Residing within the heart of every engaging story is at least one compelling character.
A story that does not possess memorable characters to inhabit its pages is a story fated to remain on the shelf, unloved while gathering dust, no matter how imaginative its settings or masterfully-crafted its plot.
In addition to their central role in the story itself, it is up to your characters to spark the reader’s imagination. To suck them into the reality you have created and then tug at their heartstrings, allowing them to witness your characters’ struggles and triumphs from eye-level.
Following in the footsteps of a well-constructed character enables us to suspend disbelief and feel like we are living out the events of your plot firsthand, and this process of immersion empowers your story and central themes to remain with us long after arriving at the conclusion of your tale. Thus, learning how to craft compelling characters is one of the most important skills for you to master as you prepare to begin drafting in earnest.
In the end, the most important challenge your characters will have to overcome is convincing your audience to care. To become invested in the unfolding drama of their lives, hopes, and dreams. For once your readers form an emotional bond to your characters, all of the wonderful details of world and plot-building you have been working so hard on will come to life within the theater of their mind’s eye.
Creating characters who turn pages
One of the joys of reading a novel is getting to follow its characters around while looking over their shoulders, or even watching out from behind their eyes. And so it is vital that your characters capture the reader’s interest from the outset. After all, no one wants trail in the wake of a fictional being for hundreds of pages, unless they can first form a meaningful connection. Thus, it is helpful when you are starting the character drafting process to arm each of them with a “hook” that grabs the reader’s attention, much like the beginning of the novel itself.
Of course, coming up with characters who will hook your reader’s imagination starts with you, the author, becoming curious about those characters yourself. With practice, you will learn everything required to fashion well-rounded individuals who will leave your audience wanting to know more. Whose stories will resound within the hearts and minds of your readers, allowing them to live out the events of your novel vicariously.
It is safe to say that if you, the author, do not possesses a deep insight into your characters, then your readers will not be able to truly connect with them either. Thus, the more time you take to get to know each of your characters, to become acquaintances and even friends with them, the more natural it will feel when you insert them into the various situations and interpersonal dynamics your plot requires. In essence, the point I am trying to make here is that the more real your characters feel to you, the more alive and authentic they will appear on the page.
Developing characters in five stages
I will now detail my five step process for character development. These exercises are intended to take your characters to the next level of refinement and assume you have already completed my preliminary exercises for finding ideas.
In the first stage, you will provide each of your characters with a want and a need, powerful drives that will help to shape their character goals, as well as the obstacles preventing them from easily sating their desires. This will help to transform your early cast from passive lists of traits into living, breathing people with concrete goals and longings.
In the second stage, you will generate core values and cornerstone experiences for your characters, the foundations of their personalities, perspectives, and choices.
In the third stage, you will further refine the physical and personality traits of your characters, in order to make them stand apart and off the page. Additionally, you will begin to explore each character’s life history, granting you a better understanding of who they are and where they came from.
In the fourth stage, you will begin to think about your characters’ futures, proving them with initial outlines of their character arcs as well as a bit more direction across your early chapters.
The final stage takes place over the course of drafting and revising your novel, in which you add additional filigree to your characters as you get to know them better and include them in more scenes.
Let’s take a look at each of these stages in greater detail:
Preliminary work: Brainstorming to generate rough character outlines
The first step in creating characters is to come up with their rough outlines. This is accomplished by brainstorming lists of physical and personality traits and then putting them together to form interesting micro-narratives, providing you with an initial batch of character prototypes to pick and choose from. For more detail on the brainstorming process, refer back to my entry on finding ideas as well as the advanced exercises below.
Stage one: It all begins with a want and a need
In many stories, a character’s goal is the first significant detail you learn about them, and for good reason, as the most important thing you will ever give your characters are relatable goals. A character who wants or needs nothing provides no tension or drama to a scene, and has no real place in a novel. Your characters’ goals form the groundwork of their journeys, and provide stable threads to weave the rest of your plot around. Thus, it is critical you spend sufficient time on this initial stage, as deciding what desires push and pull your characters forms the basis for a great deal of the rest of your novel.
