While an intricate plot dripping with voice is essential to the integrity of your writing, a story just isn’t complete without well rounded characters.
No matter what genre you write, animated characters that readers can identify with are what drive the plot and keep audiences interested. But how does one go about breathing life into characterizations written on a page? While every writer has their own style and way of tackling depictions, there are a few crucial elements of character building that must be taken into account.
1. Give your a character a realistic and enticing background, but don’t drown them in it.
Everyone loves a good backstory, but sometimes its execution is tough to pull off. Backstories make characters more interesting; they give them a certain allure that can’t be achieved through laundry-list trait descriptions. In many ways, backstories make your characters more human (if your character isn’t a human, then that’s an entirely different kettle of fish). Don’t be afraid to get to the nitty gritty of what makes your character unique. Did something happen in their past that forced them to go in one direction over another? How is their story different from a more minor character’s?
While backstory is fun to write, beware of suffocating your reader in lengthy narratives about your character’s “ravaged past” and “tortured, orphaned soul”. There is such thing as too much backstory, or at least to the point where it takes up more of your writing than the actual plot.
2. Make a lasting impression.
You want to introduce your character with a bang. No one wants to read about Plain Paul who just happens to bump into the girl of his dreams while walking to work. Been there, read that. Not a dynamic first impression. And in this craft, first impressions are everything, because it’s what makes readers want more. Give them someone to care about, or not to care about. As long as they feel something about your character from the get-go.
3. Allow the reader to form and change their own opinions.
Once you’ve gotten the reader hooked with a dimensional character, throw them a curveball. As you develop your character, your reader must be able to develop their opinions. Maybe they start liking your character more. Maybe they grow a deep hatred for every word that passes your character’s lips. Change, no matter how beneficial or detrimental, is essential for well-rounded characters. Don’t fall into the flat trap, where everything your character does is premeditated and expected. Predictable characters are no fun to read or write about. Also, don’t be afraid to make your reader’s blood really boil by something your character does. As the genius of gut-wrenching character development, John Green, says,
I don’t know where people got the idea that characters in books are supposed to be likable. Books are not in the business of creating merely likeable characters with whom you can have some simple identification with. Books are in the business of creating great stories that make your brain go ahhbdgbdmerhbergurhbudgerbudbaaarr.
4. Paint them with flaws.
Complex character traits are key to making your writing pop off the page, and that includes writing your characters with imperfections. Simply put, perfect characters are boring. Who wants to read about the perfect love interest, with his perfectly chiseled jaw and perfect gentlemanly etiquette and perfect intellect? Maybe your character has a physical defect, or maybe he or she is especially jealous or competitive. Maybe their flaws are what make them all the more appealing.
When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.
-Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
5. Give them a motivation.
A character without motivation is a waste of space in a story. It would make no sense for Frodo to take the ring to Mordor if he hadn’t been bent on protecting the Shire, his friends, and all of Middle Earth. It would be pointless for Harry to seek Voldemort’s end if his parents had never been killed and he didn’t care about the well-being of his friends. This applies to protagonists and antagonists alike. If you give your character something to care about, you’ll give your reader something to care about.
Writing believable characters is one of the scariest and most rewarding parts of writing. There is nothing more satisfying than creating a well fleshed-out character, and in the end, it’s what will make your story stand out from the rest.