Those who subscribe to my newsletter will have received one tool I use to create a memorable character. But how can we deep dive into our characters so the reader will keep turning the pages?
1. Look at the fictional characters you love and ask yourself why
Writers are readers. Which fictional characters are memorable to you? What is it about them that keeps you buying that next book in the series? By tapping into what makes a character likeable for you will help you make characters who are likeable to others.
2. Make them likeable, although not necessarily relatable
A main character is usually likeable. When I say likeable, I don’t mean they should be a ‘good’ person. Perhaps a better word is interesting, meaning they’re interesting enough for the reader to stick around. Sometimes, they are also relatable. If a reader can relate to the main character, that adds to the connection. However, this isn’t crucial. I can think of many fictional characters I adore who are totally unrelatable. But there are other ways we can connect with the reader.
3. First impressions count
If you’re going down the traditionally published road, an agent will know in the first 500 words if your manuscript is worth looking at. Yes, it’s a depressing thought. So we need to make that opening the best it can be.
If your opening scene involves your main character, you need to make a good first impression. I don’t mean the character must be on best behaviour. Picture it like a party full of strangers. You strike up a conversation with someone, and your gut instinct will tell you if it’s worth continuing the conversation or moving to someone else. What is it about your character that you can convey in those first 500 words that will keep the reader interested enough to turn the page and find out more?
4. Make it all about them
The main character is the vehicle used to tell the story. You can have the most fantastic plot, but whatever it is, it must raise the stakes for your main character. I’m a fan of Bernard Cornwell. He wrote a series set during the Napoleonic War with his lead character, Richard Sharpe. The series followed the entire war, but that was effectively just a backdrop for Sharpe’s character to evolve from a man born in poverty who discovered he was a bloody good soldier and rose from the ranks.
5. Keep them active and motivated
I thought I was about finished with one novel until my critique partner laid his eyes on it. He kindly highlighted that one of my main characters was passive and being led by circumstance in the plot rather than driving it. Cue a massive rewrite.
What did I learn? No one likes a static character. And no one likes a character who isn’t in the driving seat. Of course, things will crop up on the road out of their control, but their action/reaction must lead somewhere.
We all have goals, and when we reach them, we set new goals. Your character needs to evolve as the story progresses. This is called the character arc, and it can be in an emotional, spiritual, material, or intellectual way. It could be a combination of these.
This could be related to the main plot or a subplot occurring in the background, such as in their personal life.
I find it helpful to make a list of aspirations for my character. But don’t be too kind and let them achieve them all. Character arcs can be both positive and negative. Perhaps they achieve a goal in a later book in the series? Maybe one spectacularly backfires, and your character grows from the fallout?
6. Sprinkle in their backstory
If your main character has a Mysterious Past, it is worth seasoning your writing with enticing hints so the reader can build the picture themselves. However, pausing from the main action to venture into a backstory or subplot can be a good thing. Even the reader needs the odd breather. Think from the perspective of the reader’s ego. If you hint your main character has a Mysterious Past, the reader will read this as a challenge. They will want to work out what it is before the big reveal. So play with that.
7. Throw them into conflict
In reality, nobody likes conflict. In writing, it is the grease which keeps the story running smoothly. This could be with the protagonist, annoying bosses and coworkers, family members, friends, or the physical environment.
Conflict not only ups the stakes and keeps things interesting; it helps the reader side with the main character. Returning to Bernard Cornwell, Richard Sharpe had an adversary in the shape of Sergeant Hakeswill, a supposed ally. But Hakewill went out of his way to make Sharpe’s life miserable. As a reader, I was 100% behind Sharpe killing the bastard. The emotions in Sharpe mirrored in me, which leads me to my next point.
8. Connect to the reader at an emotional level
In an earlier blog, I went into detail about using and showing emotion in writing. Even if your character isn’t relatable, the reader can connect with them emotionally. By echoing your character’s emotions in the reader, they will connect more deeply with them.
9. Make them human
Nobody likes a character who coasts through a story because they are a goody-two-shoes Chosen One. We humans are bloody complicated. So should your characters. Give them their own unique voice. Give them flaws. Give them tics. Let the reader know what they will die on this hill for. Let them make mistakes and learn from them. But do let them have joyful moments, too.
10. Make them unique
In reality, no character is truly unique in the same way no story is. It is a case of making a character who stands out above the others. This could come in the form of an unusual name, their quirks, or backstory.
Consider common stereotypes. I’ve lost count of the many fictional detectives I’ve seen who have a messed up personal life, drink, smoke, tend to not follow procedure, and only solve the case after they’re suspended. The thing is, people like the stereotype. Agents and Publishers do, too, because it will appeal to those who read similar crime stories. If your character fits into a common stereotype found in the genre, ask yourself what makes them different? What makes them stand out over other characters in this busy genre?