In my work, I further divide character goals into two broad categories, wants and needs. Wants are the things your characters actively desire, their self-chosen goals for the (often immediate) future. Needs on the other hand, are the conditions your characters require in order to be truly happy, whether they know it or not. Sometimes (survival stories for example) a character’s want and need may be the exact same thing, but usually their perceived want is superficial compared to their true need. Often times a character achieves what they thought they wanted, only to realize it wasn’t what they needed and that their journey is still far from over. Put another way, wants and needs provide ebb and flow, tension and release as your story progresses, providing your main characters with sufficient motivation, reservations, and temptation to amplify the events of your plot.
Exercise: Tell me what you really want
This exercise is intended to help you start developing your characters’ goals, to provide a shape to their wants and needs. Start by picking a character, visualizing that they are sitting down beside you. Once you have a clear picture in your mind, imagine asking your character “What do you want most right now?” and then, “If you could have anything in the world, what would it be?” You might need to mix up the wording and ask a few times, sifting through the superficial desires of the moment until you uncover their genuine longings and cravings. The answer to these questions will help to reveal your characters’ wants. To determine their needs, you are going to have to dig a bit deeper, moving past the here and now and diving down into their base motivations. Bear in mind that needs are always dependent on circumstances and the need to survive will usually overshadow all other concerns if a situation is sufficiently dire.
Common character (human) needs include:
- To feel safe.
- To be loved.
- To feel that one’s life matters, possess a sense of purpose.
- To have a place to belong.
- To alleviate the suffering of others.
- To right injustices in the world.
Many characters’ needs will be a variation on one of the above themes. However, certain needs will be highly unique, based on that character’s individual circumstances (e.g. to bring a specific truth to light or villain to justice).
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
One helpful way to think about character needs comes to us from psychological literature and research. This model was developed by Abraham Maslow in 1943 in the attempt to describe which needs are fundamental to human existence, and which can only be pursued and achieved when those primal needs have been met. In the end, Maslow formed a pyramid-shaped hierarchy of needs that is still used today. Let’s take a closer look at each level now:
1) Physiological needs: At the bottom of the pyramid comes the need for things that are required for survival, such as food, water, sleep, and shelter.
2) Safety: After an individual’s survival is assured comes the need for safety and security. This can include physical security, economical/financial security, and freedom from abuse.
3) Social belonging: Moving up the pyramid comes an individual’s desire to belong, their need to be close to and accepted by others. This can include friends, family, and romantic partners.
4) Esteem: The need for esteem can be broken down into two parts. First the need to be recognized and respected by others, followed by the need for what is known as self-esteem.
5) Self-actualization: Finally, at the top of the pyramid, comes an individual’s need to self-actualize. Once all other needs are met, a person still desires to reach their full potential, to become that which they dream of becoming. This can include the mastery of a skill or pursuing a life’s work, as well as leaving a legacy for the next generation.
Stage two: The heart of a character (Cornerstone experiences and core values)
Once the initial stages are complete and you are looking at a fledgling cast of potential characters for your novel, each of whom now desires something, it is time to start fleshing them out. To imbue these rough-hewn individuals with additional depth, purpose, and personality. One helpful way to move forwards in this process as you continue to spend some time imagining what drives each of your characters, is to come up with at least one cornerstone experience that helps to define who they are in the present of your story.
Exercise: Cores and cornerstones
Now that you have created a rough outline for at least one of your characters, I want you to try and come up with at least one core value they possess. This can be something simple like, “Sally can never turn away from someone in need.” Or a bit more complex, such as, “Gerald always repays his debts.” Once you have come up with a key value (or short list) that feels right for your character, the next step is to imagine a life-changing (cornerstone) experience that explains why that particular value is so important to them. This cornerstone experience can be a single event, or transpire over a longer period.
