You can write a romance. You can write a thriller or a fantasy. You can write whatever kind of story you want.
In any case you’re at least going to have to create a character.
More likely, you’re going to have to fill your stories up with characters. A lot of them.
And chances are that in most cases you’re going to have to create them from scratch—especially if you want to avoid being sued.
As a result, it’s important to know how to create a character as interesting and compelling as possible. After all, a story can be extremely promising from a purely plot-wise point of view, nevertheless it can fall flat on its face if the characters populating it are nothing more than banal stereotypes.
After all, when we pick up a book we want to be moved, thrilled, scared. We want to get a glimpse of interesting and unexpected hypotheses about the meaning of life, of death and whatever else in between. But for sure we don’t want to be fed with banalities, with stale and flat characters.
The key ingredient to create a character who feels real
Looking around on the Internet it’s all too easy to come across many articles detailing how to create compelling characters.
They tell you characters must be compassionate, likable, very good at least at one thing. They must be bright and self-assured. They must be brave and sensible. They must have evocative names and interesting backstories.
This list could go on for quite a while, but the truth about such a litany of “desirable traits “ is that even though they can be helpful, they don’t help beginning writers to get to the core of the question.
In fact, what a character really needs, if he or she is to become a memorable one, is a good amount of complexity and conflict.
I mean. It’s like in real life. We may know a lot of people superficially. But it’s only those we get to know better we fall in love with, or really come to loathe. There’s no way around it. The more we know about someone, the more our feelings can grow for the better or the worse.
In a novel, the same principle applies.
However, given that a novel is necessarily a simplified and symbolic representation of reality, also our characters have to undergo some trimming.
This means that if such details aren’t necessary to move the story forward or to illuminate important aspects of someone’s personality, we don’t need to know that our hero stole eggs as a child, or that the bras our heroine used were always too large for her because they were her elder sister’s.
Consequently, to make a character complex we don’t necessarily need to bestow on him or her dozens and dozens of highly contrasting and idiosyncratic traits. Indeed, if we did this we would most likely end up with a freak ready for the country fair, and not with a citizen worth of taking up residence in a good novel.
How to handle descriptions
As a matter of fact, we could almost entirely dispense with characters’ appearance, like Les Edgerton does in The Rapist. We could even dispense ourselves with the necessity of giving him or her a name, just have a look at Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. We can also describe a character’s interior landscape relying only on a few essential traits, like Stephen King does in Shining.
The point is that our characterization has always to serve the story we want to tell. This is why in a fast paced thriller we might decide to keep the amount of backstory to a minimum, while in a memoir we might instead decide to work on it quite more extensively.
Force you character to act
In general, it can be helpful to give our characters some difficult choice to make, a problem to solve. In this way it’s possible to advance the story and at the same time describe them in detail without having to rely on long paragraphs of dry exposition. This is particularly true for physical descriptions.
To make our descriptions more vivid we should also make abundant use of our own experiences. We have only to magnify them, manipulate them to make them fit the story we’re writing.
I mean, if on one occasion we’ve had to face a big and mean dog, then we have a solid base to describe fear. If we’ve ever cut ourselves inadvertently, then we can describe the feeling of a blade going through skin and flesh with a good degree of accuracy.
This is not to say that we must make use only of first hand experiences. Indeed, nowadays with the advent of the Internet we can carry out thorough research on virtually any topic.
To describe characters effectively, it’s also important to make it clear what they want most and fear most. And then show their efforts to achieve what they desire, fighting against their biggest fears. But again, this is just a suggestion. In fact for any great book using this approach, we can find a book flouting it openly.
In any case, whatever the technique we decide to adopt, to write effectively about characters we need to really become the characters we write about. Because only in this way we can satisfactorily assume their identities and come to see the world from their very perspective.
Exercising our empathy can be difficult at the beginning. But it’s damn useful. For sure, the moment we really come to see the world through our character’s eyes, we can write in a lot more coherent way. In fact, we tend to make less mistakes about the dynamics of the story and about all those details that we usually have to take care after the first draft is done.
Kill your darlings
If empathy can be a powerful resource for developing characters, we should instead try hard not to fall in love with them. This means that even for those characters we love most we cannot provide any easy way out. If they have to face difficult challenges or even death, so be it.
Novels, great novels, are about character building. Not about going on vacations. Or honeymooning.