Characters are the heart, soul, and mind of fiction. Obviously they’re not all you need, but great characters go a long way toward crafting great stories; on the other hand, in fiction, even brilliant plots and themes and prose have a hard time overcoming weak characters.
It’s not just your protagonist or a couple of main characters who matter. While most stories have “extras” in the background, the characters surrounding the main characters should be well developed too. Focusing on only making one or two characters shine makes it all the more obvious that everyone else is just a two-dimensional characterization.
So how exactly do you develop believable, memorable characters? Here are five tips I find very helpful:
1. Base Characters on Real People
This doesn’t mean you have to literally transcribe the people you know best. But it helps to have a real person in mind when you create a character, even if it’s just the barista at the coffee shop you go to every morning or your dreadful third grade teacher from 25 years ago. The key is that you have a good grasp of how the person would think and act in different situations—or even that you believe you do; if you can readily fill in these details using your own theoretical impression of a person you’ve interacted with enough, that works too. This goes a long way toward establishing consistency in the personality.
2. Characters Need Flaws
Nobody’s perfect, so a perfect character totally comes across as an uninteresting characterization. When your characters show flaws and suffer consequences from them, they become far more human and intriguing. The classic course for fiction is to have a protagonist recognize his or her “tragic flaw” and overcome it, but you don’t always have to go that route. Of course, for those of us who are hopeless suckers for the happy ending, it’s usually important to write this sort of triumph into the story.
3. Show Characters Making Decisions
Shakespeare used soliloquies wonderfully to show characters’ though processes, concerns, motives, rationalizations, and decisions. We don’t use this device too often these days in contemporary fiction, but they’re a perfect example of how much a character comes to life when the audience gets an intimate look at why characters do what they do. This is a compelling reason to use an omniscient narrator, as it allows you to easily reveal what’s going on inside the heads of all your characters, which lets your readers develop much deeper relationships with them.
4. Give Characters Strong Opinions
This is similar to the above in that readers relate better to characters when they understand their reasons for doing things. Real people are strongly driven by their strongest beliefs, and realistic characters are too. Don’t be afraid to offend or seem like you’re using your writing as a soapbox. The opinions don’t have to be yours, and often, you can counterbalance with opposing opinions in other characters, which can make for some really gripping dialogue.
5. Think About Your Characters a Lot
Even when you’re not writing. The better you get to know your characters, the more realistically and compellingly you’ll bring them to life on the page. As you go about your daily life, at the day job, at the store, even scrolling down your Facebook home page, think about how your characters would react and respond to everything. Let them argue in your head even. Just try not to start voicing them out loud, at least not in public. Not only does this help you write believable characters, it can provide perfect fodder for new scenes—including everyday interactions is another effective way to develop strong characters.