A good character can either make or break a story. Not every novel is character driven, some choose to focus on the setting or the problem at hand — but each needs a good character in order for the reader to connect.
It can be hard to try and determine whether your idea of a character would connect with audiences or not. You want one that feels real. Not every character needs to be considered as much. Minor characters are put there to help drive the story, and whilst they are important, it isn’t the main focus of this article. The main character or characters are a different story. It is called fleshing out, which means you need to dive into every aspect of your chosen character and make them as realistic as possible to help the reader route for them. Without that, it is hard for an emotional connection to occur and can find the reader choosing to put your book down.
A good strong name
The first thing to try and establish is a good solid name. You want something that sounds like it moulds together, as if it sings off the tongue. Good examples consist of those that people remember, like — Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Katniss Everdeen, Percy Jackson, ect…
With a good name it makes the character easy to follow. Especially when the story is used in third person it is a name you will constantly be using so having one harder to try and grasp may make it a challenge to keep returning to it.
A name can be a tricky thing to come up with, so don’t be afraid to look up lists. A good thing to try is simply looking up top girls and boys names over the years. If you have a character that is from different countries you are not originally from, or your fictional world is similar to a country you are not well established, e.g. European based but your fictional world is more a middle-eastern or Latina background, this is a good way to make the name feel correct for the country.
You don’t always have to create a brand-new name that has never been used before. Sometimes even looking up a common name can help you coin one of your own, but there is no harm using one that people will easily recognise. The main thing is that when you think of the name, the face of your character instantly comes to mind.
When were they born?
The next best thing to try and do is to work out their age. You can either have it that they will be a certain age when the book is published so you work backwards, or when you are writing it, or you know when they were born if it is a more historic novel.
Either way, establishing when they were born helps make it more distinctive for the reader. This includes having a day and month alongside the year. You don’t always have to necessarily know that ‘oh my main character was born on 15th July 1984’. Whilst that would be good, you can easily get away with knowing more like, ‘my character was born the last half of September of the year 2005’. Which means you have established when in the year will be there birthday. So, when you are writing the tale and you know you have come across that month, you can add in about their birthday or simply mention that they are another year older.
It stops the reader being confused if your tale is spanning out over years and yet the character never seems to get any older. It’s not always the case as a lot of stories out there happen over a short space of time, but it is extremely important if that is not the case with yours.
Also, if you could try and think of the ages and birth dates of the important people around your character, like a best friend, or a parent, or sibling or even the enemy if its needed, then that should also help with trying to propel the story forward and not confuse the reader.
Family and Loved ones?
Now, this is where we start fleshing out that character. Everyone in this world has someone they care for. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a family member, or a romantic relationship, but in order to make them as realistic as possible, it’s a good idea to indicate who it is in their lives that they feel responsible for.
As human beings, we want to keep those we love safe and happy, so it will naturally be the same for a character. You can mix it up and have it that the ones they care for are no longer around whether they are left or have sadly passed away. It still means that they are a huge impact of that character for they will constantly be on their mind even if they are not in the picture.
For example, the distinction of Harry Potter’s parents are constant in the work. I am using this example simply because it is so well known that it is easy to indicate the importance of Harry’s parents even though they are dead from the first page. Harry is constantly thinking about them and brings them up even to the end as he has them come back with the resurrection stone.
Now, it is not just the dead loved ones you can focus on. Family and friends that are still around are in their own ways going to help mould that character. Do they still have a mum and dad? Is their best friend from childhood or only recent? Have they been in love with that person their whole life or have they only just started to feel that way?
Ask these questions as if you were the character and note down the responses. Not every side character needs to mean something to your main one, not everyone we meet is important to us. But once you’ve established who it is that they care for most, you can work with it throughout your tale.
This is going up a whole other notch. Everyone has a mannerism, something that distinctly makes them, them. It can be an influence from someone else, or something they naturally started to do.
Ask yourself, do they roll their eyes a lot? Do they constantly lick and bite their lips? Do they gasp when something rude is said? Do they have a twitch?
