I’ve said any number of times that I am a character-centric reader. That is, my interest in a book is largely determined by how well I can connect to the characters. So it’s not surprising that I write the same way – if I can fall in love with my characters, I know I can develop a story worth reading.
Like most writers, I spend quite a bit of time on a novel. It typically takes me two years from start to finish. If I am not tired of my character by the end of the last, tiresome edit, then maybe my reader won’t tire of them midway through the book. Who wants to spend a quiet evening with someone they don’t like?
Now, I am not saying all of your characters have to be likeable. Instead, I am suggesting there should be something about all the major characters that piques the readers’ interest. In my reading — far more so than my writing — I have come across a few simple elements to good characterization.
Nobody (Interesting) is Perfect
In the real world, no one is a saint, thank goodness. That should be equally true in fiction. People can be insecure, quick-tempered, vain, or slutty. They sometimes make bad choices; occasionally, they are not very bright. Even the most accomplished people you know likely have things about them either you or they struggle with. Give your characters flaws; make them need to grow in order to reach their goal.
Let’s examine some of the more memorable characters in literature. Sherlock Holmes, while a brilliant detective, could be arrogant, condescending, and impatient. He suffered from wild mood swings, including dark lethargy that makes one think he was, perhaps, bipolar. When bored, he ingested cocaine or morphine. Harry Potter, according to J.K. Rowling, suffered from occasional arrogance and anger. Others were obsessive (Captain Hook, Captain Ahab), charlatans (The Wizard of Oz), brooding (Batman, Wolverine), vain (Scarlett O’Hara), or just your everyday scoundrel (Robin Hood). Give them something to work with – but remember, you still want them to be basically endearing, like normal people. Well, normal people you want to hang out with.
Normal is Boring
Why be normal? It’s your world; make your own rules. Shouldn’t that be the mantra of your lead character? After all, you’ve taken the time to write an entire book about them. Would anyone write a book about you if you were just like everyone else? Maybe, but I sure as hell wouldn’t read it. I’m not saying they all have to be quirky (although quirky is good) but they should have something about them that makes them stand out. Don’t overdo these, however. I think they should be used sparingly, and only in situations where it makes sense. I have seen other writers recommend things like nervous eating, nose-picking, et cetera. One good way to use quirks is as an emotional barometer to the reader. Maybe your character stutters when he’s embarrassed. Perhaps sneezing is a signal to the reader that your lead is lying.
Know More than You Tell
I think all leads in a novel need a backstory: family histories, personality profiles, major tragedies and successes that motivate them, and the like. Reveal some only when needed to advance the story, and never right away. In fact, keep some that only you ever know. In that way, your character will be consistent with your set of rules, adding to the character’s realism. Even oddballs have some sort of internal logic that close friends can discern. Hopefully, your reader will be intrigued enough to try and figure out your characters’ logic. I also use personality profiles, but I’m a quirky, obsessive kind of guy.
Bad Girls Aren’t All Bad
Neither are bad guys. Don’t make them black any more than you make your hero white (metaphorically speaking). Think gray (or grey). Perhaps your antagonist is a despot who wants to take over the world, but he’s driven by the fact that he believes he can make it a better place. Perhaps your female villain destroys your hero’s life or murders her rival. However, does that mean she’s also a bad mother? Maybe, maybe not. What if this psycho is only hateful to your hero, and a doll to everyone else?
Extend the gray, and your reader begins to find the complexity of their villain more interesting. Indeed, if the bad guy is just horrible, but brilliant, that works too. Holmes wasn’t nearly as interesting until Moriarity came along.
Stay Away from Stereotypes & Archetypes
I’m not talking about ethnic, cultural, sexist, or other abhorrent stereotypes, although those are right out too. I mean, stay away from the overdone characters that are, um, overdone: the hooker with a heart of gold, the star-crossed lovers, the cynical roommate, or the absent-minded professor. We read that book (in high school). We saw the movies. Let. Them. Go.
How about the (male) hooker who is actually a poorly educated, sexually abused meth addict who is just trying to figure out how not to die on the street? Not nearly so quirky, huh? Maybe the professor has a mind like a Swiss watch, but she has a penchant for blowing people off, because she’s a sociopath. In the real world, one-dimensional people don’t exist. If they did, no one would give a damn.
It’s Your World
Make it a place people want to visit and tell their friends about. Tell us about your favorites, so we can come be quirky all over your blog post.