One of my major goals as a writer has always been to write character-driven, emotionally authentic fiction. I believe if you start there, the plot will evolve accordingly. If you understand your characters, their problems and their flaws, you’ve got an edge. If you are a pantser, writing by the seat of your pants, knowing your characters is especially helpful because they will drive your story forward in directions you never imagined in the beginning.
Here are seven of my go-to tips and tricks for writing better characters.
- Get to know your characters via interview. There is a reason so many writing instructors and books encourage you to write out an interview with your characters, because it works. Here are some questions you could ask your characters that might help you figure out where you are going with your story beyond the surface: What do you hate? What drives you crazy? Who do you love and when did you first realize it? Where are you from? If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be? What was your childhood like? What’s your job and do you love it or hate it? Come up with your own questions and have fun with this. Sometimes your characters will lie or dodge questions. Maybe they don’t even know all the answers. Make them squirm. While you can cull a few brilliant flashes from your interview, don’t put this in the actual book. It’s research.
- Reveal your characters through telling details, details that reveal something about them rather than a driver’s license description. Personally, I love Agatha Christie novels, the well-groomed moustache tells me something about Hercule Poirot’s fastidious nature. And a ragged, scraggly beard can tell me a lot about the character sitting next to me on the train. Is he homeless? You don’t have to tell us that a character has been suicidal in the past, for example. Show us the jagged, white scar running along the inside of his left wrist and the tattoo on his arm saying “To be or not to be.”
- Speaking of that driver’s license description, it can be handy for reference (You don’t want your character’s eyes to change color halfway through the book), but it doesn’t belong in your book in that format. If you are struggling to remember what color her hair is, consider busting out your sketchbook and colored pencils and drawing a visual aid. If you can’t visualize your character, neither can your reader. It may seem easy to remember these things, but if you are writing a mystery novel with over a dozen characters, believe me, it can be easy to forget what certain characters look like. Sprinkle in the details sparingly, but know them and introduce them relatively early in the story. We don’t want to find out what the villain looks like halfway through the book, of course.
- Think about why your characters act the way they do? As you assemble the puzzle pieces of your plot, double-check the seams. Are your characters doing what they are doing out of a natural motivation and emotion or are they doing it to move your plot forward? Readers may or may not always notice but when they do, it will take them out of the story. Ask the why behind what they are doing? What motivates them? Why are they helping each other? Why does the antagonist hate the protagonist so much? If it’s a love story, what’s keeping them apart? Sometimes it helps to have them write an email or a letter explaining things. Again, you can cull a brilliant line, but don’t write it with the intent of putting the letter in the actual book. Although it may sometimes end up in there. This is a great tool if you get stuck on a
plot point or a fork in the story.
- Study real-life people. Base your character on a few people you know or part of your personality to help make them feel more real. I’m a big fan of fusion characters. You can draw inspiration from real life without basing it on any one person. It’s certainly easier to deny and less legally dicey when it’s a fusion character with conveniently different traits from your real-life person. What would you do in this situation? What would your friend, Jane, do? What would your ex-boyfriend do? To repeat, I’m not saying base exactly on any one person, I think you can tie your hands creatively that way and that would be awkward when they read it, but try to think about real people and how they react to real situations. If someone pulls a knife on you, do you scream, start crying, freeze, run or panic? Do you reach for your gun or your inhaler and can the other person recognize the difference? What’s the realistic reaction that you, Jane or your favorite ex would have? Different characters should react differently.
- Give your characters real voices. Study how people talk. Eavesdrop and listen for the words people use. On the bus, train, restaurant, coffee shop, wherever you are, steal dialogue from the air and use it for inspiration. Write it down so you learn the rhythm of it. Back in my days as a reporter, I took notes when people were speaking. They use a lot of contractions in general and often speak in fragments rather than full sentences. You develop an ear for it after a while. Learn the music of spoken language.
- Figure out what’s wrong with your character. Perfect people don’t exist in real life. Why should they exist in fiction? Give your character the gift of flaws and let them take you where they will. They may surprise you and that’s half the fun. That stubborn streak in chapter one just might get your protagonist killed one day… He refuses to say he’s sorry when he’s right. Let your characters live and breathe. Nobody, is a perfect, so why should your characters be?