For example, maybe Sally grew up poor in a rough neighborhood and saw too many people suffering firsthand to be able to easily shut out the needs of others. Or perhaps Gerald had his life saved by someone, but was unable to repay the favor before they passed away. You don’t need to include these cornerstone experiences in your novel itself (although many stories do to powerful effect), but chances are that if you come up with a solid set of core values and cornerstone experiences, they will come out in at least some way over the course of your story, as well as grant your characters a greater sense of meaning and direction.
Stage three: Taking a deeper dive with your characters
Now that you have put some time and thought into your main characters and enhanced those rough sketches with key values and experiences, it’s time add enough depth to your cast that they can be freely inserted into your scenes. You don’t need to try and capture every last measurement and freckle at this stage of development, just enough detail that describing their appearances, dialogue, emotions, and behaviors will feel authentic and consistent to you and your reader. As you get to know your characters more intimately by including them in later scenes, you can always go back and drop a few more details into their profiles. But for now, let’s just focus on completing things enough to start drafting the beginning of your novel.
Below is a list comprised of a few basic categories for you to think about as you add additional background and detail to your characters. Again, try to focus on quality rather than quantity when working out these particulars, as a few well-chosen specifics will add to your story immeasurably more than a long list of tepid traits. Don’t feel that you have to hit every category for each character now, and feel free to jot down any ideas this process sparks in you, even if they don’t fit into these buckets:
1) Appearance and props: This is the first thing people generally tend to think about when imagining a new character. This includes their physical traits, grooming habits, and dress. Is your character tall or short? Clean cut or thickly bearded? Do they tend to hunch over or sit up straight? Do they use a cane, smoke like a chimney, need glasses to see? Do they have a nervous tick? A chronic grin?
2) Personality, habitual tendencies, and speech patterns: This is usually the second thing that people begin to ponder immediately after their character’s appearance. What kind of person are they? Are they kind, happy, fearful, or cruel? Usually relaxed or in a hurry? Along with their basic personality, what are their habitual tendencies? Do they tend to interrupt others or listen carefully? Do they usually think things through or jump right in? Does this character have any verbal tics or phrases they commonly use?
3) History and life experiences: Although you don’t need to come up with a complete life history for each character, it is helpful to at least jot down some of their major accomplishments as well as the challenges they have overcome. Did they finish college? Drop out of high school? Did they grow up wealthy or in poverty? In relative security or in a dangerous neighborhood? What did they witness as a child that made a significant impression on them? How about while growing up?
4) Family and friends: Does your character possess a strong emotional support network or are they all on their own? Do they get along well with their family, or are they a black sheep (or even an orphan)? Do they have any close friends? Beyond their inner circle, does this character possess a large network of casual acquaintances or are they mostly a loner? Or perhaps somewhere in between?
5) Career and living situation: How does the character spend their time and how do they put food on the table? Do they have a career or regular job, or are they living paycheck to paycheck? Is their profession entirely legal? Do they have any formal training or marketable skills? Are they sexually active or celibate? Are they living alone, with a roommate, or significant other? Is this by choice or by circumstance?
6) Likes and dislikes: Again, you don’t have to try and come up with a comprehensive library of likes for each character. Rather, settle on a few memorable likes and dislikes that will stick with your reader while providing them insight into the personality of your characters. Do they like mornings or staying up late? Do they prefer going to a bar to unwind, or burying their nose in a book? What kind of stories do they love and hate? What kind of people attract and annoy them? What are their hobbies and preferred forms of recreation? What are they passionate about?
7) Strengths and weaknesses: It is helpful to make your characters good at something, as this ensures that they are interesting and unique, but beware of making them good at everything. A character’s weaknesses and limitations can be just as interesting as their strengths (if not more so), and will provide fertile ground for developing your plot as your characters struggle against their own shortcomings in an attempt to reach their goals. Remember that all human beings are imperfect. The impact that your characters’ flaws have on their decisions, perceptions, and relationships will help to render them more relatable to your reader, as no character will feel complete without a few weaknesses or skeletons in their closet. Additionally, pondering fears, doubts, disappointments, and insecurities is a great way to generate story material.
