November 24, 2007
If you want your audience to care about your characters, you need to make your characters come alive. Start by studying psychology. (Who knew you would need to take psychology classes and read books about psychoanalysis to work in literature?)
Naming Your Characters
Names may come from anywhere. Some people mix and match names out of the phone book. Other people look through baby name books. You can even use the names of people you know. Just avoid using names of real people as-is; mix and match names or change them slightly if necessary.
Creating a Basic Physical Descriptions
Character qualities can come from a variety of sources. Ideas for characters may come from watching people on the street (a reason why I always have my notebook handy even while I'm running errands). You may have a family member or friend who is so unusual that you can't help but turn him/her into a character. People in the media can also be used for inspiration. A character may also be your own alter-ego or simply a fantasy that keeps popping up in your head.
To get a better feel for your character, you might want to draw a picture of him/her or find a photograph of somebody who looks like your character to inspire you.
If you do base a character on a real person, just be sure that you change the name, and don't make it obvious that your annoying aunt was the inspiration for your annoying character unless you want to start a family argument.
Get to know your character's family. What was their childhood like? Were Mom and Dad in the picture? Were they harsh, reasonably strict, relaxed, or neglectful? What were the brothers and sisters like? What other family members were involved in the character's life? Was there a family pet? Was Fluffy a bouncy puppy or a snarling guard dog? How has your character's family affect the way your character lives his life?
Friends can be just as influential as family (especially if there isn't a strong family bond already). Who are your character's friends? What are they like? Why does he hang out with that crowd? How are your character's decisions influenced by peer pressure?
We each have hopes and fantasies that we don't tell to other people, but wanting these things can influence how we live, what we do, and when we decide to take leaps of faith.
These secret desires can result in respectable behavior or discouraged behavior. A woman who secretly wants children may choose to forget to take her birth control pills. A man who secretly doesn't want to have children may secretly get a vasectomy without his wife's knowing about it.
There are a variety of fears. Some fears are shared by many people, such as a fear of dying. Some fears are well known by others, such as "Sally has a fear of spiders." Some fears are dark secrets, such as a fear of going crazy or being alone. What scares your characters the most? How does your character respond when facing those fears?
Every person makes mistakes. You fall down. You break things. You burp during a job interview. What matters is how your character responds to those mistakes. He falls down; does he get back up or stay down? He breaks something; does he fix it or pretend he's never seen that thing before?
Real characters are dynamic. They need to change from the start to the end of the story. Perhaps your shy character learns to love the spotlight. Perhaps your angry character learns to forgive people.
Talking Like a Real Person
Listen to how people talk. How do they pronounce words with their accents? What words do they use repeatedly? How does the way they talk reflect their personality?
Make sure that your character has a voice, and that the voice reflects your character's personality.
Only Actions Really Matter
"I'm an environmentalist" doesn't seem like a convincing statement when it comes from a person who drives a gas-guzzling vehicle and throws trash out the window while driving. Unless you're trying to show that the character is trying to project an image of herself that isn't true, then make sure that her actions are appropriate for her personality.
A big part of your character's personality is how he interacts with other characters. To get a feel for how characters will interact, I often scribble down little scenes about when they met (which may or may not end up in the final story) or write up a quick background (which may be only one line long) about how they know each other. As the story progresses, I often find myself changing the scenes and backgrounds for the characters.
The Character-Audience Team
If you want your audience to love your main character, your audience needs to be on the protagonist's team. They need to solve problem together, go through adversity together, and touch the most vulnerable parts of each other's minds.
Audiences like to be in-the-know, so rarely let your characters know more than your audience. If your character walks into a room, your audience should know why she's doing it. There are exceptions that will work, but for the most part, your character should be as clueless as your audience, and/or your audience should be more informed than your character.
Editing Out Characters
Every character, even supporting characters we only see for a minute, need to evoke a feeling in the audience and move the story forward. Their audience needs to like them, dislike them, laugh at them, feel sympathy for them, be disgusted by them, etc. in a way that keeps things moving along. If a character doesn't evoke a feeling or move the story forward, then cut them out of the story.
This can be particularly painful for the writer because there will be times when you'll need to remove a character you love. Don't cry yet, though, because you can always use the character in another story.