All stories involve characters. They drive the story and carry the reader from the first page to the last. Through them, we learn to care about what happens. Characters interact with and affect every element of fiction. Without characters, there is no story.
In our reading lives, we’ve each found characters we absolutely fall in love with. They become so endeared to us that we can’t get them out of our heads. We become invested in their journey. When we re-read their stories, it often feels like having an old friend come to visit.
Think about a person whom you’ve wanted to befriend for some time. What is it about that person that is interesting to you? What characteristics do they possess that you find attractive? Chances are, there is something about that person that you identify with; possibly admire? Covet?
Now, ask the same questions of your favorite book characters. What is it that makes you care so much about him or her? What makes them interesting or intriguing? What has the author done to make you identify with that person? Most likely, the author has successfully created a very human character.
“But my character isn’t human,” you say. It doesn’t matter. Our readers are humans. Therefore, our characters must be as human-like as possible, even if they are anything but. To make a character relatable, we must make our characters embody human-like qualities. Humans occupy space, have thoughts and feelings, move and utilize their senses. Humans evolve and change; sometimes they progress, and at other times regress. All this captures our humanity. As writers, we must create characters that do the same in the world of our stories. They must be so well developed that if they reached out from the page, we’d actually feel their touch.
How do we make our characters seem more human? Here are a few things to keep in mind when crafting our characters.
Humans occupy space
We are physical beings that have size and shape. We occupy space, and we have a sense of place. When people look at us, they see something. Our physical presence can be measured and observed.
When we create our characters we need to know what they look like. We start with the basics, like eye color, hair color and style, height, weight, and skin color. Does he/she wear eyeglasses or hats? Take into account everything you need to create the visual.
You will want to go beyond this and determine your character’s unique physical gestures and mannerisms. Does he or she fidget, or does he bow his head, often avoiding eye contact? Are his shoulders hunched over while he walks, or is her head held high, with her gaze going down her nose?
Humans are complex
We are complicated beings. We each carry our own histories, memories, and experiences. These form our attitudes. They either make us fear the world, strengthen our views, or encourage the biases that affect our decision making process. They dictate how we behave, pushing us to either be consistent in our actions, or whether we waver in our convictions.
Now think about your character’s background. What is his/her name? Does it mean something? What is his birth order within the family? Does that affect how he treats others? How he treats himself? Explore his education, profession, his life experiences, and his family life. As you dig deeper, you will find many of these factors affect their feelings and the conflicts in their lives.
We all have inner conflicts. These are driven by our backgrounds, our desires and how we react to them.
What is her worst secret? Does she practice a certain religion? Is she devout? How was she disciplined as a child? Do the answers to these questions have an impact on how she presents herself to her friends? To strangers?
This is your opportunity to think about contrasting qualities within your characters.
Not all good characters are admirable all the time. How exciting would a story be if your main character always chose the right path? What trait resides in her that would make her turn left instead of right? Explore that with questions like, “What would your character lay down her life for? What is her biggest fear? Who knows about this fear?”
On the converse, not all bad characters or villains are bad all the time, either. In fact, most villains believe they are doing the right thing; pursing a greater good that only he understands. It is his complexity that makes him believe that. Sometimes, the most interesting villains are those you seem to understand; who might possess or exhibit a trait that you have, or identify with.
Think about what your villain’s parents were like, or if she had any parental figures in her life at all. Where did she grow up? Where does she live now? What were the turning points in her life? What does she like most about her life? The least?
Humans want something
We all have desires. Some are so strong we are pushed in a certain direction to take action, to make choices, to take risks. Our characters must desire something so compelling that they must move.
Think about what material possessions they feel are most important to them. Or what secrets they keep. From whom does she keep them? Why does she keep them secret? What would be his perfect happy ending? What makes your character laugh out loud? Cry? Bawl? What are his goals for tomorrow, next year, ten years from now?
Depending on your story, your character’s desires will play big part in choosing the paths they take, what goals they seek to attain, and what will get in their way.
Humans are capable of change
We are living creatures and are constantly evolving. An experience can change us for the better, and sometimes for the worse. Sometimes we do things out of the ordinary because of a series of small successes that embolden us. In certain circumstances, our failure at a minor challenge can frighten us from going out and doing bigger things. This too should be reflected in our characters.
Our characters must evolve, learn, and modify their behavior. The experiences your character goes through must change him/her. In the context of your story, think about how each trial faced by your character changes their behavior, thoughts, feelings, or actions. What did they learn from that experience? How will they approach the same situation the next time it comes around?
Your characters must either progress and realize their dreams, or accept their fate and move on. The former is the most ideal, but life doesn’t always work that way. Despite that, he must have evolved from the time your readers met him on page one. If your character remains unchanged at the end of the story, your readers are going to ask, “What was the point?”
All these facets of humanness cannot be developed in a vacuum. Each one is part of a whole and affects the entirety of your character. For example, think of a female character with blue eyes and blonde hair who is particularly tall. She’s taller than all the rest of the people in her family and in their orchard farming community. Does she revel in her difference and keep her head held high? Or downplay her height and keep her neck bowed and shoulders hunched so she doesn’t seem so unusual. How do the boys in town react to her? How do the girls treat her? What happens if she’s the only one tall enough to reach the very last fruit of the tree that is meant to feed her family?
When brainstorming about your main character, it might be helpful for you to develop a character worksheet to make sure you take into account everything you need to know about him/her. These worksheets can help ensure you cover every aspect that is important to you for your character’s development.
For main characters, you can be as elaborate as you wish. I’ve heard of writers who go as far as creating a biography for the character. You must do what is necessary to know your characters on such an intimate level. Your intimacy with the character will show in your writing. You don’t need to put everything about your character in your story, but knowing how he/she will react to any situation will only benefit your story.
For secondary characters, you don’t necessarily have to delve so deep. A running list of qualities, traits, and characteristics may suffice to get a sense of who this person is and how they will affect your main character. Remember, secondary characters are the members of your cast that serve to enhance and highlight your main character’s story.
There are many worksheets available for download around the internet, including one here that is based on this article. You can also develop your own. Just take into account some of the basics, like their appearance, background, personality, and primary identity. Build on that by adding questions you feel will reflect or dig deep into the humanity of your character.
We all want to care about the characters we read about. We want to see what they see, and feel what they feel. Certain characters endure in our minds. We learn from them, we cheer for them, and sometimes we even scold them.
As a writer, do not be afraid to stand by your characters, especially if you’ve made them as human as they can possibly be. Let’s make them memorable–worth the time our readers put into getting to know them. Hopefully one day, a reader will tell you how one of your characters reached out from the page and touched his/her heart.
Mieke Zamora-Mackay is a wife and mother of two kids who are growing up faster than she can imagine. She works full-time as a paralegal in the Philadelphia area, and writes women’s romance, young adult, and middle grade novels and short stories. Follow her journey through writing and reading on her blog, The Author-In-Training, at www.miekezmackay.com and on Twitter as @MZMackay.