8) Contradictions: Another powerful way to make your characters seem a little less perfect, a little more interesting and real, is to provide them with contradictions. Almost everyone has at least a few discrepancies between their beliefs and values and their own behavior, or are torn at times between multiple ways of viewing or dealing with a situation. Possessing minor (or even major) contradictions will go a long way in making your characters stand up from the page and will help to spark your readers’ imaginations as well. Having needs and wants that are difficult to perfectly satisfy makes your characters that much more interesting, as typically a reader will care less about a character without any real passion or drives.
9) Quirks: Whether or not they are good at hiding them, everyone has at least a few odd qualities, tendencies, or desires. Many times, these unusual traits are a significant part of what make us memorable and unique. It will render your characters more identifiable and interesting if you grant them a few such quirks as well.
Exercise: Using photographs to generate descriptions.
So what do you do if you need to describe several dozen characters, but don’t have a crisp image in your mind regarding the appearance, age, dress, and mannerisms of them all. Well, fortunately this planet has several billion people presently residing on it (as well as pictures dating back centuries), and any one of them can be used to generate concrete descriptions for your characters. Begin by simply browsing photographs (or even YouTube videos) until you find a likely candidate, someone who feels like a close fit for the person you want to detail, then start describing their appearance in complete sentences.
Anything that strikes you as interesting coming out of this process can be used for your characters, as there will be little if any connection between the photograph and the image your description evokes within your reader (unless you pick a uniquely identifiable figure like Abraham Lincoln in his top hat). You might even discover that looking at a given picture suggests some personality traits as well, as your imagination adds its own input to the process. Feel free to mix and match from multiple sources to create original characters that are an amalgam of several images as well as your own robust imaginings.
Stage four: Thinking about the future with character arc
Character arc: How characters change over time
One of the primary differences between central and peripheral characters, is that the major characters in your story will change over time in response to the events of your plot, while minor ones will not. You should have some idea early on in which direction a given character will grow (or fail to do so), and this progressive change over time is what is called a character arc. As long as your reader has formed a meaningful bond to a given character, they will experience a sense of satisfaction in watching them grow and change in response to the challenges they have overcome. Additionally, witnessing such changes in your characters will make the events of your novel seem that much more significant to your audience.
I will be covering planning out the plot of your novel in a later section of this blog, but even early on in your character development cycle, it will be helpful for you to have a clear idea of your central characters’ arcs. The changes they will undergo in response to your plot, occurring somewhere in between the first and last pages of your story. Changing (in a positive direction) in real life can be incredibly difficult and your fictional characters will likely change a bit more than a real person would experiencing similar events. However, this is a powerful feature and not a bug, as watching charismatic characters struggle, grow, and accomplish their dreams can be extraordinarily cathartic and liberating for your readers, even down right inspirational.
Now not every character in your story will change radically, but it is good to grant all of your central cast at least minor arcs. These changes should occur gradually and in a clear direction, and should tend to stick (otherwise what was the point of everything they went through?). Not all of these changes need to occur immediately after a major event, as human beings naturally tend to require some time to absorb and adjust to new experiences (and besides, this period of adaptation can form a colorful bit of narrative in your tale).
Some questions to ask yourself while pondering character arc might include:
Who is this person at the beginning of my story? What life events made them this way? What event will propel them into a period of change and what goals will drive this journey. What trials and struggles will they be forced to overcome along the way, and how will these challenges change who they are and the manner in which they see the world (and themselves). What will they face at the climax of this journey, and how will they change in the aftermath of these events?
Stage five: Finishing touches
This final stage is the least formal of the set and will take place gradually, as you complete an initial draft of your novel and begin the revision process. As you get to know each of your characters better by involving them in additional scenes and interpersonal relationships, you will gain increasingly greater insight and clarity into their minds, motivations, and past experiences. As you add these vibrant bits of filigree to your character profiles, you may wish to revisit earlier scenes of your novel, inserting these additional details into them so your finished characters seem consistent from their introductory scenes, all the way to the end of your novel (except of course, for deliberate changes resulting from their character arcs).