By knowing how your character might act can help you determine their voice. If they do have a stutter then you can show it. If their right eye twitches whenever it is cold then add that in. If they bite down on their lip when they a nervous then that is something to put in.
This can help make the character three dimensional as there are many people out there that have their own mannerism. Often, you would find someone close to you points it out, or even starts to do it themselves.
Guilty pleasures of bad habits?
This links nicely with the one above as some mannerisms can be seen as bad habits, but there is a difference. Whilst some mannerisms like picking nails, or scratching a scab can be seen as bad habits, I am more talking about the way your character acts than what little tick they have.
Think about how they react to certain news. Do they eat lots of chocolate when they are sad? Or do they constantly watch TV when they are stressed? Do they turn to sweets when they are happy? Mannerism is more the act of what someone does facially or with their hands. A bad habit is more what they do and when determining this, it can help create the character as the reader notices a pattern.
Guilty pleasures are seen in much the same way. What is their favourite food? What do they do when happy? Do they enjoy dancing? Or playing football? Or hockey? Think about what is their favourite thing to do, then work with that. Someone who enjoys football is going to be different to someone who doesn’t. Someone who likes meat is going to be different from a vegetarian. They aren’t huge differences, but they are still what helps make a person unique. That is what you are trying to establish with your own character — so give them things they love and despise just like a human being does.
Why do they act a certain way?
Next part you can try and determine why they are the way they are? You don’t always need a reasoning. Someone who likes chocolate can just because it’s their taste buds. But if you can try and create the profile as much as possible, it will help the reader to understand why they do somethings a certain way as it gives reasoning behind it.
Are they scared because they have lost so much? Take Katniss Everdeen as an example, she is prettified to lose her sister as she lost her dad, so she volunteers to enter the Hunger Games. There is no explanation needed because the author has crafted the love for her sister beforehand for the reader to know exactly why.
Are they driven for power because they were brought up not having it or told to get it? Many stories, especially fantasy, show that power is how you make yourself in the world. So is that established for your character — that having power will help them become someone? Or have they been told constantly as they grew up that they are nothing, and so seek power so they can prove everyone wrong?
It’s the meaning behind the action that you are looking for here. More nature than nurture if you want to go philosophical. Are they kind because they were always rewarded when they were younger if they were? It’s thinking about the character’s background that helped them become when they were. Whether you are starting off with them at a young age or already an established adult, their childhood would still have helped shape them into who they are. So play on it and ensure your character continuously grasps everything in this way even as they are changing and adapting — some habits shape people into who they are.
What makes them tick?
The last part you want to think about is more the emotional side. So you’ve worked out that they scrunch up their face when they are confused. You know that they lost their parents at a young age so desperately try to keep a hold of those they love as they grow up. Now try to attach an emotion to each of these things.
Do they get angry when someone they care about does something reckless? Do they cry whenever they see someone has lost a loved one as they are thinking to their own loss? Do they laugh when they see a dad playing with his son because they remembered they’re dad kicking a football with them?
Emotion drives a person, it’s what helps us decide how to react to something. You need to work out what it is that makes your character tick. Do they lose their anger quickly? Are they easily emotional? Do they hide all their feelings from everyone else even when feeling it inside?
This is another level, because not everyone shows everything they are feeling. There is a big debate about whether people talk enough, and if it affects the mental health. This is where you can establish your own. Trauma is a key to everyone’s lives. Everyone has been affected in some shape or form. Not everyone has gone through dramatic events such as rape, or murder, or war, but it does not need to be a huge dilemma in order for it to affect someone.
Just being brought up strict that you couldn’t go out with your friends much can have you feeling isolated and better alone when you are older. Being told you were weren’t good at something that turns out you were brilliant at could still knock your confidence.
Drive your character through emotion, use those mannerisms and bad habits to help determine who they are. Have a mind map, draw a picture and annotate. Either way, have these all noted down and once you’ve taken your time to write a part of your story, the character will become so real that you won’t need your notes to know how they would react.