your readers get to know them the way you get to know people, and they’ll spring to life.
Check out my full-length novels, Her Cousin Much Removed, The Great Paradox and the Innies and Outies of Time Management and Aunty Ida’s Full-Service Mental Institution (by Invitation Only), and the sequel, Aunty Ida’s Holey Amazing Sleeping Preparation (Not Doctor Recommended) which is now available!
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