Basing characters on real people
Basing parts of your characters on real people, especially ones you know well, can be a powerful way to generate a realistic and personable cast for your novel. However, before you attempt to Xerox your friends and family into your stories wholesale, I would like to first humbly remind you that your characters are unique individuals. They are more than mere carbon copies translated into print, and as such, they each deserve a chance to find their own identity, direction, and purpose. Founding too much of any given character on an actual person (or historical figure) can prevent them from developing into the best possible character for your novel. And so I advise using only fragments of a real person as the inspiration for any of your characters. Borrow a few physical features here and a snippet of personality there, in order to come up with a blueprint for their speech patterns and mannerisms, rather than attempting to transcribe that person whole cloth into the world of your story.
This warning goes doubly for you the author, in using yourself as a template for your characters. As they are born from your own subconscious and imagination, it is inevitable that you will embed slivers of yourself into each of your characters. In fact, one of the reasons that many authors find writing fiction to be so much fun, is that they can live out their wildest fantasies vicariously through their cast. But I assure you that this caution is warranted. Experienced readers can tell when an author has written him or herself into their novel, and this rarely goes well. Thus, I will say it for a final time. Be careful not to base any character, especially your protagonists, exclusively on yourself, and to the extent that you do, do not create characters primarily as a form of wish fulfillment. While this may be cathartic for you, the author, the result will almost inevitably feel artificial to your audience.
That being said, I have absolutely taken bits and pieces of myself (and past selves) and baked them into my cast, but I try to distribute these various experiences and attributes evenly over many characters. A name similar to my own here, my tattoo there. How I saw the world in my twenties somewhere far removed from the rest. With time you will learn to balance drawing inspiration from the real world with figments of your imagination in order to come up with memorable characters who your readers will adore.
On character profiles: Writing profiles backwards
Whenever I create a new character and go through the first four stages of my process, I usually feel like I still only know a little bit about them. A few scraps of their core personality and appearance, and maybe a few additional habits and mannerisms if they are based loosely on someone I know in real life. As these characters are placed into various situations over the course of my scenes, they are forced to make choices and react to the world around them. Each of these decisions helps to reveal more of their personality to me, as well as how they think about their environments and process their experiences. As these additional details become clearer, I add them into that character’s profile, ensuring they will have continuity as I include them later scenes. Thus, rather than spending an exorbitant amount of time trying to imagine what a given character might be like right from the start, I tend to simply put them into some early scenes and see how they behave. Key details of their inner worlds soon begin to reveal themselves, adding depth and color to my characters as they are involved in longer sections of my story.
Developing character profile templates
Now that you have begun to develop detailed personalities, traits, and backgrounds for your characters, you are going to need some way to organize this information so that you can access it easily when you need it. Some writers like to make these profiles fairly exhaustive, creating a spreadsheet or other template with various fields for appearance, background, etc. While I do find creating a binder of character profiles (or a digital equivalent) to be helpful, I personally don’t feel the need to attempt to fill out every field for every character. I do like to look my profiles over when drafting a new scene, as they are good for refreshing what I have already worked out regarding my characters in my mind before inserting them into the middle of the action. As long as your system allows you to find information quickly when you need it, it is not necessary to build a comprehensive database, although many authors prefer to do so.
If you are the type of writer who likes to come up with pages and pages of background for each character, just bear in mind that not all of this information will be included in your story. The purpose of these profiles is for you to get to know (and later remember) your characters, in order to gain insight into how they will act within a given scene. This ensures that they will behave consistently across the length of your novel, except for when your story calls on them to change.
Exercise: Developing profiles by spending some time with your characters
So what do you do if you have gone through all of my stages and are now staring at a list of traits assembled into the rough outline of a character, but haven’t yet placed this newly-forged being into many scenes and they are still feeling a little flat?
This exercise will help you to flesh them out, and can even be useful with more developed characters during later stages of your novel writing process. The idea is that you will use your imagination to spend some time simply hanging out with your characters, watching over their shoulders as they go about the business of their daily lives. Some people like to pretend that they an invisible camera for this exercise, while others may wish to have actual “conversations” with their characters, kind of like an informal interview.
