Building believable fictional characters isn’t as precise as formulating sentence structure or correcting grammar. There are many ways to create consistent and complex characters, and every writer has a unique way of doing it. In the article below, I explain the elements of character building that are important to me as an author and a reader of fiction.
When you are a writer, the omnipotent creator of all beings in a story, you need to know who your characters are. Whether your characters are thriving or struggling, whether they live on Earth or in some far away galaxy, whether they are starving beggars or kings and queens, your characters all have different voices. You need to know the backstories of every character you name. That doesn’t mean you have to write every backstory in your book, but you, as the writer, owe it to your characters and readers to know exactly who they are before the book starts and after the book ends. Your characters should be consistent, complex and they should evolve with the conflicts they encounter.
Creating Consistent Characters
Your characters should be consistent throughout your book, meaning that throughout the story a person adept in profiling should be able to predict the majority of what your character will do. Most of us are creatures of habit and we tend to be fairly predictable unless something horrifying or amazing causes us to shift gears.
Most importantly though, your character should have a consistent voice. We hear that word a lot in writing…voice. What does it mean? Character voice is the “tone” the character uses when they speak and the way they describe the people, places and events around them. Think about the people you know really well in your own life. They have a certain way of saying things. Sometimes you can almost complete their sentences because you know what they will say based on what they’ve said in the past. Your characters should have the same predictability of voice.
If you are writing a multiple viewpoint book this is especially important. As a reader, I don’t want to have to flip back to the chapter heading to know which character is narrating.
How do you make sure your character is consistent? You need to know them beyond the words on the page. You need to know their main motivations. What drives them to be they way the are? What about their history makes them think and act like they do? Who are your characters trying to become? What are their likes and dislikes? Are they introverts or extroverts? How do they relate to other characters? Do they have fight or flight instincts? How do they deal with conflict? Think of the sorts of questions you would ask someone about themselves if you were to meet them, and think of how your character would respond.
Cultivating Complex Characters
You don’t want your characters to be one-dimensional caricatures. Your protagonist can’t be perfect and your antagonist can’t be all bad because people in real life just aren’t that way. All people have flaws and all people have redeemable qualities. All people have histories that make them the way they are. Chisel your characters carefully, and not just your main character. If you have an antagonist, figure out why they are picking on your protagonist. A bully might have been bullied in the past and have really low self-esteem. Maybe you can make your readers feel sorry for your antagonist. Maybe at some point you can even make your readers like the antagonist (the sky’s the limit!)
Your protagonist should have some flaw they are working to overcome, or perhaps they never overcome it. Either way the protagonist should be likable, or at least relatable, in spite of their shortcomings.
When I think of an ideal complex character in fiction I think of Snape in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. You probably won’t have as many books as J.K. Rowling had to build your characters, but you should know enough about your characters to fill several books.
Growing Your Characters
Throughout your story your main character should slightly evolve. Whatever conflict he or she is facing should challenge him/her to grow as a person. You can decide whether your character evolves in a positive or negative way, but the internal or external challenges they face should impact how they see and react to the world around them.
Character Building in Writing and Acting
I believe that character building in writing is similar to character building in acting. In fact, I think acting is probably the reason why I love creating characters in the first place. From the time I was a little girl up into early adulthood, I was on the stage. As a child I would often receive a script and the director would tell me to build a character. Whether I was a handmaiden to Maid Marian in Robin Hood, a rebellious teenager in If We Are Women, or Abigail Williams in The Crucible I needed to know who I was and what motivated me. Even main roles often don’t have scripted backstories and I was always challenged by the director to create one.
For an actor, motivations have to be followed right down to the detail. A director tells an actor to walk over to a table, but the actor has to figure out why the character would do so. Perhaps there is a phone on the table and the character was thinking of calling someone before they got sidetracked by conversation. Maybe the character was hungry and heading toward the kitchen before interrupted. Can you imagine how unnatural it would look if the actor just went over and stood by a table for no reason? It is the actor’s job to figure out the why’s, and it is your job as the writer to figure out the why’s for your characters as well.
Writing Relatable Characters Through Emotion
Character building certainly isn’t as clinical as I’ve made it sound while attempting to break it down. Using emotion in your writing is perhaps the best way to make your characters relatable. If you’re getting teary eyed when you are writing a sad paragraph, it is more likely to translate to your readers. If you get excited or angry or confused, the reader might feel that too. Emoting what your character is feeling as you are writing is probably the best way to ensure human qualities and traits come out on the page. While you are writing, think of yourself as that character (ah! like an actor again) and climb into that character’s head. Again, I know everyone has their own way of doing things but this is how I do it. Robert Frost said it best, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
Just like we all have different writing styles, we all have unique characters. Have fun making them as complex and believable as you want them to be. Your readers will thank you for it.