Stories revolve around characters. No matter the setting, if the reader can’t get interested in the people in the story, they’re not going to invested in your tale. I have five ways to make your characters come to life.
- A great name – Names really make characters for me. In general, I try to choose names that have some meaning and give some clue to their background. Find a name that sounds great when you say it as well as looks terrific on the page.
- Family – Even if they don’t come into play in the story, everyone came from somewhere. Is your character close to their family? Do they have siblings or were they only children? If they’re not close, why not and what story opportunities does that present?
- Appearance – I have to know what my characters look like. Even relatively minor ones. Appearance can affect how other characters interact with them, give you a visual hook for the reader, or differentiate them from the crowd.
- Details – What does my character do for a living? How long have they done it? How old are they? What’s their sexuality? Are they involved with someone? What do they like to eat or drink? What goals drive them before the story came along? What experiences do they have?
- Fears/Weaknesses – This is the important one. What is the character afraid of? Is it a phobia or an insecurity? Are they compulsive liars or do they have a substance abuse problem? These can drive a character’s development, give them something to overcome in order to resolve the story arc.
All of these factors can flesh out a character and give them some substance. Let’s talk about Dash Riordan, the protagonist from Erebus.
His name stands out a bit. Someone named him Dashiell, but that doesn’t sit right on his shoulders, so he shortened it.
Dash was raised in a foster family of Iranian immigrants to the US. He’s got a slightly younger brother he’s close to, he’s violently estranged from his foster father, and he has a good relationship with his foster mother, who has remarried. Dash learned a lot about fighting from his father as a kid, who drilled him mercilessly. Right away, we know Dash didn’t have an ordinary childhood and we’ve got connections and conflicts to draw upon.
Dash’s chief physical trait I comment on is his longish hair. He’s a young man, and a floppy mop of blond hair seems right for him.
Dash has lots of details to draw on. He’s a journalist covering the science and technology beat. He’s five years out of college and having a bit of trouble managing debt. No real romance in his life. He’s out there having fun. Has a best friend, who’s another journalist, and they’re pretty tight.
Dash’s weakness comes from being young(ish) and his belief that knowing the truth will solve any problem. His entire identity is constructed around sharing the truth when he’s thrust into a world of secrets and murder. How will he cope if he can’t share the answer to a mystery? How will that impact him emotionally?
Knowing all of this lets me give him some natural reactions to situations. Needs to change his appearance? Up (or down) goes the hair. Encountering a problem flips his information gathering switch, like any good journalist. Physical threats don’t scare him as much because he’s got the background to deal with it, but emotional obligations weigh heavily upon him. He’s a crusader, or wants to be, so how will he react when he has to operate in the shadows?
All of this (hopefully) adds up to character development and a stronger story. It’s not enough to give readers a point of view through which they can experience your tale. The character should go on a journey, too, and that needs to be conveyed. Filling in some of this background gaps should help you write stronger characters.