Start by imagining that your chosen character is waking up first thing in the morning and go on from there, all the way to the end of the day when they are climbing back into bed. As you go, jot down any meaningful details of their day, as well as any significant characters they interact with, or habits and routines they follow. If something particularly interesting happens, write down the relevant details in complete sentences, as you might decide to incorporate them into a scene for your novel. If this “invisible camera” style is feeling too passive for you, try inviting your character out for lunch and then informally interviewing them (let them pick the place and order for you).
Major vs. minor characters
Now that you have some ideas for characters under your belt and have begun to round and flesh them out, it is time to decide just how important a role these fledgling characters will play over the course of your novel. For that matter, just what is the difference between major and minor characters anyway? In my experience, the difference lies in how much of the novel they appear in, how central they are to the story’s pivotal events, and in how much they change in between the first and last pages of a tale. Characters who play central roles, directly affect the core plot, and change in response to the main events of a novel belong to the category I call major (main/central) characters.
Only a handful of the characters appearing in your story will wind up playing a major role (or perhaps as many as several dozen in works of epic fiction). It should come as no surprise that you will need to spend considerable time developing these key movers and shakers, making their profiles as robust as possible, as they will be carrying a great deal of the weight of your story as the reader keeps on turning those pages. But the importance of your central cast doesn’t mean that minor characters and even extras don’t need to be carefully thought out as well. For even though they aren’t as central to the plot, these peripheral characters will still play a vital role in adding to the color, depth, and realism of the worlds you have crafted and the events you have set into motion.
It is important to try and come up with an overall cast of characters that complete and balance one another out. Especially in longer works, you are going want to try to represent the full spectrum of human personalities and behavior, at least to the degree that each of your major characters feels genuine and distinct from one another. This helps to ensure a dynamic balance of tension, as some of your characters will bond, while others will clash. Some will push for action, while others will caution restraint. You will be introducing some of your characters to your readers early on, while revealing others slowly over time, and there are useful tricks you can use to convey their traits to your reader in each case.
Human beings possess a natural tendency to categorize others, as creating categories is one of the primary ways in which we make sense of and navigate the world around us. Thus, it is easy to quickly stereotype strangers until we have an opportunity to learn more about them. Knowing that your readers will likely form such assumptions regarding your characters is helpful, as major characters will become more complex by forcing the reader to revise their initial impressions, while minor characters can be categorized or “typed” in order to quickly establish their roles without taking up too much room on the page.
For the purpose of this section, I will draw a distinction between four classes of characters, ranked by their relative importance to your story: protagonists, central characters, supporting characters, and background characters (extras).
Especially early on in the planning and drafting of your novel, you will be spending most of your time in character development working on the main character of your story, also known as the protagonist. Every story has at least (and usually) one protagonist, although longer sagas, such as my own, may possess a small cast of (almost) equally central protagonists. The protagonist of a story is often the hero of the tale, although some novels feature individuals who possess few if any herolike qualities (also known as an anti-hero), or even a villain. For all intents and purposes, the protagonist(s) is who the larger story is about and the events they will experience are inseparably bound to the core plot and central conflict of a novel.
The key difference between protagonists and other central characters is that the goals and drives of the protagonist are directly interwoven with the pivotal events of a novel as well as its theme, to the extent that the culmination of the story usually resolves around the protagonist’s core dilemma. Even in multiple viewpoint novels, the protagonist remains the primary point of view (PoV) character, the spot where you will be placing “the camera,” allowing your narrative to follow in the protagonist’s wake as they progress through the story.
As important as the protagonist is to a story, they would inhabit a lonely, solitary world without other characters to interact and compete with. This second tier of characters is still vital to your story and each will require a fair amount of development as well, as these central characters will be the carriers of important subplots and help to move the main story forwards. In multiple point of view novels, the PoV of central characters are commonly used alongside that of the protagonist.
