Your characters are the backbone of your story. Without a wonderful cast to play the roles your plot simply doesn’t exist. The treasure will remain buried and the princess will stay locked in the tower. So how do we as writers successfully create believable, memorable and effective characters.
Is your character likeable?
All characters have negative traits, but if your reader can’t empathise or resonate with your protagonist they’re not going to like them. You’re character may have to slaughter many people to save the girl, but how does he feel about what he’s doing? Your character might be a teenage girl – we know teenagers often display attitude, but if she’s a bitch to everyone is the reader going to like her? If you’re reader doesn’t like your characters they’re not going to care about the story.
Is your character motivated?
I once heard a writer say they had gotten to a certain point in the story and couldn’t go any further. I asked why. They said, ‘Because I’m not exactly sure why the antagonist is hunting the protagonist.’ Alarm bells rang, loudly. Your characters motivations should be defined even before you start writing. Their motivation can be plot or character related. Meaning, they don’t have to save the world, but perhaps they loan your protagonist a life-saving weapon because they believe in the greater good. If your character has no motivation what are they even doing in your story?
Does your character have history?
I have a strong connection to star jasmine because I grew up with a vine outside my back door. The fragrance will always remind me of my childhood home. Everyone has a story like that don’t they? So should your character. You don’t have to write their biography, but developing some key points in their history will help you understand what your character likes, what they want, what they don’t want, and what may subconsciously motivate them.
The Character Diamond
People are multi-faceted, and so too should our characters be. If the protagonist only has wonderful qualities how can the reader watch them grow through their decisions and actions? Creating a diamond for each of your characters will not only reinforce to yourself who they are, but this will come through in your writing as your compose their dialogue, interactions with other characters and how they react to situations.
STRENGTHS – their strongest qualities and outwardly visible
WEAKNESS – these are not necessarily bad, E.G. (being an emotional person can affect logic)
DESIRES & DEMONS – what lies beneath the surface that isn’t apparent. These can affect motivations and how your character relates to others
ATTITUDES – these will help to pull your character through the tough times, and perhaps endear people to them
Below is an example of the character diamond I have created for my character, Zac Loughlin from Through the AusHole.
All characters falls into an archetype. It’s helpful to know which archetype your character belongs to for a few reasons.
- Do you have characters that are too similar? Can you drop a character or flesh them out more?
- Is there an archetype missing from your story who could assist/sabotage your hero’s quest?
- Character definition: Is your protagonist not who you thought they were?
There are many lists out there, but I think the one below is comprehensive without being over the top.
Analyst: Can explain anything rationally. Ex: Mr. Spock
Anti-hero: The hero who didn’t ask to get involved but does. Ex: Sarah Connor, Wolverine
Benefactor: Has a whole lot of something he wants to share. Ex: Miss Havisham
Bully: Has no tolerance for weakness, especially in himself. Ex: Scut Farkus (Christmas Story)
Bureaucrat: Follows the rules no matter what. Hermione Granger
Caretaker: Cares for others. Ex: Digory Kirke
Catalyst: Makes things happen.
Child: Could be a literal child or just living like one. Ex: Wally McDoogle, Peter Pan
Coward: Afraid of everything, controlled by fear. Ex: Adrian Monk, Cowardly Lion, Alexandra Rover
Curmudgeon: Irritable and cynical and proud of it. Ex: Ebenezer Scrooge
Dreamer: Longs to be something he isn’t. Ex: Annie, William Thatcher (A Knight’s Tale)
Elder/Mentor/Teacher/Parent: Been around long enough to know some vital information. Ex: Ben Kenobi, Mufassa
Explorer/Wanderer: Wants to see the world—could be running from something.
Extraordinary man: The guy who can do anything. Ex: Indiana Jones, James Bond
Gossip: Must be the first to know everything and the one to pass it on. Ex: Rachel Lynde
Guardian: Protects the weak.
Hedonist/Thrill-seeker: Lives for today in case tomorrow never comes.
Herald/Messenger: The bringer of news, good, bad, or necessary.
Hermit/Loner: Just wants to be left alone. Ex: Phil Hercules, Martin Riggs (Lethal Weapon)
Hunter/Predator: Can catch or kill anything. Ex: Terminator
Innocent: An inexperienced individual exposed to the evils in the world. Ex: Dorothy Gale
Introvert: Lives inside his shell to prevent anyone from seeing the real him. Ex: Gabriella Montez (High School Musical)
Investigator: Thrives on puzzles and riddles. Ex: Nancy Drew, Sherlock Holmes
Judge/Mediator: The arbitrator or peacemaker in a conflict.
Leader: Always knows the best thing to do—and people follow. Ex: William Wallace
Magician/Wizard/Superpowers: Has special powers or abilities. Ex: Superman, Harry Potter
Manipulator: Plays with people and situations to get what he wants. Ex: Scarlett O’Hara
Martyr: Willing to suffer or die for others or a cause.
Masochist: Finds pleasure in torturing himself, denying himself—may take on too much.
Masquerader: Pretends to be something he is not.
Monster: A depraved beast. Ex: Gollum, Grendel (Beowulf)
Ordinary Man: Your average Joe, just like you or me or the guy across the street. Ex: Dr. Richard Kimball, Frodo Baggins.
Penitent: Lives to atone for his sin.
Perfectionist: Every action and word must be flawless.
Pleaser/Show-off: Craves approval from anyone and may do anything to get it.
Poet: Life is art, be that through story or song or art or sculpture.
Rebel/Revolutionary: Stands opposed to the status quo and fights for his cause.
Rogue: Looks out for himself and no one else. Ex: Han Solo
Saboteur/Betrayer: For whatever reason, he will make sure something fails. Ex: Edmund Pevensie
Samaritan: Does good deeds wherever he goes.
Scholar: Wants to learn.
Sensualist: Addicted to feeling good about himself.
Slave: Does not belong to himself. Ex: Dobby the house elf
Survivor: Pulls through no matter what happens, doesn’t give up.
Sycophant: Self-seeking, flatterer, who works to please those in power. Ex: Smee (Peter Pan)
Temptress: Uses power (intellect, magic, beauty) to make others weak. Ex: Megara (Hercules)
Thief: Takes what he wants or needs. Ex: Philippe Gaston (LadyHawke), Jean Valjean
Trickster/Jester: Always looking for the humor in a situation. Ex: Fred and George Weasley
Tyrant: Must be in control at all times. Ex: Captain Hook
Victim: Was hurt by someone or lives in fear that someone will hurt him. Ex: Claireece “Precious” Jones
Villain: Seeks to destroy/trap the hero. Ex: Evil Queen in Snow White, Lex Luthor
Waif: Appears innocent and weak and often relies on the pity of others. Ex: The Kid (Dick Tracy)
Without a doubt the best way to improve your characters, and your writing, is to listen to other authors. I have learned more by attending workshops at conventions and festivals than by reading at my computer. So have a look at what’s happening in your state and sign up to not only learn from published authors, but meet other writers, network with industry professionals and take your writing seriously.