The Essential Elements of Character Building
“What does your character want, what is his dream, what shape has it, and how expressed? Given expression, this is the dynamo of his life, and your life, then, as Creator.” - Ray Bradbury
Who are your characters? What motivates them? What do they want and why?
These questions are not to be taken lightly. Even if you have a great idea for a story, with an intriguing plot, if your characters are flat - or worse: not interesting - your story falters. Don’t fail at characters, fail on other things, but not your characters.
As with everything in writing, practice and experience will improve your writing skills.
I remember some of my first stories. I had no idea what I was doing. I worried more about getting a message across than creating believable characters. Only when I started receiving feedback, I picked up on the fact that my characters needed improving.
That’s why I want to help you with this article to create interesting characters that readers care for. Either positively or negatively. As long as they spark some sort of emotion with your reader, you’re on to something.
In creating characters I believe they must partially flow out of your imagination, based on some random cocktail of who you are, people you know, have met, read about or seen on TV.
Haruki Murakami says that it’s important for a writer to get to know many people. That way you’ll become better at describing people.
There are some tricks to create more depth to your characters. You can keep these tips in mind while writing or refer back to them once you’ve finished your first draft and start editing.
Essential Elements of Character Building
“No matter what, you are probably to have to let bad things happen to some of the characters you love or you won't have much of a story. Bad things happen to good characters, because our actions have consequences, and we do not all behave perfectly all the time.” - Anne Lamott
The above quote is taken from the book Bird by Bird written by Anne Lamott. It’s a great book about fiction writing which I highly recommend. I wrote an article about what I learned from it as well.
What creates interesting characters? Think about it for a second before you read on. Think about the characters from your favorite books. What do you like about them?
You may like Ron Weasley because of his wit. You may cheer for Arya in the Songs of Ice and Fire books. You may love Sherlock Holmes for his mind.
Someone’s past, relationships, motivations, and sensibilities shape who they are. Amongst other things of course. These things distinguish your characters.
So what elements make up for an interesting character?
Competence. This can be anything. If you write a story about a violinist who’s missing an index finger, go into the difficulty of playing the violin. How did this person become competent at playing the violin despite his physical inability? If you have characters who aren’t very competent (yet), it raises the tension. If he/she tries hard at becoming competent, your readers will cheer them on. Have someone people can root for.
Likability. Sounds obvious? Does it though? And do your characters necessarily have to be likable? No one is perfect. All people struggle and have different motivations in life. Get into that. A good trick to make someone likable in your story is to have another character in your story explain the likable traits about your main character.
Proactivity (or motivation). A character must want something. Kurt Vonnegut famously said: “a character must want something, even if it’s just a glass of water.” If your protagonist isn’t proactive (or forced into being proactive by another character), your story isn’t moving forward. What motivates your character to become proactive? What’s at stake?
Development. Ideally, your character(s) will learn something. They are a different person at the end of your story in comparison to who they were at the beginning. Why don’t they fit the role they’re put in in the story? What lesson do they need to learn?
Conflict. Stories reflect on aspects of our own lives. Nothing ever goes our own way the way we want it. Something always gets in our way. Who or what gets in the way of your main character? What hurdles do they need to overcome to get from point A to B? I don’t mean going from place A to B (although you can do this of course). I mean how do they get from state A to B? Conflict between characters creates progress in a story.
Flaws. Flawed characters are likable, but it’s imperative that you make them overcome some of their flaws. Or at least have them have a go at it. No one is perfect. Plus it may remind your reader of themselves. It may inspire them to grow just like your character. After all, stories grant us a way to see life through a different lens and learn something about ourselves and our place in the world.
Powerful pasts. Don’t tell your character’s whole history. You’ll be bored and your readers too. Use scenes and explain how characters are reminded of something from their past. What happened to them that prevents them from growing?
Humor. Lighten up the mood. Throw in a well-timed joke. Take the edge off. Us humans experience so many emotions during a single day, and laughter is definitely one of the greatest ones.
Relationships. How does your protagonist relate to the other character(s) in your story? How do they get along? Interaction can definitely drive your story forward. Use it.
As I said, don’t bore yourself and your readers with long descriptions and basically giving a bio of your character. That’s not a story. Give subtle hints to shape the character. It’s important you know as much about your characters as possible and have their personality shine through your dialogue and prose.
Perhaps the most important question you should ask yourself is this: why should your reader care about your character(s)? Go from there.
Tricks to Discover Who Your Characters Are
“Knowledge of your characters also emerges the way a Polaroid develops: it takes time for you to know them.” - Anne Lamott
Have interesting people. It sounds simple, but it’s harder than you think.
There are some tricks that can help you figure out who your characters are. Some writers like to write down a monologue from the perspective of their main character to do this. They don’t use this in the story, but they do use it to find their character’s voice.
“In the meantime, can you see what your people look like? What sort of first impression do they make? What does each one care most about, want more than anything in the world? What are their secrets? How do they move, how do they smell? Everyone is walking around as an advertisement for who he or she is-so who is this person? Show us. Go into each of these people and try to capture how each one feels, thinks, talks, survives.” - Anne Lamott
A well-known aid in building characters is to use a character dossier. If you Google this, you’ll find thousands of templates.
Templates range from providing basic info like age, gender, and occupation to mannerisms and political views. My advice is to only use what serves your story. It doesn’t make sense to spend time thinking about your character’s favorite food, color, and shoe brand if you don’t need it for your story.
Especially in short story writing, I would not dive into deep into coming up with complete character profiles. Use only what you need.
I hope the ideas presented above will aid you in creating interesting and well-rounded characters. I use these tricks as well and they work for me.
What drives your characters? How is that connected to your plot and message? Play around. Correct yourself and critically edit afterward.
One last thing: read a lot. See how other authors have conjured up interesting characters. Good luck!
If you want to check out some examples of character dossiers or exercises on character building, check out this link from Evernote.