So then, exactly what are the differences between your protagonists and other central characters? Both types will certainly inhabit significant sections of your novel, and the core plot will affect them all in important ways. The largest difference is that actions and drives of your protagonist are intimately tied to to the core conflict of your novel, while the goals of other central characters may be focused on other things. Protagonists are almost always on scene for key events in your primary plotline, but other central characters may not be, and will likely possess their own subplots that are completely resolved before the ultimate culmination of your story.
Before we move on, I want to take a moment to discuss a special type of central character known as an antagonist, whose motivations and goals are in direct conflict with the story’s protagonist. Now not every story features a central antagonist, but oftentimes they become memorable and vibrant additions to a tale, serving as foils as well as providing powerful insights into events that other characters do not possess. Antagonists can be true villains (evil to the core), but more often take the form of everyday antagonists, who are just regular people whose goals and desires put them in direct conflict with the protagonist. If your novel does include a core antagonist (or even a group of them), make sure to spend at least as much time fleshing them out as you would any of your other central characters.
Now a question I hear asked at times is, “Can the protagonist be an antagonist?” Well, perhaps not by definition, but it is certainly more than possible to have someone who is not your typical hero type be the star of the show. Even someone who is actively working to harm others can be an interesting protagonist. Just be sure that if you do feature a central antagonist in any capacity, that you balance out their negative traits with at least a few positive ones, so they do not appear one-dimensional in your story (like cartoon super-villains).
Next in order of importance after your protagonist and central characters comes a larger group who will appear briefly and often multiple times over the course of your story, but who are not involved in the main plotline and change little if any over time. These are your supporting characters and they can include local shopkeepers, neighbors and family members of the main characters, or the henchmen of a villain. It is easy to underestimate the value of well-crafted supporting characters, because even if they don’t move the plot along themselves, they are still adding tremendous depth, color, and grit to your various events and scenes.
Supporting characters require only enough details to capture a reader’s attention and do not necessitate the extensive backgrounds and personality profiles you have built for your main cast. They just need a few colorful traits, enough to make them interesting to the reader as they go about adding variety and breadth to the world of your main characters. By definition, almost every story will include a vastly larger cast of supporting characters than their corresponding central players, so even though any given supporting character might not be incredibly important to your narrative, learning how to craft and skillfully insert them into a novel is a vital skill for any author to develop.
Supporting characters are rarely used as point of view characters, although I personally like to use them (sparingly) in short scenes in order to show what is happening in places where my main characters are not presently residing. If you want to try using this technique yourself, I recommend keeping these “supporting character as the camera” sections brief, without delving too deeply into their lives and inner worlds. This is because if you make your supporting characters too rich and interesting, the reader will begin to treat them as central characters in their mind and may be disappointed or feel like something is incomplete when you don’t return to them later.
With your supporting cast, it is perfectly fine to allow the reader to form stereotypes about them quickly, and then to lean on those assumptions to help these minor characters stick in the reader’s imagination and memory. This is because these characters won’t be changing much anyway, so once they meet them, the reader will know what to expect from each supporting character going forwards. So feel free to focus on only one or two salient traits for these individuals, leaving the rest in the periphery of your own mind as well as the story itself.
Background characters (extras)
Just as in movies, novels almost always include dozens or even hundreds of characters who exist only for the course of a single scene and who are not individually worthy of the reader’s direct attention. Extras can be the crowd at a sporting event, the people walking down the street, or the other kids in a classroom. In general, these extras do not require more than a few colorful details to help tie them into the scene, or even individual names. Put another way, these extras are more a part of the backdrop of your scenes than distinct characters themselves. Most of them will never speak or interact directly with the PoV characters and will be introduced to the reader only by a single trait or label.
Unless your characters are interacting directly with the extras, for example pushing their way through a crowd, they will simply stand in (or move their way through) the background, not drawing attention to themselves or acting to drive the plot forward in any meaningful way (although catching a few stray sentences from a crowd can useful when establishing a setting). Even if there is a large crowd of characters in the background, don’t stop to point out more than a couple of stray details regarding their presence, just enough for the reader to paint them onto the canvas of their imagination.
