Today we’re going to talk about how to create a character that resonates with readers. Why? Well, dear writer, sheltered as you are by the glass screen that is your desktop/laptop/tablet/mobile device, you can’t see the state I’m in. So I’ll tell you. Imagine this: the darkest place you’ve ever been. Like, literally dark, but also figuratively dark at the same time. Void. The sound of crying. The sound of laughter. I think I’ve gone mad. More darkness. Then, some light. I’m pretty sure my cat is on the chair next to me. Judging me. More void. Until, I throw my pen against the wall and contemplate the nature of my existence and all of reality.
No, just kidding. Everything is perfectly fine. It’s not like I spent the last four weeks trying to create a character, only to realize that it’s an exercise in futility and I’m a failure as a human being. No. That would be melodramatic. The fact that there are tons of pages in my notebook featuring a character who is as memorable as the off-brand candy that your neighbors give out every Halloween is irrelevant. Truly.
The point: don’t make the same mistakes I made, dear writer. Read on, and learn some techniques to develop memorable characters that people care about.
My name is Liz, & my main character has a problem
I’m sure you’ve had those moments when writing a character when you realize that your character has less personality than a block of wood. Take comfort in the fact that we’ve all been there and there is still hope. Maybe you realized something was off with your character when you did character building exercises. That’s what usually gets me. When my main character says her biggest flaw is that “she cares too much,” I know I have a problem.
Legit: the my-biggest-weakness-is-that-I-care-too-much doesn’t fool job interviewers. Why would you expect it to fool your readers? They’re smart people. Likewise, the character who is so popular he’s like a walking magnet that attracts humans is also weak. But-honestly-guys-I’m-like-so-uncool-and-dorky-why-do-you-even-like-me?). No. Just no.
So, what do you do when this happens?
I can only speak for myself, but whenever my characters start fading into blandness, I ask myself ten questions I came up with. Luckily for you, I complied them all into a handy character sheet. It’s not the typical character sheet that ask for physical descriptions and their second favorite color. This template asks questions designed to get to the heart of who your character is. Click the button below to get insight into your character with a free copy of this character sheet.
Create a character before an archetype
Even if you are unfamiliar with this term, I guarantee that you know what an archetype is. In fact, I guarantee that your four-year-old nephew knows what an archetype is. Archetypes are the typical and traditional characters, plots, settings, themes, and symbols found in 99% of all stories. For example, some common archetypes for characters are the Hero the Damsel in Distress, and the Wise Old Man. An example of an archetypal situation is the Quest (the Hero needs to accomplish something to restore order) and the Battle Between Good and Evil. Although it’s easy to see how archetypes play out in fairy tales and fantasy stories, know that they are present across all genres of writing. Bart Simpson is a classic Trickster character. Likewise, John Wayne plays the traditional Hero character in almost all of his movies.
Don’t get me wrong, archetypes and tropes are prevalent in literature because they work. There’s nothing wrong with them per se. However, when you plan out your novel, instead of chopping your character’s traits up so that they fit like puzzle pieces into a pre-created story structure, think of them as living, breathing humans/elves/animals/ogres/whatever. In all honesty, it’s okay if parts of your plot or characters are recognizable to readers, but you don’t want to write a novel that readers can predict from the first page. Try to twist the trope and put a new spin on an old idea. I mean, look at Shrek. What made that story successful was that it turned every archetype on its head. So, don’t be afraid to experiment or try something new.
The things that make a memorable character
The five most important ingredients necessary to create a character that readers care about are:
- Strengths: What types of things does your character excel at? What positive things about their personality can can others rely on them for?
- Weaknesses: What types of things does your character struggle with? Remember that, in real life, people have minor and major weaknesses. A (super) minor weakness might be the inability to whistle. Whereas, a major weakness might be commitment issues.
- Values: What are the rules and standards they set for themselves? Where is the “line-they-will-never-cross”? What do they believe in? Whether or not you tell your readers their specific and personal rules, every character should have a “rule book” they follow. Sometimes, authors straight-up divulge their character’s rules–that’s totally okay too. Think Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation or Kakashi from Naruto. Sure, these characters had their secrets, but we, as an audience, always knew exactly where they stood when it came to the standards they set for themselves.
- Motivation: What drives them? What are the things/people/emotions that spur them into action?
- Goals: Goals run parallel to motivation. If you struggle to differentiate between the two, think of it this way: goals are the end point where your character wants to be, and motivation pushes your character from where they start. Most of the time motivation takes place in the present and goals take place in the future. Motivation is the motions that characters take to achieve their goals. Goals are their dreams. For example, your character works a brain-numbing, 9-5 job. His goal is to start a band. His motivation is the fear that he will die at his desk having accomplished nothing in life.
It’s okay for your character’s goals and motivations to shift through the course of your story. The change characters undergo is what makes them memorable. In fact, The Girl with all the Gifts by M. R. Carey explained the nature of motivation and goals (dreams) in the novel itself. It’s one of my all-time favorite quotes:
“Melanie thinks: when your dreams come true, your true has moved. You’ve already stopped being the personal who had the dreams, so it feels like a weird echo of something that already happened to you a long time ago.”
To create a character that’s multidimensional and not flat, have some of these “ingredients” be contradictory to each other. You want to create a character in conflict. For example, if you create a character with the goal of standing up for others, then consider cowardice as one of their weaknesses. Right there, you’ve created internal conflict. If you create a character that values honesty above all else, put them in a situation where they need to lie. Maybe Honest Harry lost his job and he has no other option to feed his ailing mother but to run cons and email scams.
In real life, people are contradictions. So, add some contradictions and conflicts to their personalities when you create a character and give them some real life.
Remember: you don’t have a story if you don’t have conflict. One trick that works for me is that I treat my characters like I treat my Sims in The Sims game (without the constant killing-them-off-whenever-I-get-bored). First, always ask yourself: how can I make things harder for my character? How can I make their lives more difficult? Then, you’ll need to solve some of these issues in your story’s resolution.
Once you figure out your character’s motivation, goals, strengths, weaknesses, and values, you will be all set to move on to my character sheet. Click below to get your free copy. Most character sheets ask you to answer 879 questions about your character. Personally, I always found those overwhelming and a massive source of procrastination. Therefore, I promise that my character sheet has only the essential questions necessary to create a character that readers care about. Answer these questions, and you’ll have a clear sense of who your character is.
What questions do you find most important when you create a character?