The Power of Charisma: Making your characters likable and lovable
By and large (and with notable exceptions), you are going to want to make your central characters as likable as possible as you continue to broaden and develop your cast. This is because likeable characters are generally easier to sit with (and stand beside) over the course of a novel and tend to be more relatable as well (see the section below). If a reader discovers that they like or even love a character early on, they will naturally care about what happens to them, including whether they are able to achieve their dreams and desires. Again, try not to make any character too perfect by including too many virtues and too few flaws, but do attempt to make them someone who we can cheer for, cry with, and befriend within our own minds.
In general, readers will tend to feel positively about characters who:
- Are charismatic.
- Possess a strong moral compass.
- Are kind to others without the need for reward.
- Can be relied on in a pinch.
- Are willing to risk themselves for the things they love.
- Won’t betray their friends and family.
- Are victims of unjust circumstances.
- Have a robust sense of humor.
- Behave rationally in a crisis.
- Possess goals and dreams we can relate to.
- Are fairly intelligent and skillful.
- Volunteer themselves when the situation calls for action.
On the other hand, readers will tend to feel negatively about characters who:
- Enjoy hurting others.
- Lack sympathy and empathy.
- Fall apart or panic under stress.
- Lie, cheat, bully, and steal.
- Are egomaniacal.
- Are responsible for the suffering of innocents.
- Are crazy (the dangerous and unpredictable kind).
- Are selfish, narcissistic, or cowardly.
- Fail to practice what they preach.
Beyond charisma: Crafting relatable characters
Regardless of whether a given character is larger than life or just a regular Joe who stumbled into the middle of the action, you are going to want your make it easy for your readers to immerse themselves within their story and struggles. In order for a reader to move beyond a casual interest, to fuel their desire to know what happens next into a raging bonfire of curiosity, you are going to have to render your characters relatable to your audience. Even your villains and bullies will feel flat and forced if they do not possess some relatable human traits, common ground that will allow your reader to form a bond with their journeys and become emotionally invested in their outcomes.
In order to make your characters relatable, you are going to need to find some way to reveal their humanity as your story progresses, enabling your audience to emphasize with at least a portion of their situation and choices. If a reader feels like they possess a bit of common ground between themselves and a character, even a villain, they will be able to understand where that character is coming from and why they make the decisions they do, allowing your reader to care about that character’s journey, even when they are rooting for them to fail.
In order to help make each of your characters more relatable, I highly advise going through my five stage process, with a particular focus on cornerstone experiences and core values. Additionally, arming your characters with relatable human goals (even ones we view negatively) will go a long way by itself in forging a bond between your characters and readers, especially if you provide a bit of insight into their struggles to achieve their desires.
As I have said several times now, avoid making any member of your cast too perfect or too evil. People in the real world (the best and the worst of us) tend to have at least a few redeemable virtues or regrettable flaws, and a character without both will not feel real, feel human, to your reader, preventing them from bonding to your characters and severely impeding the immersive quality of your tale.
Additional tips on creating interesting characters
I am going to conclude this section with a list of ideas for generating characters that will spark your readers’ imaginations. This bit is just here to help inspire you and is not intended to be comprehensive, nor do your characters need to hit every point on this list. Keep in mind that a great deal of crafting characters who will engage your readers is accomplished simply by finding ways to make yourself curious about them.
In order to craft compelling central characters, make them:
- Possess interesting and useful skills.
- Consistent in their personalities, behavior, and values.
- Change over time in response to the events of your story.
- Possess meaningful bonds and feelings.
- Have interesting things they want and need (that are difficult to achieve).
- Possess flaws and blind-spots.
- Take risks and confront their weaknesses.
- Agonize over difficult decisions.
- Suffer and cope with failure, loss, and setbacks.
- Possess relatable wants, needs, and goals.
- Something to love.
- The agency to make their own decisions (and mistakes).
- A unique attitude, perspective, and voice.
- Instincts and gut feelings.
- A social support network.
- Your characters too similar.
- Your heroes too perfect.
- Your villains too evil.
That’s it for today’s entry on planning out your characters, join me in the next section where we will tackle planning out the settings of your novel.